Last week, the Trump administration announced their plans for a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in many nations where homosexuality is deemed illegal, U.S. officials told NBC News. Leading the effort is Richard Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany and most distinguished openly gay person in the Trump administration. Planning for the campaign will commence on Tuesday in Berlin, where LGBTQ+ activists from around Europe will meet to discuss their strategy for decriminalizing homosexuality globally, focusing on the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, where LGBTQ+ people are largely unaccepted and persecuted. A U.S. official involved with the event told NBC News: “it is concerning that, in the 21st century, some 70 countries continue to have laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ status or conduct.” While details of the strategy are yet to emerge, officials reported that they will likely work with global organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as other countries which already legally support LGBTQ+ rights.
According to NBC News, this endearing campaign is a direct response to a recent reported hanging of a young gay man in Iran. Grenell told Bild, a popular German newspaper, the hanging is “a wake-up call for anyone who supports basic human rights.” Yet many are questioning the authenticity of the campaign. It is no coincidence that Iran also happens to be Trump’s top political enemy, and many believe it is an attempt to pit European nations against Iran – the same nations Trump has been pressing to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, NBC News writes. For instance, NBC News reporter Josh Lederman told the popular gay and lesbian website Out Magazine “Trump is very focused on Iran and is looking for ways to demonize it in the public opinion.” Lederman also commented that the U.S. and European countries agree on improving LGBT rights, hence the campaign is likely to ostracize Iran politically.
It is important to acknowledge that attitudes toward the LGBT community differ greatly between countries and are highly complex, due to the range of social and, particularly, religious justifications for persecution. While this campaign may be well-intentioned, it seems unlikely the group can find a single way to systematically decriminalize homosexuality in these countries when the underlying laws and reasonings are so specific to each country. For instance, countries in the Middle East often cite teachings of Islam as condemning homosexuality, while in the Caribbean, family life and the church are deeply embedded in society and don’t have a place for homosexuality, Human Rights Watch reports.
Other critics have been quick to label the effort ‘colonialist’, in that American and European nations are trying to influence the societies of developing countries without involving them. This is a setback to the campaign, as the reality may be different to sensationalized media reports. For instance, according to the Guardian, since the exit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, homosexuality in Iran has been an “open-secret,” and most of the LGBTQ+ community fear retaliation from other citizens over authorities. This does not excuse countries from violating human rights in pursuit of criminalizing the queer community. However, it seems unhelpful for a group of Europeans and Americans to plan how to remove LGBTQ+ persecution in some 70 countries, without including voices from those countries. If this campaign does want to make a difference, they must include the most informed people: that is local activists from the countries they are trying to influence.
Arguably the most contentious issue with this campaign is the blatant hypocrisy of the Trump administration. Over the last two years, the Trump administration has made many anti-LGBTQ+ decisions. In response to this campaign, The Independent cited eight examples of anti-LGBTQ+ action. This included banning transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. Military “in any capacity”, failing to recognise June as Pride Month, reducing protections for transgender inmates previously set by President Obama, and cancelling conference calls with LGBTQ+ organisations which have provided an important platform for this community. Political motivations aside, if this campaign does want to create global acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, they should lead by example and address the many injustices happening at home. It was only three and half years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal nationwide, yet anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes rose shortly after. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported 2017 as the deadliest in recent history for the LGBTQ+ community. Many blame the government for these statistics, specifically the fact that anti-homosexual figures in the White House perpetuate pre-2015 discrimination. Most notably, Vice President Mike Pence is notorious for his discriminatory comments, even saying gay couples signal “societal collapse”, writes Time Magazine. Given the stance of high-profile individuals like Pence, the countries they are targeting will not take this campaign seriously. If the Trump administration really are serious about decriminalizing homosexuality around the world, they should lead by example, which means those at the top must wholeheartedly support the LGBTQ+ community.
While the campaign may be more about Iran than about homosexual rights, it is still possible that the outcome will benefit the ostracized community. Maybe the administration’s drive to suppress the threat of Iran is a good thing, as they will be more committed to decriminalizing homosexuality if it means subduing their enemy. However, they cannot practise what they do not preach. The U.S. government should address the attitudes in their own administration, which are undeniably creating room for resentment towards the American LGBTQ+ community. The legal environment should also support the queer community and set the precedent that hate crimes and discrimination will not be tolerated. Most importantly, this campaign cannot effectively address discrimination issues in other countries without involving local representatives who can better inform the campaign on how to best approach these issues. There cannot be just one strategy for the 70 odd countries they are targeting, as each comes with its own cultural, social and historical nuances which must be addressed individually. This campaign, if done right, could be a milestone for LGBTQ+ communities around the world to enjoy the peaceful, fair and enriched lives they so deserve.