U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order rolling back regulations from the 2010 Dodd-Frank law at the White House in Washington, February 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order rolling back regulations from the 2010 Dodd-Frank law at the White House in Washington, February 2017.
Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

We are only at the beginning of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new administration, but it is already possible to divine some of the more precise contours of its foreign policy. Despite Trump’s claim at the 2016 Republican National Convention that as president he would “do everything in [his] power to protect LGBTQ citizens,” it is unlikely that this pledge will apply to the global gay community as a whole. Indeed, all signs point to a dramatic reversal of American global leadership on the issue of gay rights. Both in rhetoric and in action, much is at stake in this reversal. For the first time in U.S. history, the Barack Obama administration made how other countries treat their gay citizens a priority for U.S. diplomats. Indeed, “gay rights diplomacy” became a pillar of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and one of the administration’s most high-profile departures from previous administrations, Democratic and Republican alike.


Obama’s emphasis on gay rights in his foreign policy was an extension of his robust domestic advocacy of gay rights. While in office, he lifted the ban on gays serving openly in the military and extended hate crimes legislation to the LGBT community. And during his 2012 reelection campaign, he became the first sitting president to campaign in favor of marriage equality. For this activism, a 2012 cover story in Newsweek named Obama “The First Gay President.” In June 2016, to coincide with gay pride celebrations, Obama made more gay history by declaring New York’s Stonewall Inn a national monument. The site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a violent confrontation between the police and ordinary gays and lesbians that is widely regarded as the launchpad of the contemporary gay rights movement, the Stonewall Inn is the first national monument honoring the American struggle for LGBT rights. 

Gay rights became an official component of Obama’s foreign policy in 2011, with a presidential memorandum mandating that all government agencies engaged abroad “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance programs promote and protect the human rights of LGBT people.” To that end, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rallied the international community to sign the 2011 United Nations Human Rights Commission Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. This was the first time in the history of the United Nations that one of its agencies had called for ending anti-gay discrimination. In announcing U.S. support for the resolution, Clinton gave a tough but inspiring speech at UNHRC Geneva headquarters that today is lauded as a landmark moment in the LGBT movement. She intoned, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” and criticized the view of gay rights as “Western” rights. “Protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do.”

Clinton also created the Global Equality Fund to finance LGBT activism worldwide; ordered U.S. ambassadors to pursue LGBT equality in their dealings with their host countries, even if this meant upsetting bilateral relations; and introduced a host of gay-friendly policies within the State Department. She extended diplomatic privileges to gay families in the U.S. Foreign Service, banned anti-gay discrimination in the State Department’s hiring practices, granted official recognition to the Gay and Lesbian Foreign Affairs Association, and allowed transgender people to change the gender noted in their passports without having to undergo gender reassignment surgery. 

John Kerry, Clinton’s successor, further institutionalized gay rights diplomacy by appointing a Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT people, or a “Gay Czar,” to coordinate LGBT policy worldwide, including observance and promotion of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which inspired many American embassies to fly the rainbow flag every year on May 17. He also named a record number of openly gay ambassadors—six of them—including to countries such as Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, where homosexuality remains a socially contentious issue. Kerry has expressed regret that his ambassadorial appointments did not include a lesbian and/or transgender person among them. And right before concluding his service at Foggy Bottom, Kerry issued an apology to LGBT workers at the State Department for decades of discrimination. He was referring, in particular, to the “lavender scare” of the 1950s and 1960s, which resulted in the expulsion of some 1,000 State Department employees on suspicion of being homosexual.


Among the threats to Obama’s international gay rights legacy, the most apparent is Trump’s understanding of international relations. Anchored on unvarnished nationalism, this understanding is defined almost exclusively by the national interest, understood primarily as protecting the homeland from external threats, especially terrorism, and maximizing profit in economic relations with other states. There is little interest in promoting American values such as democracy, human rights, and civil society. As such, Trump appears more invested in protecting the United States’ interests than in exporting its values. His inaugural speech had the historically loaded (with its isolationist and anti-Semitic connotations) slogan of “America First” as its overarching theme. Within hours of Trump’s swearing-in, the White House website was scrubbed of any reference to LGBT rights, climate change, and promotion of democratic values. U.S. participation in many international organizations and treaties is currently under review.

Trump appears more invested in protecting the United States’ interests than in exporting its values.

Trump’s foreign affairs team is also shaping up as one of the most hostile to gay rights in recent history. Vice President Mike Pence gained national notoriety when, as governor of Indiana, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that permits discrimination against LGBT people so as not to violate “sincerely held religious views.”  As an Indiana congressman, Pence voted against every pro-gay measure introduced in the House of Representatives, including a bill to ban anti-gay discrimination in housing and employment and another to facilitate prosecuting anti-gay hate crimes. In 2009, Pence proposed an amendment to a foreign appropriations bill that called for the removal of all references to homosexuality, noting that “in embracing the advocacy of changes in laws regarding homosexuality around the world, this legislation advocates a set of values that are at odds with the majority of the American people.”

Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state and former ExxonMobil CEO, resisted granting spousal benefits to same-sex couples employed by his company. This only changed in 2014, when the Obama administration moved to punish companies that discriminated against LGBT people when awarding federal contracts. Until 2016, Exxon Mobil ranked the lowest among companies its size on the Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies based on how they treat their LGBT employees. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis (a retired U.S. Marine Corps general) both opposed lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military, contending that the armed forces were not a place for “social engineering.”

Indeed, to label Trump’s cabinet as a whole homophobic would not be a stretch. Secretary of Housing Ben Carson is famous for having compared homosexuality to bestiality while Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy, has commented that homosexuality is like alcoholism. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a fierce opponent of gay rights. Her family’s foundation is one of the main backers of the National Organization for Marriage, the main engine behind the enacting of some 30 state bans on same-sex marriage. Tom Price, the Health and Human Services Secretary, famously justified his opposition to gay marriage as based on “medical and economic reasons.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been described by The Huffington Post as “one of the most anti-gay politicians in Washington,” having voted against every gay rights bill while serving as a U.S. senator from the state of Alabama.


Equally ominous is the rising political influence of the Evangelical movement, or the so-called Christian Right, within the Trump administration. Evangelicals were among Trump’s earliest and most devoted supporters—according to exit polling, 81 percent of the Evangelical vote in the 2016 elections went to Trump, a higher percentage than voted for the last two Republican presidential nominees. Now emboldened by Trump’s electoral triumph, Evangelical leaders hope to wield influence in an administration they believe they assisted in bringing to power. At the very least, Evangelical leaders expect Trump’s State Department to stop pressuring other countries into embracing gay rights norms and freedoms. Underpinning this desire is the shifting ground in the struggle for gay rights, from the United States to the developing world.

Even before Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, many Evangelical ministries had begun to sense that the developing world was more receptive to their anti-gay activism than were domestic audiences. Indeed, many Evangelical leaders consider the United States and most of the developed West a lost cause when it comes to fighting gay rights. In taking their struggles abroad, the Evangelical movement has exported the toxic U.S. culture war over homosexuality to the most remote parts of the developing world,

A case in point is Uganda’s infamous “kill-the-gays-bill,” arguably the most homophobic piece of legislation ever entertained by any country’s legislature. In its original form, the bill called for the death penalty for gay people and for prison terms for gay people’s friends and relatives who failed to report them to the police. Its creation is widely credited to Scott Douglas Lively, a U.S. Evangelical preacher from Springfield, Massachusetts. In the late-2000s, Lively traveled to Uganda to warn parliamentarians about a plot by the U.S. gay community, backed by the Obama administration, to kidnap Ugandan youth and make them gay. “The bill is essentially his creation,” said Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha to Mother Jones, which has reported extensively on Lively’s ministry in Uganda. Lively is currently being sued by human rights activists in a U.S. federal court for “crimes against humanity.”

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council leads the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance at start of the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio,  July 2016.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council leads the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance at start of the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio,  July 2016. 
Mike Segar / REUTERS

Evangelical leaders have already put the Trump administration on notice that they expect the administration to deliver on the issues that matter most to them, such as limiting access to abortion and rolling back gay rights. Within the Republican camp, the loudest opposition to the appointment of Tillerson, a devout Christian, as secretary of state came from the Evangelical movement, most notably from Tony Perkins, the firebrand president of the conservative Family Research Council. The basis for this opposition was Tillerson’s advocacy of ending the gay ban in the Boy Scouts during his tenure as chairman of the Boy Scouts of America from 2010 to 2012. For Perkins, Tillerson’s history with the Boy Scouts gives him pause that Tillerson would make dismantling Obama’s gay rights legacy at the State Department a priority.  


Any shift in policy with respect to international gay rights promotion by the Trump administration will be mitigated by what has already been accomplished. Because of the efforts made by the Obama administration, gay rights are now enshrined in the endeavors of the international community, including the foreign policies of most Western countries and the policy portfolios of major human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and leading international philanthropies, such as the Ford Foundation. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights organization in the United States, has recently announced a multimillion-dollar “global engagement program” to help gay rights activists abroad. European gay rights organizations such as Britain’s Stonewall Foundation have announced similar initiatives.

Any shift in policy with respect to international gay rights promotion by the Trump administration will be mitigated by what has already been accomplished.

But the challenges to gay rights around the world remain daunting, making the withdrawal of the U.S. government from the global campaign for gay rights a severe setback. For one thing, the much talked about global gay rights revolution is largely a myth. Although there have been impressive advances in gay rights in recent decades, such as the advent of gay marriage and civil unions in some 25 nations since 1989 (covering nearly 1 billion people), this progress has been limited primarily to the nations of Western Europe and the Americas, leading to the creation of what the Pew Research Center has referred to as “the global divide on homosexuality.” And gay rights progress in the West has come with a hefty price: a massive gay rights backlash in Russia, Africa, parts of Asia, and virtually the entirety of the Middle East, as embattled political leaders in these parts of the world have turned LGBT people into scapegoats for justifying socially conservative policies purported to shield their countries from what they perceive as a foreign threat.

