During the Obama administration, U.S. diplomatic pressure advanced LGBT human rights around the world quite a bit. The administration of President-elect Donald Trump is likely to reverse that. In many countries, this could seriously harm those whose gender identity and sexual orientation vary from the mainstream, as I will explain below.
Over the past seven years, the United States has thrown its weight globally behind LGBT rights
In 2009, Congress passed — and President Obama signed — a bill instructing the State Department to appoint “an independent officer to track violence [and] criminalization” in foreign countries on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The instruction went further, directing “diplomatic and consular missions to encourage foreign governments to reform or repeal laws” where consensual homosexual conduct was being prosecuted.
The United States was soon joined by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2011. That’s when, after considerable debate and lobbying, the UNHRC passed its first resolution condemning violence and persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity, bringing LGBT people a step closer to protection under international law and the Universal Human Rights framework.
Then in December 2011, the Obama administration similarly linked LGBT rights to human rights with a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies operating overseas to promote and protect the “human rights of LGBT persons.” The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated this idea in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva.
All these were powerful signals that the United States and the United Nations would throw their considerable power behind the rights of gender-nonconforming individuals, those in consensual, same-sex adult relationships, and the resulting identities. That’s a very big deal. It aligned the United States with a number of South American countries, South Africa and the European Union (which protects “sexual orientation” in its Charter of Fundamental Rights).
Not surprisingly, many nations and leaders resist recognizing those rights, often fiercely. The reason varies by nation, culture and religion. Some deny that any such subgroups exist or are in danger. Others claim a cultural right to repress or revile, if not prosecute or persecute, identities and behaviors that don’t fit the reproductive “traditional family,” however variably defined.
The Trump administration may switch sides in this international effort
A Trump presidency will almost certainly change the game. Trump said at the Republican National Convention, a little more than a month after the June 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, that he would protect LGBTQ Americans “from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” (Although the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the massacre, no link has been found between the terrorist group and the shooter. Muslim-majority nations around the world condemned the shooting, even those who actively oppose LGBTQ rights.)
And yet Trump selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice-presidential nominee — and Pence’s stance on LGBT rights is similar to those of antigay countries such as Russia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s member states.
Consider, for instance, that in 2009 as a member of the House, Pence proposed an amendment to Section 333 of congressional bill H.R. 2410. He wanted to remove all references to homosexuality — essentially gutting its meaning and force. Pence expressly said he did not oppose decriminalizing homosexuality internationally — but he did oppose identifying LGBT people as a legitimate group, and having the United States advocate for them internationally.
Pence, Putin and the OIC use the same reasoning against LGBT rights
In Congress, Pence said 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.” Several years later, in December 2013, here’s how Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized advocates for international LGBT rights:
The destruction of traditional values from above … is essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority. … More and more people in the world … support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years.
Here’s how Pence’s ideas are like Putin’s
Putin’s comments came after Russia’s “gay and pedophilia propaganda” law was implemented earlier that year. Ostensibly, the law bans discussing or promoting “Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” in the presence of children. However, it also suppresses other possibilities for LGBT life, activism and advocacy, because public protest or visibility violates that law, and because gay parents can lose their children.
In a number of interviews since the law was passed, Putin has emphasized that homosexuality is neither illegal nor prosecuted in Russia and that lesbians and gay men are not discriminated against in any way. All the law does, he insists, is protect children from being exposed to ideas contrary to his definition of the traditional family.
The law treats same-sex relations and pedophilia as equivalent. Although these laws are regionally rather than centrally enforced, LGBT activists nationwide report bolder anti-gay sentiment and threats.
Both Pence and Putin say that although individual gay people should be left alone, they should not be recognized as a politically organized subgroup that can advocate for protection. Putin considers such advocacy to be propaganda.
Either these leaders do not know, or do not mind, that violence is threatened against the many people who are gender nonconforming or attracted to others of the same sex (or both). If Putin or Pence acknowledged such persecution, they might have to support mandates to protect that minority.
Here’s how Pence’s positions are like those of the Islamic states
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation takes a similar position.
Consider the OIC’s response to the most recent U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning violence and persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, passed in June, mandating the appointment of an independent expert to monitor and advise on LGBT human rights violations.
Egypt’s permanent delegate to the United Nations, Omar Ramadan, wrote that the OIC’s member states (except Albania) would boycott the mandate and would not “cooperate with it in any form or format.” Ramadan further wrote that, clearly, the new mandate wouldn’t be “restricted to combating violence and discrimination,” addressed by previous resolutions. Therefore, he said, “it is crystal clear that this resolution and the mandate emanating from it are designed for codifying new and distinct set of rights and protection for a specific group of individuals.”
We can expect Trump to let either Pence or his secretary of state define U.S. human rights policy
If Trump enables Pence’s attitudes toward sexuality and gender identity to prevail in U.S. foreign policy, it will shift the already precarious balance of power in the United Nations. The internationalization of LGBT rights will slow if not halt.
Samar Habib is a writer, researcher and scholar who lives in California.