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As U.S. Support For Same-Sex Marriage Rises, Activists Go Global


The political landscape for same-sex marriage has shifted quickly in this country, so gay and lesbian rights activists are starting to shift their attention overseas. Nearly 80 countries still ban homosexuality. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: You might recall the American evangelical who sparked a firestorm a few years ago when he traveled to Uganda.


SCOTT LIVELY: Good morning, everyone.


LUDDEN: Scott Lively told a Family Life conference in 2009 that women become lesbians because they are molested. He went further with incendiary comments on gay men.


LIVELY: Male homosexuality has historically been not adult to adult. It's been adult to teenager - adults sodomizing teenage boys.

LUDDEN: A few months later, Uganda's parliament introduced a bill to execute people for some homosexual acts. Despite international outcry, that law - watered down to life in prison - finally passed this year. A court's blocked it, but on narrow grounds. It turns out Uganda was just the beginning. Since then, a slew of nations have passed or considered crackdowns, including Nigeria, Gambia, India, Brunei. And Americans are weighing in.


BRIAN BROWN: Right now, you're having the fight over...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LUDDEN: That's Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage, on Russian TV last year. He addressed the country's parliament as it debated a ban on adoption by same-sex couples. Brown's group has been a key voice in nearly every major U.S. ballot initiative against same-sex marriage. He says, other countries don't want to go the way of the U.S.

BROWN: As there's an attempt to coerce countries to go against their own beliefs, to exert a new form of cultural imperialism, those countries are standing up and saying no.

LUDDEN: In Russia and other places, lawmakers sometimes cite the views of American activists, though Brown says, he doesn't support specific legislation.

BROWN: What we do is simply talk about our own experience, talk about the consequences of the redefinition of marriage and create a global community of leaders learning from one another.

EVAN WOLFSON: They're beating up on gay people in cahoots with the worst elements of thuggery and government authoritarianism.

LUDDEN: Evan Wolfson heads Freedom to Marry, a leading voice for same-sex marriage in the U.S. He also consults with other countries and says, American groups who oppose gay rights abroad do real harm.

WOLFSON: Obviously, what they're doing is bringing discredited so-called science to these anti-gay, anti-rule-of-law lawmakers and giving them the tools to support their political attacks on gay people.

LUDDEN: Last year, the Human Rights Campaign mounted its own global effort. Director Ty Cobb says, it would have seemed hypocritical not long ago. How could you lecture other countries, he says, when U.S. law still banned sodomy? But after so much success at home, Cobb says, the time is right.

TY COBB: It kind of creates a moment where we can embrace this leadership in a increasingly global world, or we can ignore what's going on outside the country.

LUDDEN: Cobb aims to hold the Obama administration to its landmark declaration of that gay rights are human rights, and all agencies should promote them.

COBB: Whether it's through trade, it's through lending institutions, like the World Bank, hate crimes training of law enforcement in other countries through our Department of Justice...

LUDDEN: The Human Rights Campaign also started a global fellowship to help train gay and lesbian activists, like Jane Wothaya Thirikwa in Kenta.

JANE WOTHAYA THIRIKWA: Even when I'm walking in town, walking the streets, some people harass me when I'm with my partner, so it's a constant risk.

LUDDEN: Wothaya says, her year-long fellowship in Washington, D.C., was really a chance for her to educate various American rights groups. She appreciates the idea that gay rights are global, but pushing for same-sex marriage in a place like Kenya, she says, is dangerously out of touch.

THIRIKWA: We have a bill right now in Kenya proposing death by stoning of homosexuals.

LUDDEN: One court battle this month - a Kenyan gay rights group is suing to use the words gay and lesbian in its name. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.