Around the world, Pride celebrations are recognizing the enormous strides for human rights of LGBTQ individuals. However, despite improvements in a number of countries, many LGBTQ individuals face significant hurdles to living openly and without fear. I spoke with former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) about the transformation she’s seen in the United States, and the impact our domestic shift has had on the global movement for equality.
This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and in the past 10 years we’ve seen rapid and tremendous changes in American attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. After nearly 30 years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including several as Chairwoman, how has that domestic transformation contributed to international changes?
Ros-Lehtinen: I think that our work domestically here in the U.S. has had a positive impact internationally. As we know, around the world there are still so many countries where gay behavior, mannerisms, style of dress, any kind of manifestation that looks out of what they would consider the norm, or out of the mainstream, it is severely punished and is a crime. And to be gay is a crime in some countries. It’s been a wonderful sea change for the United States to go through acceptance and making sure that people know that sexual orientation or gender identity, are no longer looked upon as obstacles or problems, and certainly not crimes.
While it’s been a big change for the U.S., it just takes time internationally. But being the leader that I think we are internationally, in celebrating—not tolerating, not accepting—but celebrating being your authentic self, whatever that may be. The United States has been the leader, globally, and some countries it just takes a long time to break through those norms and mores. It’s going to be accepted, perhaps not celebrated around the world, but that is certainly the goal: equality and fairness for everyone.
We’ve seen a continuing trend of out Ambassadors in both the Obama and Trump Administrations, sometimes representing the United States in countries that don’t have a strong human rights record for LGBTQ citizens. Do you see that as a trend that will continue into the future?
Ros-Lehtinen: I think it’s important that we appoint ambassadors to other countries that represent the best of the United States. And the best of our country could be anybody. It doesn’t matter your race, your ethnicity, your religious background, sexual identity, gender identity, we’re just all human beings trying to do a good job here on earth. And having diversity makes us stronger.
It’s important for other countries to receive our ambassadors, to accept our ambassadors, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. So, we’ve come far in a short period of time, but we still have a way to go. The numbers are not representative yet of what they should be.
In addition to individual activism, corporations played a role here in the United States in increasing the visibility and cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Coca-Cola, for example, has a long track record of inclusiveness and was an early adopter of the “Five Standards of Conduct” developed by the U.N. Human Rights Office. As global attitudes continue to shift, what role do American companies play in helping foster an inclusive cultural environment, particularly in developing countries that historically have been more hostile to the LGBTQ community?
Ros-Lehtinen: American businesses have a strong role to play in hiring diverse individuals and in in making sure that that culture of acceptance and celebration is part of their DNA as a corporation. That sends a wonderful signal to the whole country and to the world that this no longer a taboo, it’s no longer a problem. All the big corporations have signed on to this set of standards. And I think it’s positive, I think it’s a good thing. While the government is a little bit slower to react, certainly the private sector has been there from early on. They’ve been at the vanguard setting the tone for the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
You’ve spoken about the role your son played in changing your perspective, and so many people credit their transformation on LGBTQ rights to “knowing someone.” However, in many countries knowing someone is simply impossible due to the repercussions those individuals would face. How can American investments in development and diplomacy help create an environment that would allow LGBTQ individuals live openly and without fear?
Ros-Lehtinen: Well, it’s very, very much important for families to accept their children as they are. It’s a shame that in so many homes, when a child comes out as gay or transgender, for them that’s a deal breaker for many families. They shun their children. And studies have shown that if children are not accepted in their home after they have stated their authentic self to their parents, they’re more likely to drop out of school, they’re more likely to get into drugs. They lead a life of uncertainty, and they’re so vulnerable in the outside world.
Acceptance and love in the family is very important. We love our children, no matter who they are. And Rodrigo is obviously an essential part of our family as our son. So, we always chuckle, my husband and I, when they say, ‘Oh, you should be congratulated about accepting your son’. What’s the alternative? What are we supposed to do? We’re getting thanked because we don’t kick our kids out of the door. But I guess in some homes that happens, and what a shame. That’s just horrific.
We all have a role to play and we don’t have to be the ambassador of some country to foster this atmosphere of love and acceptance. We just need to be kinder to one another. There are lots of unkind behaviors everywhere, but we can all be the diplomat of goodwill and create that culture of inclusiveness around the world. I come from Florida; we believe in in good fantasies like Disney World. We create this wonderful world where everyone will be accepted and loved for who they are.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen represented Florida’s 27th Congressional District for 30 years. She is a member of the USGLC Florida Advisory Committee, and a Senior Advisor at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.