Biden, Blinken pledge focus on global lgbt rights

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressing State Dept. employees (Youtube screenshot.)

President Joe Biden has issued an historic commitment to promoting LGBT+ rights internationally, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken committing to upholding LGBT+ rights via the State Department.

Biden’s “Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Persons Around the World” directs American agencies operating abroad “to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”

The memorandum also calls for agencies to combat criminalization of LGBT+ identity or conduct, protect LGBT+ refugees and asylum-seekers, address human rights abuses affecting LGBT+ people, and work with like-minded nations and international organizations to combat discrimination.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are more than 70 countries globally with current laws criminalizing same-sex relationships between consenting adults. A dozen countries have penalties of life imprisonment and 11 have the death penalty for lesbian and gay relationships.

While speaking at the State Department on Feb. 4 in advance of issuing the directive, Biden said he was committing the U.S. “to reinvigorate our leadership on LGBTQI+ issues and to do it internationally.”

Biden explained, “When we defend equal rights of the people the world over, of women and girls, of LGBTQ individuals, indigenous communities and people with disabilities, the people of every ethnic background and religion, we also ensure that those rights are protected for our own children here in America.”

Last fall, at a town hall at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden committed to queer and trans rights in response to questions from several members of the audience, including the mother of a trans child.

At the State Department, Biden affirmed that his administration would be returning to the inclusive policies of the Obama administration and building on those. He said that the U.S. “cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage.”

This commitment from Biden marks a complete shift in policy from the Trump administration. As PGN has reported over the past two years, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had totally re-made the State Department with policy and staffing that reflected his own virulently anti-LGBT+ politics and evangelical Christian precepts. 

One example of Pompeo’s agenda was regarding The United States Agency for International Development, an independent agency of the federal government that is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance. USAID is central to the work of the U.S. abroad and has a massive budget of nearly $30 billion. Pompeo had reframed the agency as an anti-LGBT+ think tank and policy vehicle, teaming the U.S. with some of the most flagrantly anti-LGBT+ nations in the world to promote his personal ideologies. His actions and those of his staffers were cited as dangerous and anti-LGBT+ by human rights advocates.

The Trump administration vitiated all the efforts of the Obama administration to build global consensus on the need for LGBT+ rights which began in 2011, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the highest-ranked global leader to declare “gay rights are human rights” in an historic speech in Geneva that delved into anti-LGBT+ oppression globally.

Biden’s memo reads in part, “Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection under the law, freedom from violence, and recognition of their fundamental human rights.”

The memo actively rebukes the Trump administration, stating, “The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle — speaking out and standing strong for our most dearly held values. It shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.”

Insisting that any anti-LGBT+ policies be vitiated, “including those issued from January 20, 2017, to January 20, 2021,” Biden’s memorandum speaks directly to the Trump-Pompeo policies. The memorandum also gives agencies 100 days to report to the president on their progress and recommend additional actions.

During the hearings on his nomination, Secretary of State Antony Blinken referenced the dramatic uptick in anti-LGBT+ violence and hate crimes, stating “We’ve seen violence directed against LGBTQI+ people around the world increase. We’ve seen, I believe, the highest number of murders of transgender people, particularly women of color, that we’ve seen ever.”

Blinken also noted, “I think the United States playing the role that it should be playing in standing up for and defending the rights of LGBTQI people is something that the department is going to take on and take on immediately.”

Blinken committed to filling the vacant seat of the envoy for LGBT+ rights established in 2015 by President Obama. Blinken also said he would allow U.S. embassies to display the LGBT+ Pride flag without restrictions. Trump had banned the flying of Pride flags and had refused to fill the envoy seat.

Appointing the envoy is “a matter, I think, of some real urgency,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), a member of the committee, and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) have reintroduced the International Human Rights Defense Act to make the envoy position permanent and allow it to be named at the ambassador level. The act would mean that envoy post is permanent, irrespective of the party in power.

Addressing Pompeo’s actions, Blinken said he would reject the report from the Commission on Unalienable Rights, a committee Pompeo established which refuted the rights of LGBT+ people and denounced the “proliferation” of such rights in recent years.

As PGN reported at the time, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “What Pompeo’s commission disparages as ‘proliferation’ is in fact a process to ensure respect for the rights of people who traditionally have been marginalized or neglected.”

Human rights observers warned that Pompeo had signaled the document would promote his religious beliefs and focus on “the nation’s founding principles” and “natural law,” eliding LGBT+ rights.

Biden has also appointed Ned Price as the first openly gay spokesperson to the State Department. Price is a longtime national security operative. He worked at the CIA for over a decade and spent three years serving as the National Security Council spokesperson under Obama. Price resigned in February 2017 with a Washington Post op-ed in which he detailed his concerns about Trump’s approach to U.S. intelligence.

Price told ABC News, “The point that the secretary has made and that President Biden himself has made is that we need a national security workforce that looks like the country we represent, and that’s especially important for the Department of State that’s speaking to rest of world. Both in our word and our deed, our values of inclusiveness and strength in diversity will be on full display.”

Price noted, “Representation matters.”

Biden’s actions and Blinken’s promises to expand the U.S. role on LGBT+ rights “shows a dawning of a new era,” said Ty Cobb, who founded the Human Rights Campaign’s global program. 

“We’ve come a long way, and in that, there’s hope.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.