State Department Refocuses on LGBTQ Rights Abroad

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks speaks during a visit by President Joe Biden to the State Department in Washington on February 4.
Reuters/Tom Brenner

President Joe Biden is putting LGBTQ rights back on the international agenda after the Trump administration gutted the State Department’s work to advocate for human rights abroad.

During a February 4 visit to the State Department, Biden unveiled a presidential memorandum directing US government agencies abroad to include LGBTQ rights in US diplomacy.

The State Department, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is vowing to “use a broad range of diplomatic and programmatic tools and resources” to protect queer refugees and asylum seekers, fight against the criminalization of LGBTQ individuals, and “allow swift US responses to human rights violations and abuses of LGBTQI+ persons.”

The State Department is also vowing to work with Congress to earmark $10 million in 2021 to provide emergency assistance to grassroots LGBTQ organizations and others who are defending human rights. Complete details on that plan are still pending.

Biden’s memorandum drew praise from LGBTQ leaders in Congress.

“President Biden just let the world know that America is back,” out gay Equality Caucus Chair David Cicilline of Rhode Island said in a written statement. “After four years of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, the United States will once again lead the world towards a kinder, more compassionate future. The United States will hold regimes from every corner of the globe accountable if they violate the basic rights of LGBTQ+ people living under their jurisdiction.”

Meanwhile, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Congressmember Alan Lowenthal of California on February 3 introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act, which would direct the State Department to take a comprehensive approach to improving LGBTQ rights internationally and establish a permanent Special Envoy for LGBTQ Rights. The position was first created in 2015, but the Trump administration left that post vacant.

While the State Department under former President Barack Obama stepped up efforts to promote LGBTQ rights across the globe, the Trump administration decimated that work and incorporated a far-right approach under former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Trump administration purported to launch an initiative, led by out gay former acting director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, aimed at decriminalizing homosexuality — but that was found to be a hollow shell of a program. Grenell and the Trump administration also deliberately appeared to exclude trans rights from any of those efforts.

In 2019, Pompeo — who has long fought against LGBTQ rights — assembled a panel of religious conservatives who were tasked with reassessing the nation’s approach to human rights. By the following year, he published a 60-page report questioning the definition of human rights and seeking to narrow the definition to religious liberty and property rights. The former administration even went as far as denouncing the modern-day understanding of human rights.

“There is good reason to worry that the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights and left the most disadvantaged more vulnerable,” the head-scratching report noted.

The State Department under Trump also ran afoul of marriage and immigration laws by refusing to recognize the citizenship of children with binational same-sex parents, though the Obama administration did the same thing.

Biden’s latest action adds to the growing list of early moves by the new administration intended to reprioritize LGBTQ rights. He has already signed executive orders affirming LGBTQ employment protections and reversing the ban on transgender troops. The State Department has also brought on out gay former intelligence officer Ned Price as the agency’s spokesperson.

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