Trump’s Administration Pledged to Globally Decriminalize Gays. One Year Later, They’ve Done Zilch.
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It happened a year ago this month: In February 2019, the Trump administration launched what it was calling a campaign to combat the criminalization of homosexuality worldwide. Leading the effort — the face of this global initiative — was Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany and a gay conservative man himself. But in the past year, what has Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative accomplished? It seems that by any metrics, the answer is a big fat nothing — and, if you ask several LGBTQ advocacy groups, no real attempt was made from the outset.
In addition to being one year on, the global initiative’s track record is being called into question due to a completely separate White House announcement: Grenell was appointed acting director of national intelligence (coincidentally one year to the day since Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative was launched), despite Grenell having zero experience in the intelligence sector, a fact that even Republicans in Congress have called out. But as ‘acting’ director, the U.S. Senate had no way of challenging the appointment, and Grenell sits in that role today, one week later.
It was Grenell who made himself the face of Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative — an initiative that, as Hornet reported last year, Trump had seemingly not even heard of. The day following the initiative’s big announcement, during a press pool with Trump and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Trump was asked, “Mr. President, on your push to decriminalize homosexuality, are you doing that? And why?” to which he responded (after asking to have the question repeated), “I don’t know which report you’re talking about. We have many reports. Anybody else?”
Grenell later confirmed that he hadn’t actually run his “global initiative” to decriminalize gays by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though he noted, “I am happy to talk to them.”
Add to this the fact that Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative was more or less understood to be a response to Trump’s biggest geopolitical foe, Iran, as opposed to a genuine interest in LGBT rights worldwide. Trump, and Grenell personally, were outspoken about Iran, which at the time had just executed a young gay man. By reframing the conversation of Iran around human rights issues, Trump’s administration stood a chance of convincing European allies to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and impose new sanctions.
We should have gathered right away that Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative was a sham, intended for no other reason than to win international political points and, as a bonus, appease an American LGBTQ community that felt disenfranchised by the current administration. Up to that point in his tenure, despite campaigning as “a friend to the LGBTQ community,” Trump had wiped clean the White House page on LGBT issues, refused to acknowledge Pride Month, loaded federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court with anti-LGBT judges, argued the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not protect gays, defended Masterpiece Cakeshop and its refusal to bake a cake for a gay couple, fired every member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and banned trans soldiers from serving in the U.S. military.
Since the announcement of Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative, two events in support of the global campaign have occurred: a roundtable in July 2019, hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin and led by Grenell; and a December 2019 event hosted by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and Grenell, which occurred in conjunction with a UN Security Council meeting.
Regarding that December UN session, Remy Bonny, a political scientist studying LGBTQ rights in Europe, told NBC News it’s unclear what came of it: “What came out of that, I don’t know, and who actually went there, I don’t know, because I have been asking around afterwards to LGBTI activists around Europe, and they all said, ‘We have not been invited.’”
Breaking down the global criminalization of gay people worldwide by numbers, it’s clear Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative hasn’t made any inroads. As of 2020, nearly 70 countries around the world — one-third of all nations — criminalize homosexuality. Since the initiative’s announcement, only one country has decriminalized gay sex — Botswana, the result of a court case pre-dating this initiative — and two countries that didn’t criminalize gay sex previously — Gabon and Brunei — now do.
There are pending challenges underway in Singapore, Kenya, Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica and St Vincent & the Grenadines, but most of those pre-date Trump’s campaign for decriminalization as well.
“It would be different if [the Trump administration] were trying, but it’s not even clear they are doing anything meaningful at all,” Charlotte Clymer, an HRC spokeswoman, tells NBC News. “It is yet another case of the Trump-Pence White House making promises to LGBTQ people, even while they enable discrimination and violence against us at home and abroad.”
Writing for GLAAD, Jeremy Hooper mimics that sentiment, remarking, “Here a year in, there doesn’t seem to be much to show for [Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative]. In fact, in certain parts of the world, things seem as dire as they’ve ever been, but Grenell and company seem to be showing far less attention to the problem than the Obama administration did before them.”
LGBT human rights org OutRight International believes Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative doesn’t go far enough. Jessica Stern, OutRight’s Executivce Director, tells Hornet, “The decriminalization of same-sex relations is undoubtedly important, but it just the tip of the iceberg. Firstly, there can be no progress for the rights of gay, bisexual or lesbian people, without the rights of trans people – perpetrators of violence against LGBTIQ people don’t distinguish between our gender, its expression or sexuality, they merely see difference which they want to suppress. Moreover, there isn’t a single country in the world – including the US – in which LGBTIQ people don’t face discrimination or violence, purely for who we love or our gender identity. Instead of focusing only on decriminalization, we need to promote acceptance, understanding and equality for all LGBTIQ people everywhere.”
Further muddying the waters of Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative, the leader of the initiative itself, Richard Grenell, once gave a controversial interview to far-right American outlet Breitbart in which he said, “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.” Those conservative policies of far-right European leaders typically include LGBTQ discrimination.
And now Grenell stands accused of inappropriate financial ties to the far-right, staunchly anti-gay government of Hungary. The Washington Post reports Grenell did not register as a foreign agent while he advised the Magyar Foundation, funded by the far-right government of Viktor Orban, a noted homophobe whose administration takes part in anti-LGBT crackdowns. (Grenell’s attorneys believe registration wasn’t required because their client was not paid by Hungary’s government directly, though other attorneys who specialize in the Foreign Agents Registration Act argue differently.)
When the current administration first announced Trump’s gay decriminalization initiative one year ago, I asked a question: While America taking the lead on gay decriminalization worldwide is a great thing and a long time coming, should America’s queer community, being used as a tool in Trump’s political game, feel exploited or simply thankful? “I shall remain hopeful,” I said. But knowing what we know now, that Trump’s initiative has made no attempt to accomplish anything for gays worldwide, there is officially nothing to feel thankful for.