Politics / Homo
A President's Brave—And Meaningful—Ambassadorial Appointment
by Dan Savage
on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 9:22 AM
The president has a troubled relationship with a vocal minority group. To mollify his critics, the president appoints a member of this minority group to an ambassadorship. It's a symbolic gesture, it doesn't require the president to change his policies, but it gets a lot of play in the media and Americans, rightly or wrongly, interpret the move as evidence that the president's heart, at least, is in the right place. Barack Obama in 2009? Nope: Ronald Reagan in 1986:
South Africa was in turmoil during the 1980s. Apartheid was still the law and although whites were just a fraction of the population, they owned 90 percent of the land. The government, led by President P.W. Botha, was on the verge of a bloody civil war with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. Each day brought news of more violence. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other black South Africans were asking corporations and governments to pressure the white South African government to end apartheid. In Washington, President Reagan resisted using economic sanctions. His administration preferred a policy called "constructive engagement."
The Reagan White House was at odds with U.S. civil rights leaders over its affirmative action and domestic social policy, and South African's freedom struggle resonated strongly with the American public. In 1986, the Reagan administration made a surprising move. Secretary of State George Schultz called career diplomat Edward Perkins.
"He said, 'There are people around the president who believe that it is time to send a black ambassador,'" recalls Perkins.
Reagan's appointment of Edward Perkins as our ambassador to South Africa—Apartheid-era South Africa, Nelson-Mandela-still-rotting-in-prison South Africa—was gutsy and bold. It made the South Africans—the ruling white South Africans—apoplectic, which was great, but it also made an important statement about American values. At the time blacks in South Africa couldn't vote or own property; they weren't considered citizens. Educational institutions, medical facilities, and public services were all strictly segregated. And America sent 'em a black ambassador. Look at that picture. South African President P.W. Botha had to formally receive Edward Perkins when he arrived in South Africa. Talk about your 1000 words. Reagan's civil rights policies—including his refusal to back sanctions against South Africa—still sucked, but you had to admire Reagan's... what's the word: Oh, right: you had to admire Reagan's audacity. The appointment of Perkins meant something. It couldn't be dismissed as mere tokenism. (And most importantly for Reagan it didn't cost his buddies doing business in South Africa a cent.)
Sending an openly gay ambassador to New Zealand?
Nothing audacious about that. New Zealand will only be too delighted to welcome its first openly-gay ambassador. They'll probably send a case of local lube to the American embassy. George Bush's 2001 appointment of an openly gay man as ambassador to Romania—conservative, backwards Romania—was edgier. If Obama wants to show the same boldness and guts that Reagan did—if he wants to make a point about American values—he should appoint an openly gay man as ambassador to Russia, where anti-gay violence is tolerated/encouraged by the state. Or Saudia Arabia, where gay men are publicly executed. Or Iraq, where death squads hunt gay men.
Okay, those nations may be too large and/or too strategically important. So here's a more realistic suggestion: Obama should appoint an openly-gay man—an openly gay African American man—as ambassador to the most violently homophobic nation in the Western Hemisphere: Jamaica.
That would be audacious.
Appointing a gay ambassador to Jamaica in 2009 would draw attention to the evils of homophobia in the same way that appointing a black ambassador to South Africa in 1986 drew attention to the evils of racism. It would focus worldwide attention on the problem of anti-gay violence in Jamaica and serve as official expression of the United State's disproval. It would make a powerful statement to the world: the United States may not stand for the equality and worth of all gay people—not yet—but this president does.
Sending an openly gay ambassador to Jamaica would be a bold and meaningful move. Sending one to New Zealand is a symbolic sop to disgruntled Democratic interest group. Wouldn't it be great if Obama had Reagan's balls?