When Congress finally passed a government-wide spending bill for fiscal year 2016 late last week, it contained some good news for international LGBT rights.
First and foremost, Congress approved about $100 million more in funding for democracy and human rights than they did last year. "Democracy, Rights and Governance" programs, which are the general pot for funding a wide variety of human rights activities, will receive $2.48 billion dollars, which is about $78 million dollars more than the 2015 levels. The National Endowment for Democracy, which also funds international human rights activities, saw a significant increase of $35 million above last year's level of $135 million. This extra $100 million means that the United States' LGBT activities around the globe could get a share of that funding.
Congressional lawmakers also wrote an accompanying report explaining the bill's intent. It contains a number of "directives" in which Congress requires the administration to submit reports on a variety of topics. This year's bill requires the State Department to submit a report to Congress "on steps taken...to prevent discrimination and abuse against LGBT persons abroad, and to respond to discriminatory laws, including in The Gambia and Nigeria." It also recommended funding for the State Department's Special Envoy for LGBTI Human Rights and for USAID's Senior LGBT Coordinator.
This was the first time that lawmakers had an opportunity to reference the Special Envoy in a spending bill, since the position was only created earlier this year. While they did not include direct funding for the position or the office, this is a positive first step to ensure that the office is continued - and hopefully funded - into the next administration. This is also the first time budget writers have referenced USAID's Senior LGBT Coordinator, a position that was only created in 2014. Regardless of who wins the general election next year, this language demonstrates that Congress supports the continuation of these two crucial positions beyond the last day of the current administration.
The focus on Nigeria and The Gambia in the bill is also important. While the Obama Administration has taken a number of historic steps to promote the human rights of LGBT people around the world, including the appointments at USAID and at State mentioned above, there are a few places where greater action could be taken to protect LGBT people.
In Nigeria, lawmakers passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act early in 2014, which outlawed same-sex marriage, same-sex relationships and even LGBT organizations. Unfortunately, the U.S. response to the Nigerian law has been muted, far from the robust U.S. reaction to Uganda's notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act later that same year.
There has been a similar story in The Gambia. Officials there publicized a new law in late 2014 punishing LGBT Gambians and there have since been crackdowns and arrests of LGBT people. President Yahya Jammeh even threatened to "slit the throats" of gay men in his country. And yet, to date, the U.S. has only responded by removing The Gambia from a trade preference program. The U.S. government should use its authority to ban certain Gambian officials from entering the U.S. if they have been guilty of human rights abuses against LGBT people.
While legislation as big as this one will always contain wins and losses, it is welcome news that Congress included strong funding for democracy and human rights, as well as language focusing attention on two difficult countries for LGBT people. HRC thanks the bill's authors, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY) for securing these advances for LGBT equality around the globe.