Newscasters quickly changed the subject after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last week vetoed a bill that would have let businesses, on the basis of "religious belief," deny service to gays and lesbians. Crisis over, folks, they seemed to say; let's move on.
But the fact that a majority in both houses of the legislature of the sixth-largest state were poised to legalize anti-gay discrimination suggests that it could happen again, in Arizona or any state where a governor lacks the decency, sense or guts to go against the majority in his or her party.
There is a sad irony to that, coming on the heels of the Sochi Olympics and our vocal disdain for Russia's anti-gay laws. "I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them," President Barack Obama said last summer. Yet there it is, in his own country. Though he declined to boycott the Olympic Games, Obama underscored his commitment to gay equality in the choice of people he sent to represent the United States.
The organization Human Rights First, which sounded the alarm on last year's anti-gay anti-propaganda bill signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, urged the United States to be a beacon to activists fighting for freedom around the globe. "Upholding human rights is not only a moral obligation," it said. "It's a vital national interest."
On the other side, there is this view summed up in a blog post on the New York Times website: "We here in the United States don't need to be forcing our own ideals and laws on the rest of the countries across the globe. We believe our ideals are correct and Russia believes their ideals are correct."
That begs the question: What are our ideals on gay issues, anyway? Are they those of Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney who oppose the discriminatory Arizona bill? Or of the Arizona lawmakers, and legislators in other states like Kansas contemplating similar bills? Are they the values of 17 states that have recognized same-sex marriage, or of those who campaign against it?
While the Obama administration shows one face to Russia, American crusaders against gay rights have been showing a different one to Uganda. U.S. pastors deserve some of the blame for an outrageous law signed last week by President Yoweri Museveni, which imposes life in prison for being gay or lesbian there. It also provides for up to 7-year prison terms for people gay or straight, who house or refuse to report gays and lesbians to authorities. Companies and NGOs doing business in Uganda that support lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people could lose their registrations and face jail time.
Uganda's law falls short of calling for the death penalty for LGBT people, as an earlier bill had done, following visits by U.S. evangelicals Scott Lively, Rick Warren and Tony Perkins in 2008 and 2009.
Lively, who has talked about "curing" homosexuals, was one of three evangelical Christians to meet with politicians and speak on the threat of the so-called "gay agenda" to thousands of Ugandans in 2009. The death-penalty bill was introduced a month later. Warren, who visited in 2008, has compared homosexuality to pedophilia, though he denied playing a role in that bill and condemned it. Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, praised the Ugandan bill and complains that Arizona's "once gutsy" Gov. Brewer has "buckled."
So, should the world see same-sex marriages and gays serving openly in the military and conclude that America is an open and accepting nation? Or should it hear Rush Limbaugh mouthing off about Brewer being bullied by the "homosexual lobby" and conclude the opposite?
The truth is, we're a work in progress, guided by a constitution that points us on a path of greater equality, but is regularly challenged and undermined. We have no franchise on either human rights or prejudices. But we do have the right to protest and a legacy of organizing and speaking up for rights, and bringing businesses and politicians along -- even if just for practical reasons.
So when we sigh with relief over the bullet that was dodged in Arizona last week, let's remember the one that wasn't, in Uganda -- and our power and responsibility, as a nation committed to human rights, both to export the right values and to abide by them at home.
Contact Rekha Basu at firstname.lastname@example.org.