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Discrimination At The National Endowment For Democracy

By Bev Clark

28 October, 2006
Countercurrents.org

There's this small chalkboard outside my office door. I’ve put it there to inspire my staff to write their own slogans when they feel like it. But even such small actions are considered radical in a country where freedom of expression is quickly and efficiently suppressed. For the last few days the board has had a heart drawn on it with the number 25 placed in its centre. On the 12th September, my partner Brenda and I celebrated 25 years together. The following day, I received an e-mail from the National Endowment for Democracy stating that "as a federally funded exchange visitor program, we are ... unable to offer J-2 sponsorship and health & travel benefits to the same-sex partners of our foreign fellows."

I applied for the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program in August 2005. I liked the fact that this fellowship had a "practitioner" track and that they offered support for ‘fellows immediate family’. They did not indicate that same-sex partnerships were exempt from support. In my application I clearly stated that my partner is a woman and that she would more than likely seek an internship in Washington D.C. with a filmmaker we know. Keith Goddard, the current director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, wrote one of my letters of recommendation. In his reference he said that "Between 1992 and 1996, we worked together ... with Bev’s life partner (Brenda Burrell) ... to raise the profile of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people in Zimbabwe and to strive towards ensuring our rightful place in society.” In other words, my application was not evasive. I had nothing to hide.

Earlier this year, NED informed me that I had been selected as one of the Reagan-Fascell Fellows for 2006/07. Having been a human-rights activist in Zimbabwe for over a decade, often working under extremely stressful conditions, I was pleased. I felt that some time out in a new environment with the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with other activists would be an invigorating experience. I hoped it would provide me with the necessary energy and commitment as our country heads toward another election in 2008. I was proud to have been selected from a field of over 300 applicants and I responded immediately, thanking NED for the opportunity.

Documentation relating to the fellowship was soon sent to me. Strangely, however, Brenda wasn’t mentioned or included in any of the material relating to the support of spouse or dependant. I immediately wrote for an explanation. It seemed that NED had conveniently phantomised her. They replied thanking me “for raising the important issue of supporting documentation for your partner Brenda. We are checking with the relevant government authorities to determine how best we may proceed in enabling her to accompany you to the United States for the duration of your fellowship period and will be back in touch as soon as we have an answer.”

During my correspondence with NED, and as early as June 2006, I had asked them to clarify their organisational position on same-sex relationships with regard to fellowship applications. On the 13th September I received a reply from them saying that “we cannot be cutting-edge on the same-sex issue” and that my partner would not receive health and travel benefits but to “offset some of these costs and expenses” they would increase my fellowship stipend. But arriving in Washington D.C. through the backdoor with a few extra bucks in my back pocket is not acceptable.

Whilst NED has been warm and concerned in all of our correspondence it does not alter the fact that I am being discriminated against because of my same-sex relationship. Let us be clear – I would not have expected fellowship support for my partner if from the outset NED had stated that they only offer support to heterosexual partners. In fact I might not even have applied. Of course it might not suit NED or the U.S. Federal Government to so clearly expose their prejudice but it would certainly have let ‘people like me’ know exactly where I stand. But in all of NED’s information, both Internet-based as well as written, their language appeared inclusive: that is until recently.

I note that NED has recently altered their position on support for dependants of fellows. Indeed, their most recent application pack, states: “Fellows who wish to bring family members with them to Washington, D.C., will be expected to cover the costs of their dependants’ roundtrip travel to and stay within the United States. The program does not ordinarily cover costs associated with dependants’ health insurance or roundtrip travel to the United States”. They now go on to say: “Except under extraordinary circumstances, fellows are responsible for covering the cost of travel and health insurance for any family members they may wish to bring with them”. This differs from the NED application form that I completed in 2005 where it was stated that they provide “basic health insurance and reimbursement for travel to and from Washington, D.C. for each fellow and up to two members of his/her immediate family who qualify as dependants and who will reside with the fellow for the duration of the fellowship.”

It seems curious how NED’s approach to their fellows’ dependants has changed so dramatically since my application less than a year ago; or has it really? Might the latest inclusion of the phrase “except under extraordinary circumstances” simply be a covert allusion to a policy that will vary according to the sexual orientation of the applicant; a more sanitised way of maintaining a veneer of respectability, and disguising their entrenched discrimination and prejudice.

Who’s zooming whom NED?

Our experience clearly prompts the debate about who “qualifies” as a dependent or a spouse. Yet, should there be any debate at all? I speak as a committed human rights activist who has been in partnership with another woman for 25 years. If the partner police want to investigate, I have about a hundred friends and family who can verify that in 2001 we had a commitment ceremony to mark our 20th anniversary. (We do indeed live in a global village – our celebration that night was tempered by 9/11, the effects of which we were feeling many thousands of miles away in Harare.) But apparently “U.S. federal law defines a spouse as a person of the opposite sex”. What does this implicitly convey about the NED, its sponsors, and its commitment to human rights and activism?

To us, it seems essential that the NED make it very clear in their documentation that the words ‘spouse’ or ‘dependant’ do not include same-sex partnerships. Their latest amendments, do not clarify their position, but rather cast doubt on their ability to take one. This seems a contradiction given their stated objectives to “support freedom around the world”. Indeed, if my female partner is deemed inappropriate for support, then surely I should be similarly disqualified? Perhaps I am culpable of idealism and naivety, but are these values that we as activists wish to lose? If NED won’t support my partner’s travel and health costs, where and when during my fellowship will it be acceptable to NED to introduce Brenda as my partner?

How can I in all good conscience work on a project that relates to social justice activism at an organisation that does not treat all applicants equally?

I have already had some people question my acceptance of a NED fellowship citing NED’s political activities in countries like Nicaragua, Angola and Venezuela. In the five years that I’ve managed Kubatana.net I have only received one “shame on you!” e-mail. Ironically, this was in response to publicising NED’s fellowship opportunities for which I myself had applied. Now I understand the e-mailer’s position better than I did then. NED’s discriminatory attitude toward gays and lesbians cannot go unchallenged because it’s become very personal, and it would seem to form part of a larger set of double standards.

George Bush and Robert Mugabe may have a lot more in common than they think, homosexuality being just one of them. I have striven for gay and lesbian equality in a country where our presidents says homosexuals “have no rights at all” and calls us “worse than pigs and dogs”. And in the United States I find myself and my partner being discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation by an organisation that claims, in its Statement of Principles and Objectives that:

Democracy involves the right of the people freely to determine their own destiny. The exercise of this right requires a system that guarantees freedom of expression, belief and association, free and competitive elections, respect for the inalienable rights of individuals and minorities, free communications media, and the rule of law.

Is NED afraid that it will lose its funding if it challenges George Bush’s crude fundamentalism? Do they have members of their committee who agree with him, and secretly agree with our president whose attitude is only that tiny bit more extreme?

Whatever their principles or reasoning, I find it impossible for me to take up the NED fellowship, or the rise in the stipend, to find myself co-opted and complicit in my own, and other gay and lesbian peoples discrimination.


Bev Clark manages www.kubatana.net Zimbabwe’s civic and human rights web site. She also writes at http://firepussy.gnn.tv/


The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe and
The NGO Network Alliance Project
PO Box GD 376
Greendale
Harare
Zimbabwe

Tel: +263-4-776008/746448
Fax: +263-4-746418
Email: admin@kubatana.org.zw


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