Foreign Policy Pinkwashing: Russia’s New Law and Continuing Violence in Honduras

August 16, 2013

Stephan Lefebvre

Last week, reports came out that a woman was “brutally attacked” by four men who “stripped [her] of all of her clothing” in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, while she was walking home from an event hosted by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.  It appears that Arely Victoria Gomez Cruz was attacked “on a public street in full view of many people” primarily because she is a transgender woman.  Just two blocks away from where she was attacked, Walter Tróchez, a gay man and member of the resistance movement to the coup, was killed in 2009.  These two events, one shortly after the June 2009 military coup and the other within the past week, illustrate something about the type of violence going on in Honduras: Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world and, since the coup that forced out democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, over 90 LGBT people have been killed.

As of late, the mainstream media has focused a great deal on LGBT rights in Russia as a result of the Russian government’s new law criminalizing expressions of “nontraditional sexual relationships.”  But the rash of killings and other violent attacks on members of Honduras’ LGBT community have received relatively little attention in the U.S. media.  It’s worth noting that the media uproar around the state of LGBT rights in Russia has come on the heels of U.S. government criticism of the draconian law earlier this month.  Yet the law was actually passed several months ago, on June 11th, and signed by Putin at the end of that month.  Could Russia’s August 1st decision to grant temporary asylum to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden have something to do with the sudden explosion of interest in this issue?   

The new U.S. government and media attention to LGBT rights in Russia seems to bear all the hallmarks of “pinkwashing,” a phenomenon involving a government or company deliberately highlighting support for gay rights while ignoring or downplaying other relevant human rights issues.  In this case, while the U.S. government seeks to raise the profile of violations of LGBT rights in Russia, it stays mum, or at least speaks up less, when it comes to LGBT rights in countries that are official friends, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Similarly, we hear little praise for countries that have made great strides in LGBT rights if they are official enemies, such as Cuba, where the daughter of the current president leads that country’s National Center for Sex Education.  Mariela Castro, who helped pass a law expanding access to sex affirmation surgery as part of the island’s national health system, had to fight a travel ban recently in order to attend an international awards dinner in New York.

Now, this is not to say that the Russian law is anything but deplorable.  The “anti-propaganda law” should be condemned in the strongest terms.  At the same time, we can see in this case a good example of how U.S. government foreign policy objectives are advanced through the mainstream media and selective concern over international human rights on the part of government representatives.  

The case of Russia can easily be contrasted with that of Honduras.  Members of the LGBT community there have faced much higher levels of violence after the coup, with more than 90 known homicides since 2009 compared to 20 murders in the 10 years before the coup.  The U.S. government has largely failed to speak out but does recognize that there’s a problem.  In 2012, 83 Democratic members of Congress sent a message to the Secretary of State calling for the State Department to “protect the human rights of all [Honduran] citizens, especially vulnerable populations like the LGBT community.”  This letter is credited with having directed the focus of the Public Ministry’s Special Victims Unit, which was created with U.S. assistance.  Reports indicate that the SVU has worked exclusively on cases involving members of the LGBT community.

Unfortunately, pinkwashing again seems to be at work here.  Politically- active members of the LGBT community, and community leaders, consistently make connections between their activities as coup resisters and their risk for being targeted for violence.  Homophobia, transphobia and misogyny certainly play a large role in all this, but the targeted violence simultaneously fits into a pattern of political suppression.

By continuing to support a government that is extraordinarily corrupt and includes key supporters of the 2009 coup, and by limiting the role of the SVU to LGBT cases, the U.S. government appears to be very selectively responding to the community it ostensibly seeks to support, as many of the LGBT human rights defenders work in coalition with a broad range of activists.  For example, Pepe Palacios, a well-known LGBT rights activist in Honduras, said in an interview that he “encouraged the State Department to expand the scope of Special Victims Unit funding to include the cases of journalists, lawyers and ‘emblematic cases’ among high profile resistance leaders – including human rights defenders, teachers, trade unionists, and Afro-Indigenous leaders.”  

Obama’s previous Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, famously said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” but as long as the Obama administration maintains its current policy on Honduras our government will be working against the interests of the LGBT community in Honduras.  

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