American Exceptionalism and LGBTQ+ Rights Around the Globe

America. A shining beacon of justice and freedom for all. The archetype of democracy. A singular  nation founded upon the ideals of personal liberty, which sets it apart from every other country in the world. American exceptionalism is the belief in these narratives, the widely held conviction that America is unique in its pioneering ideals of democracy and personal freedom.

This, however, doesn’t map onto reality, as America exceptionalism fails to extend to those in the LGBTQ+ community. Media coverage has distorted our perception of ourselves into that of an exceptionally progressive nation concerning gay rights, especially considering the nationwide legalization of gay marriage in 2015, and the recent Winter Olympics. After all, the US hosted its first openly gay winter Olympian in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, figure skater Adam Rippon, who has dubbed himself “America’s sweetheart.” As Time Magazine declared, “Adam Rippon Stole Everybody’s Hearts.” Meanwhile, the recent groundbreaking reinterpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Title 7 barring discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation only furthers the idea that America is paving the way for the rest of the world for pro-LGBTQ+ action.

However, this exceptionalist vision of ourselves is detrimental, even dangerous, as we continue to magnify our achievements while incidentally dismissing the harsh reality of America’s treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals at home and participate in Ameri-centric celebrations of LGBTQ+ rights movements that overlook both the strides forward and the steps back that other nations around the globe are taking with gay rights.

While popular media celebrates Adam Rippon and our national showing as a champion of civil liberties, lawmakers in South Carolina and Wyoming are pushing to “redefine marriage” in an effort to undermine marriage equality. These bills would change the legal definition of same-sex marriages to “parody marriages” that the state of South Carolina would no longer have to recognize and could deny state benefits to.

Even more alarmingly, the FBI recently reported that anti-transgender crimes rose 43% from 2015-2016. A recent shooting on February 23rd at a transgender bar in Las Vegas has raised questions about selective media coverage. As the Daily Dot reports, “LGBTQ people fear the media is selectively covering shootings, particularly ones that impact the Black transgender community. Only one major website, the queer online magazine INTO, covered the incident in detail.” These fears are not groundless. Our media’s consistent lack of large-scale coverage of these anti-gay legislative movements and anti-transgender hate crimes in favor of patting ourselves on the back for our purported progressive attitudes perpetuates our blindness towards our failures in promoting LGBTQ+ equality. The consistent marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community in the media is harmful as it ignores the crimes perpetrated specifically against the LGBTQ+ community. The tendency to celebrate ourselves and view ourselves as an icon of freedom for LGBTQ+ individuals while refusing to acknowledge the thinly-veiled homophobia within our nation that pervades our legislatures and everyday life is a manifestation of American exceptionalism at work.

Especially with reference to LGBTQ+ rights, American exceptionalism is a hollow promise. It used to be a term to differentiate America’s development from the development of European countries and boast America as a paradigm of democratic ideals. However, it was Europe that provided the initial push for gay rights. From 2000 to 2017, 26 countries legalized same-sex marriage, 15 of them European, with European countries providing much of the earliest impetus for marriage equality.

Our belief in American exceptionalism is unfounded when considering LGBTQ+ rights. We are supposed to be a role model for the rest of the world and pave the way to equality. Our belief in it causes us to continue to see ourselves as sole figure leading the way while ignoring LGBTQ+ rights happenings around the globe. For instance, in a momentous assertion by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, twenty Latin American countries may sweepingly recognize marriage equality, and gender identity in 2018. And yet, there has been no official recognition or support of this Latin American push for LGBTQ+ rights from our administration. While we have legalized gay marriage nationwide, we have been overlooking advancements in LGBTQ+ rights in other parts of the world. Our failure to recognize and support the Latin American movement shows our failure to lead the way in advocating for gay and human rights around the globe.

On the other end of the spectrum, American exceptionalism and selective blindness in American media is causing us to overlook the anti-LGBTQ+ movements perpetrated in countries around the globe, even actively supporting countries that carry them out. Indeed, we only condemn anti-LGBTQ+ when politically convenient for us.

Consider Egypt, one of the US’s long time allies. In 2017 a massive crackdown on the Egyptian LGBTQ+ community has resulted in more than 85 individuals’ arrests, more than 230 prosecutions since 2013 on “debauchery charges,” and numerous accounts of police abuse and torture against detained LGBTQ+ individuals. Human Rights Watch states, “in the face of relentless persecution of sexual and gender minorities in Egypt, world leaders remain largely silent – or worse, praise [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi as a “moderate” leader.” Consider, too, our casual acceptance of countries who implement the death penalty for same-sex acts, such as Saudi Arabia, another one of our allies.

Contrast this with  Chechnya. Chechnya and the US have historically had tumultuous relations, especially concerning Chechen-Russian conflicts. The same story that happened in Egypt has happened before with the anti-gay purge in Chechnya, where 27 gay men were detained and tortured. In this case, the Senate unanimously condemned the horrific anti-gay incident and the Trump administration passed sanctions against the leader of the purge Ramzan Kadyrov. We only condemned his behavior because it was convenient for us, while ignoring the countless anti-LGBTQ+ countries we continue to support.

In America, our constant focus on ourselves and our narrative of exceptionalism results in us quietly sweeping under the rug anti-gay human rights abuses being perpetrated around the globe. In the past, American exceptionalism has been used as a rationale to promote and spread our unique democratic ideals. Why, then, is our sense of American Exceptionalism failing us now when it comes to supporting democracy when it comes to this particular marginalized group?

Perhaps America’s cold shoulder to the global LGBTQ+ community isn’t so surprising considering our current administration and the US’s history of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. With Trump’s facetious treatment of Vice President Pence’s anti-gay positions, his joke about Pence wanting to hang all gay people, his rollback of protections for LGBTQ+ health initiatives, and his continual appointment of anti-gay political figures, it isn’t surprising at all. America isn’t exceptional, especially in application to LGBTQ+ rights. Instead of leading the world in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, America is allowing LGBTQ+ persecution to escape scrutiny.

Catherine HuangComment