By Jessica Stern and Peter Dunne

On June 15, as U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a reception at the White House to mark Pride Month, the now annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lives across the United States, there was much to contemplate about U.S. foreign policy and LGBT human rights.

While many celebrated advances made in the U.S. over the past year, this annual White House reception is an opportunity to recognize the efforts the Obama administration has made to promote LGBT human rights beyond U.S. borders. In December 2010 U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice spearheaded efforts to ensure that sexual orientation would remain part of a resolution condemning extrajudicial killings. Last December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke movingly at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva of how “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.” And President Obama the same day issued an executive memorandum calling upon U.S. diplomats to make LGBT human rights a priority in American foreign policy.

President Obama has gone further than any of his predecessors in advocating protections for individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, creating important opportunities for activists both at home and abroad. In so doing he has also raised significant questions. While many countries still see homosexuality as a “Western import,” how can the U.S. government support nascent LGBT movements internationally without compromising the political credibility of those involved?

In attempting to assist LGBT advocates globally, the Obama administration must keep in mind the first principle of international development, as noted by British researcher Stephen Wood: “[Listen] to the lived experience of those you are campaigning to support.” Around the world, even in the most homophobic and transphobic countries, LGBT individuals and advocates exist. These individuals know their environment and are best placed to effect real change at the local level.

To improve the lives of LGBT people outside the United States, President Obama and his administration must first engage with people where they are and seek to understand the reality of their daily lives. They must seek to acknowledge, as Secretary Clinton did before the Human Rights Council, that LGBT advocates in the Global South have agency and that they are already formulating diverse, nuanced strategies to enforce their own rights. Rather than dictating a prepackaged governmental agenda or engaging in government-to-government negotiations, the Obama administration should work to understand how it could offer assistance within the framework of existing community action. As Trinidadian advocate Colin Robinson has written, it is those who “live in, understand and engage daily with the states and the localities we wish to change must form the pivot around which any international advocacy strategy or emancipatory movement is built.”

In cases where domestic advocates welcome and encourage the participation of the U.S. government, it may well be appropriate for the Obama administration, led by local partners, to play an active role in seeking LGBT equality at the national level. In other circumstances, local LGBT activists may feel that association with the United States, or any Western government, would be counterproductive and expose them to the allegation of collusion with a foreign power. In that case, stepping back and recognizing that the local activists “know best” would be the course to take, in order to allow national conversations to take their course.

This delicate diplomatic balance is not the only challenge. President Obama has taken a bold and just stance on LGBT human rights internationally. Now, Congress and other American political leaders have a vital role to play. The issue of LGBT human rights must not become one more wedge issue in American culture wars. We urge congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to put aside partisan differences and support the human rights of all people, everywhere, regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity.