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  • Human Rights Research Center

Navigating the Intersection of LGBTQ+ Rights and Cultural Relativism in International Policy

Author: Jude Caruso

November 20, 2023

[Image source: Human Rights Campaign.]

In today's complex global landscape, LGBTQ+ rights intersect with culture, human rights, and international policy. This essay delves into the intricacies of this intersection, focusing on the concept of cultural relativism and the significance of LGBTQ+ rights in the international arena.

Understanding Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism is a fundamental theory of intercultural interpretation often employed in international diplomacy and cooperation. This concept proposes that "rights and wrongs" should be evaluated within the specific cultural context in which they arise.

In essence, this framework acknowledges that moral and ethical standards can vary significantly from one culture to another. A relativistic approach underscores the importance of respecting diverse value systems and traditions when engaging with nations on the global stage.

Cultural relativism does not assert that all practices are inherently correct or justifiable. Instead, it prompts us to consider the historical, social, and cultural factors that shape a society's norms and values. This perspective challenges us to refrain from imposing our cultural beliefs and practices onto others when navigating complex international issues.

The Significance of LGBTQ+ Rights in Today's Global Context

LGBTQ+ rights have emerged as a crucial and often contentious issue in international relations, with global pressure increasing as domestic policies in the field become more progressive. While pursuing these rights may seem like a recent development, the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality has deep historical roots.

As the United States engages with its global partners, it encounters a stark contrast in the legal treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals in different countries. Some nations champion LGBTQ+ rights as fundamental human rights, while others oppose them. This divergence raises critical questions about the United States' stance and pursuit of international political goals.

Prominent examples of selective cultural relativism employed by the United States foreign affairs include long standing dynamics with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and more than two dozen Commonwealth countries. The United States and allies within its influence have maintained and bolstered good relations with the majority of these nations for strategic reasoning, such as the countering of Iranian and Chinese influence and the protection of shipping lanes, while domestic policies on LGBTQ+ rights appear increasingly draconian in comparison to the domestic policies of the United States and cultural/geopolitical west.

One fundamental question concerns the ethical implications of sacrificing human rights for political power. Can the United States justify overlooking the violation of LGBTQ+ rights in the name of securing global strategic alliances? This dilemma forces us to confront the uneasy coexistence of what is pragmatic and what is preserving moral integrity in international politics.

In this context, we must acknowledge that the United States often walks a fine line between promoting its values and pursuing strategic interests. This delicate balance requires careful consideration.

Leveraging political clout to influence the domestic policies of allies in line with American values is another contentious issue. Advocates argue that it is a moral imperative to use diplomatic pressure to push for change. Critics, however, caution against imposing values on other nations, emphasizing that cultural imperialism runs counter to the principles of cultural relativism.

The Conflict with Cultural Relativism

The international standard of cultural relativism complicates this issue further. While cultural relativism is a valuable tool for fostering mutual respect and understanding, it may contradict the push for LGBTQ+ rights. When rigidly interpreted, cultural relativism can justify tolerating the suppression of LGBTQ+ rights in countries where they would be incompatible with local culture and tradition.

This dilemma exposes the inherent tension in international relations regarding promoting universal human rights while respecting cultural diversity. It underscores the need for a nuanced approach that acknowledges cultural relativism while remaining committed to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

In conclusion, the intersection of LGBTQ+ rights and cultural relativism in international policy is complex and challenging. It forces us to confront difficult questions about the role of the United States in promoting human rights and whether pursuing political alliances should ever be prioritized over promoting those rights. Balancing cultural relativism with a commitment to LGBTQ+ rights requires diplomacy, pragmatism, and respect for diverse cultures in our interconnected world. Ultimately, finding a path that respects cultural differences while advocating for universal human rights is a goal worth pursuing on the journey toward a more just and equitable global community.


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