The Republican chairman of a House subcommittee on human rights has been taking a well-deserved and severe beating after he publicly declared that he didn’t consider gay rights to be human rights.
Chris Smith has represented New Jersey’s 4th district, which includes a swath of exurban territory between Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore, since 1981. When the Republicans took back the House in 2011, Smith became chairman of the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. That’s what made his comments at a hearing on Wednesday particularly disturbing. The hearing dealt with the situation in Nigeria. In the midst of the hearing, Smith declared himself “a strong believer in traditional marriage” who does not “construe homosexual rights as human rights.” He went on to wonder if the White House’s strong support of LGBT rights has hamstrung our efforts to rein in Boko Haram.
Even by African standards, Nigeria is a pretty bad place to be if you’re gay. Just last year, merely setting up a gay rights organization became a criminal offense punishable by up to 14 years in prison. And on the very day of Smith’s subcommittee hearing, 12 people in northern Nigeria were arrested for allegedly trying to hold a gay wedding. Those arrests place in the predominantly Muslim portion of the country, and the people taken into custody could be executed under the sharia law enforced in that region. According to the Initiative for Equal Rights, this law has resulted in many LGBT people feeling too frightened to get access to HIV prevention and information services–no small issue in the country with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, and the second highest in Africa. Seen in this light, Smith’s comments are horribly tone deaf.
National and local gay rights groups didn’t take too long to pounce. Ty Cobb of the Human Rights Campaign called it “unconscionable” that Smith would be so callous toward LGBT people after spending his career championing the rights of persecuted minorities around the world. Universal human rights, Cobb said, “apply to all people, no matter who they are or who they love.” Chris Hillman of the New Jersey LGBT Democratic Caucus put it simply to Smith–“LGBT rights are human rights.” He demanded that Smith apologize for “trying to pit some people’s human rights against those of others.” Smith hasn’t made any public comment.
It’s too early to tell whether Smith will be held to account at the ballot box. In 1980, he narrowly defeated 25-year Democratic incumbent William Thompson, who had gotten ensnared in Abscam. He fought off a spirited reelection challenge in 1982, but the Democrats haven’t laid a glove on him since–even though Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried the district. This may be partly because his district spills into portions of the incredibly expensive Philadelphia and New York City markets. His district was made somewhat safer after the 2000 census, when part of Trenton, long the district’s heart, was cut out. At present, it has a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+7. No Democrat has stepped up yet for the 2016 race, according to ActBlue. It’s too bad. Someone needs to run against him–if for no other reason than to make him explain why he essentially gave the finger to LGBT people, some of whom may be his constituents.