In 2013 alone, Uganda’s infamous anti-gay bill was passed, albeit without the capital punishment provision, which prompted many Western countries and donors, including the U.S. and the World Bank, to cancel or suspend their aid programs to Uganda. Equivalent legislation has been passed in Nigeria, Gambia, and Liberia. Russia passed the “gay and pedophilia propaganda law,” a law that made any promotion of homosexuality a crime, including displaying gay symbols such as the rainbow flag and participating in a gay pride parade. Even a personal acknowledgment of homosexuality, unless done in a way that reflects negatively on homosexuality, could be deemed a violation of the law. Similar bills have been enacted in other post-Communist countries in Central Europe and Central Asia. India also reinstated a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality.

In no small measure due to the current gay rights backlash, the bulk of the world’s population remains vulnerable to the most blatant forms of anti-LGBT discrimination. According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, 2.8 billion people live in countries where being gay can lead to prison or death. Of the 10 countries that make homosexuality a crime worthy of the death penalty, Iran is the most notorious. Amnesty International reports that some 5,000 gays and lesbians have been executed in Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, including two gay men executed in 2014, both hanged for engaging in consensual homosexual relations. Understandably, the focus of gay rights organizations working globally is not extending civil rights to the gay community, such as same-sex marriage, but rather preventing governments from jailing, killing, and otherwise repressing their LGBT citizens.


If there is one silver lining in the Trump’s administration expected reversal on global gay rights advocacy, it is the possibility of opening the door for other countries to step in as the face of the international campaign for LGBT rights. Despite a storied history as a gay rights pioneer, the United States is a flawed global gay rights leader. It was among the last countries in the West to decriminalize homosexuality when the Supreme Court struck down the last remaining anti-sodomy laws in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision; it was bested by some 20 other countries in making gay marriage the law of the land; and it still lacks a national ban on anti-gay discrimination, as is customary in most Western democracies. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been stuck in the U.S. Congress since 1994, even though it has been introduced in the Congress virtually every year since then. All of this undermines United States’ moral authority to champion gay rights, a point Obama often ran into when lecturing other countries about gay rights.

More significant, however, is that the history of American support for gay rights internationally is quite spotty and, in fact, does not inspire much confidence. As recently as 2008, the George W. Bush administration sided with Russia and the Muslim world to defeat the first attempt at a UNHRC gay rights resolution, arguing that the resolution violated the sovereignty of nations to legislate the issue of homosexuality. Neither of Bush’s secretaries of state (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice) showed any apparent concern for gay rights, even though the tidal wave of anti-gay legislation currently sweeping many parts of the developing world first got underway while they occupied the position. Clearly, the demotion of gay rights under the Trump administration would be in keeping with previous Republican administrations.

Finally, the United States’ history of imperialism undermines the country’s efforts to promote gay rights abroad. It should come as no surprise that in many developing countries, especially in Africa and across the Middle East, Obama’s international gay rights advocacy was seen as nothing more than cultural imperialism, a point also made by some right-wing critics of Obama’s foreign policy. Evangelical leaders such as Perkins have argued that the left would be accusing any conservative government of cultural arrogance if it sought to impose its values abroad in the manner in which Obama has pressed for LGBT rights. In a similar vein, albeit mostly from the left, Obama has been attacked for practicing “homonationalism,” which asserts that the promotion of Western-based gay rights tramples upon the indigenous notions of homosexuality present in many non-Western countries. There is even the cynical charge that Obama engaged in “pink washing,” or the use of the gay rights issue to distract from other unsavory policies such as the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and the failure to prosecute those responsible for the human rights abuses of the Bush administration’s War on Terror.


It may be that countries unburdened by America’s imperial baggage could do a better job at making the global case for LGBT equality. Gay rights pioneers in Europe such as The Netherlands, which introduced gay marriage to the world in 2001; Spain, the first overwhelmingly Catholic nation to legalize gay marriage in 2005; and Ireland, which made history in 2015 by approving gay marriage via a popular referendum—readily come to mind. More surprising candidates could come from Latin America, where several nations have already surpassed the United States in advancing LGBT equality. Argentina is the most obvious example. Once one of the most hostile nations for homosexuals in the entire world (gays were targeted during the infamous Dirty War), Argentina is today a global gay rights icon. Since legalizing gay marriage in 2010, the country has moved the gay rights agenda well beyond the issue of same-sex marriage by extending reproductive rights to same-sex couples, banning reparative therapy intended to eradicate same-sex attraction, and enacting a gender identity law that removes all legal and medical requirements for anyone wishing to change the gender given at birth.

None of this is to suggest that America’s leadership on gay rights under the Trump administration will not be missed—it certainly will be. Few countries in the world can match the influence and persuasive powers of the United States. But the international campaign for gay rights at this juncture could benefit by being fronted by a less flawed leader—one whose good intentions are less compromised by its troubled history of homosexuality and its great power foreign policies and whose gay rights advances are more inspiring. It is regrettable that it may take a reversal of the United States’ commitment to global gay rights for a new leader to emerge.

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