Ty Cobb is a member of the senior management team at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and founder of HRC’s global department.
In many places around the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are suffering at the hands of governments who marginalize and criminalize their identities. In the Russian republic of Chechnya, actors on behalf of the government are rounding up, torturing and killing LGBTQ people, and Chechen leadersare even denying their existence. In Brazil, LGBTQ Brazilians fear for their rights under a president who calls himself a “proud” homophobe and has actively undermined their protections. On these grave injustices and countless others, the silence of President Trump and Vice President Pence has been deafening — especially as they have pursued policies over the past two years that threaten the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
So when a single administration official announced Tuesday a campaign to decriminalize same-sex relationships abroad, it should be no surprise that LGBTQ Americans have reacted with a great deal of skepticism. While decriminalization is critical work that requires moral leadership on the international stage, this White House has a consistent track record of firmly leading in the wrong direction on LGBTQ rights at home and abroad.
The Trump administration’s horrendous record on LGBTQ rights is well-documented: It has worked to erase LGBTQ people from civil rights protections; it has attacked brave transgender service members and veterans; it has undermined civil rights protections for transgender students; it has treated LGBTQ asylum seekers fleeing persecution with cruelty; and it has lavished praise on some of the dictators who regard LGBTQ people as criminals, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Not only have Trump and Pence aggressively carried out an anti-LGBTQ agenda, they have also heartily endorsed virulently anti-LGBTQ candidates — including those who support criminalizing same-sex relationships here in the United States. Among those the president and vice president endorsed are former representative Jason Lewis (R-Minn.), who once called LGBTQ people criminals and rapists; Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris of North Carolina, who in 2015 referred fondly to the time when LGBTQ people were criminalized because of their relationships; and failed Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, who once said that same-sex relationships should be illegal.
This is only a snapshot of the anti-equality agenda this administration has relentlessly pursued for the past two years. And based on this track record, there is no reason to believe this administration has the best interests of LGBTQ people at heart. That’s exactly why, in the 2018 midterm elections, 82 percent of LGBTQ voters turned out for pro-equality House candidates who have rejected the Trump-Pence agenda and the ongoing assaults on our progress.
Make no mistake, decriminalizing the existence of LGBTQ people throughout the world is a necessary and morally right initiative — even if Trump appeared clueless to his own supposed effort when asked by reporters. But if this administration really wants to reverse course, and save lives in the process, there are steps it can take right now, which they have ignored for more than two years.
It could stop cozying up to authoritarian leaders and dictators who persecute LGBTQ people. It could appoint someone to the vacant special envoy position that represents the interests of the LGBTQ community around the world. It could provide greater funding and support for the work being done by LGBTQ advocates abroad and the dedicated career diplomats at our foreign affairs agencies. Or, at the very least, the White House could issue a single statement condemning actions that target LGBTQ people in Chechnya, Egypt, Indonesia, Tanzania and elsewhere — something it has failed to do.
And at home, the administration can stop moving forward with policies that undermine the rights of LGBTQ people, and it can fairly enforce our nation’s civil rights laws to protect all Americans. It can stop speaking from platforms and in ways that amplify hate against the LGBTQ community — which includes women, immigrants, people of color and so many others this administration has actively worked against over the past two years. It can support laws and legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Equality Act, which provide critical protections for our health and welfare. And it can put an end to inhumane policies and rhetoric that demonize innocent people and families seeking refuge.
So long as Trump and Pence peddle hate within our own borders, they cannot expect to be effective in defeating hate abroad. To lead on the world stage, this administration must first be truly committed to the fight for equality — and that begins right here at home.