Living abroad, I recently had a discussion with friends about LGBTI rights in general. The group included folks from various cultures. When asked about the US and its progress towards this critical human rights issue, I paused. My answer that day was muted, and it’s not necessarily the answer I might have given just a few years ago.
My home is the United States, but I haven’t lived there in a long time. As a US diplomat and military spouse, I have been posted around the world for the last decade, representing my country and adapting to new and exciting cultures. Watching with great interest as LGBTI rights expand across many parts of the planet, I can’t help but feel pride that the US has laid the groundwork for so much progressive change in this arena. At the same time, I feel anxious about recent LGBTI setbacks in America and a dangerous trend that doesn’t seem consistent with the values of our country or the goodness I associate with its people.
Like any social movement, the US and seen its ups and downs regarding LGBTI rights. I cheer on every victory I read about on CNN, like when Buffalo and San Antonio stood up for human dignity and banned corporations which support hate groups from operating in their airports. I cringe when I read about politicians trying to undo hate-crimes protections for the LGBTI community. From Stonewall to Lambda Legal, from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to Ellen, from Matthew Shepard to Marriage Equality, our country indeed has undergone transformational change, with setbacks and progress, from tragedy to hope.
Talking about this with foreign nationals in certain countries that still criminalize homosexuality (there are more than 70), I share our culture and history with respect. It’s been a fascinating journey for me to watch the ebb and flow of social progress in their countries. I stand in solidarity with them when reflecting on the sometimes almost unbearable push towards equality.
But undoubtedly, it’s harder to know what to say about my country. With a new US military transgender ban in effect, how do I comment about Brunei’s anti-LGBTI policies? When discussing Saudi Arabia’s beheading of gay men, what do I say knowing LGBTI hate crimes back home in the US rose at least 3% in the last couple of years? Having recently worked with Judy and Dennis Shepard in the Dominican Republic to raise awareness about LGBTI issues within the business and diplomatic communities, it didn’t escape my mind that 29 states in the US allow for discrimination of LGBTI persons (and many in political power want to see that number increase). So many steps forward and back; it makes my head spin.
I do feel tension, anxiety, and at times despair, seeing how easily hate can triumph in the US, how quickly good people can succumb to their bigotry. It reminds me that for all its greatness, the US is not immune to its own struggles with choosing what’s right, just as in all the countries I have lived over the years. In a strange way, there is a sense of community in knowing that humanity faces the same demons, regardless of culture or national boundary.
Yet despite these painful vicissitudes, my pride in my country doesn’t lessen. I know there have been setbacks in LGBTI rights, but I have forgotten how much we’ve achieved. Even in my hometown of Denver, knowing that I might be denied a cake in some bakeries doesn’t hamper my enthusiasm for or gratitude for the US and its beautiful and complicated growing pains. After all, that’s also the city where I wed my husband. Each and every trip home, I get the same excitement in the pit of my stomach, seeing the American flag waive in the wind, welcoming me back (even amidst those who hate everything about me).
So to answer international friends about LGBTI rights in the US? Well, it’s complicated. It’s nuanced. I don’t speak to the issue in an official capacity or as a representative of the US Government but rather as a gay man cheering on his homeland from afar (and voting in every election). The pride is still there. In fact, it’s a pride that has become even more urgent, more emotional, as I watch people fan the flames of hate to destroy all that we’ve fought for and built.
Without hesitation, I stand with my country in this transition, in this awkward and pivotal chapter. I am part of the story, even from thousands of miles away. And I will be part of how future chapters unfold. I just have to believe that there are enough of those out there who still feel hope, who still see the light, who will stand with me as we decide (and demand) what comes next.
About the Author:
Ken Seifert is a United States Foreign Service Officer and has lived in Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. He is also a former Navy Ombudsman and an active LGBTI activist. Having served on the board of the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Organization, Ken has been involved in LGBTI rights for many years and created a scholarship for PFLAG of Washington DC. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and The George Washington universities, Ken has also been an avid writer on the topic of LGBTI rights and has published more than 100 articles and op pieces on the subject of discrimination and human rights in such newspapers as Washington Post, USA Today, Miami Herald, and Houston Chronicle. Ken’s first novel, The Rising Storm, delves into topics of gay rights and its intersection with faith. Ken is Jewish, married, and has two adorable dogs.