Under the Obama administration, LGBTQ Americans won long-fought battles, including developing the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, legalizing same-sex marriage and repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
That two-term track record was a radical change from previous presidents, according to Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, a nonprofit. And the tone set by the US in those years, she added, signaled a step forward for the queer community around the globe.
“The US is a superpower, so its actions are watched by governments everywhere.”
“The US is a superpower, so its actions are watched by governments everywhere,” Stern said.
But that progress was interrupted when President Donald Trump came into office in 2016, she said. Under the Trump administration, the LGBTQ community has seen few advancements and many devastating setbacks. Now, less than one month from the 2020 election, LGBTQ voters in the US have largely made up their minds on who they’ll be voting for. According to a recent GLAAD poll, 76% of queer voters support his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. Seventeen percent support Trump. And just 2% remain undecided.
Policy decisions made by the next US president will affect millions of queer people around the world. But over the last four years, many queer advocates say, the US has fallen behind other countries on LGBTQ issues, including the advancement of transgender rights.
“The sort of standard for gender identity recognition around the world is getting higher and higher,” Stern said. “Governments are saying, ‘Let’s interrogate the question of whether access to legal name change and gender marker change should be free and quick. Let’s make the process less bureaucratic.’”
That’s the global discourse the US is failing to participate in as the Trump administration blocks transgender people from serving in the military and tries to strip transgender people of discrimination protections.
The US is also behind on global progress toward banning gay conversion therapy, the discredited attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation. Germany has passed a nationwide ban on the practice, while governments in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada are all currently considering a ban. Despite this international movement, the US has no federal law or policy against the practice, though 20 states have banned it.
Another way the US has withdrawn from the international stage under Trump is by leaving the UN’s Human Rights Council in June of 2018. Advocates say the departure signaled a lessened commitment to advancing human rights, and endangered queer people by dismantling avenues for reporting human rights violations around the world.
“Thankfully, some of the Latin American and European states stepped up their efforts in supporting LGBTI rights,” said Julia Ehrt, director of programs for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. “But the US leaving the Human Rights Council has done some considerable damage.”
Advocates say the US presidential election is an opportunity to repair that damage and lead other countries to follow suit. But LGBTQ rights haven’t been mentioned on a single debate stage this year, despite numerous LGBTQ organizations offering suggested questions for moderators.
Now, supporters are pushing for queer issues to be included in foreign policy discussions.
“How you treat people abroad is often how you treat people here at home.”
“How you treat people abroad is often how you treat people here at home,” said US Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada. Last summer, Titus introduced the GLOBE Act in the House of Representatives, which, in part, would ensure that the State Department’s role of special envoy for the human rights of LGBTQ persons is codified into law.
The position was initially filled by Randy Berry in 2015. Just two years later, Berry transferred to the role of deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and the position was left empty. A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade at the time that the “position of the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons will be retained and continue to be organized under the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The department is looking to fill the position.”
It has remained vacant ever since.
“Having someone in that position not only directs policy,” Titus told The World. “But it’s a symbol to the rest of the world that we take this seriously and we want to be a leader encouraging other countries to do the same.”
That’s exactly what happened when the special envoy position was first announced in 2015, according to Stern.
“I got an email that day from a high-ranking official in a foreign government who said: ‘We can’t let the US beat us on this. Now, we’re going to have to create the position, but make sure it has an even bigger budget,’” Stern recalled. “And I thought, like, ‘Wow. This is great. This is a race to the top.’”
The special envoy position in the US is relatively new, but similar roles are tried and true around the world. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nations’ Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, said he is “enthusiastically supportive to that type of measure.”
In that capacity, Madrigal-Borloz, who was appointed by the Human Rights Council, assesses the implementation of international human rights law and engages in dialogue with relevant stakeholders. He also suggests to member-states best practices that eradicate discrimination toward LGBTQ people — which could include implementing a role similar to the special envoy position.
“I have seen it working in practice,” Madrigal-Borloz said. “It is a practice of European states to appoint a human rights ambassador, and certain [ones] have, indeed, actually taken the role very, very much forward in relation to LGTB portfolios.”
Similar roles “create enormous energy for diplomatic and political conversation at the international level,” he added.
But Stern says the US’ foreign policy on global LGBTQ rights wouldn’t benefit from the envoy position if Trump wins reelection.
“Under a Trump administration, it wouldn’t have any meaning. It wouldn’t be persuasive to foreign governments. Because as a prerequisite, you need to have LGBTI rights be respected at the domestic level,” Stern said. “And, in fact, there would be the fear that LGBTI rights were being used as though it were a symbol of what a human rights champion we are — when, in fact, it wouldn’t be true.”
The Trump administration did not reply to The World’s request for comment, but the president’s LGBTQ advisory board, Trump Pride, points to his commitment to decriminalize homosexuality in nations where it’s currently illegal.
“We stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people who live in countries that punish, jail, or execute people based upon sexual orientation,” Trump said in a September 2019 speech at the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
Joe Biden’s campaign also did not reply to The World’s request for comment. His LGBTQ policy says Biden would “immediately” fill the special envoy position at the State Department, in addition to enacting other measures to advance global LGBTQ rights.
“Using religion or culture to discriminate against or demonize LGBTQ individuals is never justified. Not anywhere in the world,” Biden said in a 2019 speech at a Human Rights Campaign Event in Columbus, Ohio.
To those people who may be affected by US policies, whether on US soil or elsewhere in the world, Madrigal-Borloz says: pay attention.
“Is there the intent to decriminalize in the case where criminalization exists? Is there an intent to eliminate all of the institutional drivers of discrimination? Such as conversion therapy. How explicit are those policy formulations?” Madrigal-Borloz said. “That is the way that citizens can participate — scrutinizing actions and political intent and actually making up their minds in relation to them.”