FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. (JTA) — Every parent imagines and treasures a child’s first words, first steps, first love. Our children will graduate high school and then college, find their passion, marry their sweetheart, have children of their own.
There are also things a parent privately dreads. In 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a first-year student at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after students taunted and bullied him for being gay.
I was shocked by his suicide. Tyler went to high school with my daughter. Yet Tyler’s pain had been invisible to us. How did we fail him?
Tremendous strides have been made in ensuring the dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our nation in the last two decades. Yet prejudice and hatred still exist. In the United States, much legislation has been written to try to protect the rights of LGBT people, but our laws aren’t comprehensive, and much more needs to be done. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and counting, but in many places children like Tyler still live in fear and shame.
Internationally, the reality is even bleaker. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in 77 countries and, shockingly, punishable by death in five of those countries.
Six months after Tyler died, I traveled with American Jewish World Service to Uganda. We had breakfast in Kampala with a man whose name could not be spoken. We were warned not to mention his name in any public forum because he was an LGBT activist. He had been arrested the previous week, and he believed he was under surveillance.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had just signed into law a new Anti-Homosexuality Act that made our new friend’s work illegal. The legislation threatened to imprison those who engage in same-sex relations and the government vowed to shut down any nonprofit organizations working with the LGBT community.
This man was educating the public about LGBT issues and planning outreach meetings to provide legal, medical and psychological support for families afflicted with HIV/AIDS. He was an outspoken opponent of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and feared for his life.
Similar laws criminalize homosexuality around the world. In Russia, about one year ago, President Vladimir Putin signed what has become known as the “LGBT propaganda law” that prevents “distribution of information that is aimed at the formation among minors of nontraditional sexual attitude, attractiveness of non-traditional sexual attitudes.” In nations where Sharia law is honored — including Nigeria, Yemen and Iran — homosexual acts can carry the death penalty.
For the sake of children like Tyler, who are bullied for being gay; for the sake of activists in Uganda, and couples in love in Russia, Nigeria and Yemen, we must prevent global violence against LGBT people.
Today we have an opportunity to do our part to ensure that LGBT people globally can live freely and securely by calling upon the Obama administration and Congress to strengthen international policies on LGBT rights, and to assume a leadership role here and abroad to end hate crimes against LGBT people.
Just last month, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced in Congress the International Human Rights Defense Act. This act would direct the State Department to make international LGBT human rights a foreign policy priority. It would establish a position in the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor that would be responsible for coordinating that effort.
One year during the High Holidays, I asked congregants to raise their hands if a member of their family or a friend was LGBT. Three-quarters of those present did. LGBT people facing violence, prejudice and fear around the world are not strangers — they are our family, our friends. A sacred society is one in which no one is marginalized or enslaved; no one objectified, or invisible, or oppressed.
With the International Human Rights Defense Act, Congress has the opportunity to do the right thing for all of God’s children. Lives depend on it.
(Rabbi Elyse Frishman is spiritual leader of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. She edited “Mishkan T’filah, A Reform Siddur” and serves on the board of American Jewish World Service.)