“One of the little lies that people tell is, ‘Oh, I don’t like to say I told you so,'” former Rep. Barney Frank reflected Wednesday, before adding with decided relish, “Everyone likes to say I told you so. It’s one of the pleasures that improves with age.”
One of possibly many times the outspoken and unyielding former U.S. Congressional Representative from Boston had in mind, was his, and other law makers’ stance on divesting from apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. It was a stance that ran counter to the Reagan administration’s position on the matter, and to arguments that divestment could cause harm to those already suffering under apartheid. The move to divest, however, also was a stance validated, in 1990 by Nelson Mandela, freed from prison after 27 years, speaking before a joint session of congress and thanking members for their role in his release.
The occasion for recalling that moment was an event at the Center for Global Development, a first of its kind for the aid-policy think tank, according to a host, examining “LGBT rights in the Developing World: What Can Washington Do?”
It is a question that has long confronted civil society members and donors contributing to HIV prevention and treatment nearly everywhere, and all the more so in some of the hardest hit countries in the world. It is a question that during much of the accelerated global responses to the epidemic during the last decade has been treated hypothetically. And it is a question that was somewhat forcibly proven not to be hypothetical in the spring of 2014 when, shortly after Uganda passed its “Anti-Homosexuality Law,” local authorities raided a U.S. Military HIV Research Program project office in Kampala, saying its efforts to treat and prevent HIV among men who have sex with men constituted a crime. And while Washington, or at least the White House, did respond to the Uganda law with travel restrictions and redirected aid, and a Uganda high court did overturn the law on a technicality, the question remains, in Uganda, in Nigeria where even harsher legislation still stands, and in other countries where laws, policies and practices stand between sexual minorities and basic human rights, including health care.
To Frank, it is not a complicated question, or a new one.
“The fact is that for some time many of us have believed in the moral importance of intervening in events in Africa,” he said. Refusing to support South Africa’s apartheid government and its imprisonment of political opponents was one example, he said, but it started before that, in support for other African countries freeing themselves from colonialism.
While gay rights have been approached as a cultural issue — of dubious merit, Frank pointed out, as African countries inherited their original anti-sodomy laws from colonialists, the issue is a simpler one, of human rights, he said. Frank emphasizes that protecting the rights of sexual minorities falls under the same imperative as protecting freedoms of speech from arbitrary arrests, and other democracy driven issues that the United States supports with words, and action internationally.
“The argument is that we’re intervening in their affairs,” he noted. He remembers when he pushed for debt relief for countries struggling to develop their own resources in the aftermath of colonialism, of which, he said, “Uganda was the single largest beneficiary,” adding, then, “You didn’t tell me to mind my own business when I was pushing for a billion dollars in debt relief for you.”
As for the argument that sanctions, redirected aid, suspended loans “hurt the people we’re trying to help,” Frank said, “The overwhelming response from victims is ‘we’ll take the temporary pain.”