Donald Trump became the first president to name an openly gay person to a Cabinet-level position Wednesday when he announced that Richard Grenell would serve as his acting director of national intelligence.
Grenell is the architect of a U.S.-led effort to decriminalize homosexuality in the 68 countries where it is still illegal. In two others, Iraq and Egypt, homosexuality is de facto illegal.
Since Grenell's efforts were announced almost a year ago exactly, just one country has decriminalized homosexuality: Botswana, where the high court overturned the ban in June as part of a legal challenge that started long before 2019, according to Ryan Thoreson, an LGBTQ researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The Human Rights Campaign, a U.S.-based LGBTQ rights organization, said it has seen "no meaningful efforts by this administration to decriminalize homosexuality around the world."
"It would be different if they were trying, but it's not even clear they are doing anything meaningful at all," said Charlotte Clymer, an HRC spokeswoman. "It is yet another case of the Trump-Pence White House making promises to LGBTQ people, even while they enable discrimination and violence against us at home and abroad."
The White House and the State Department didn't reply to requests for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Berlin hosted a roundtable in July devoted to decriminalizing homosexuality, and Grenell emphasized the complexity of the task at a U.N. breakout session in December devoted to the project: "We need to have 69 different plans of action because we are dealing with 69 different countries. It is a long road," he said, according to Fox News.
Remy Bonny, a political scientist studying LGBTQ rights in eastern and central Europe, said the effectiveness of the session was unclear.
"What came out of that, I don't know, and who actually went there, I don't know, because I have been asking around afterwards to LGBTI activists around Europe, and they all said, 'We have not been invited,'" Bonny said, using the European abbreviation that includes "intersex."
However, Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, an LGBTQ rights group based in New York, commended the spirit of Grenell's breakout session.
"The most effective way to defend the rights of gay and lesbian people is to understand the drivers of intolerance and violence," Stern said. "The drivers of violence and discrimination against LGBTQI people are stereotypical notions of who a woman or a man should be, so unless we tackle root causes, such as biological determinism, then we won't really be able to fully defend the rights of LGBTQI people."
Bonny said European LGBTQ activists have also questioned Grenell's decriminalization efforts because of the ambassador's associations with far-right European political parties that are often hostile to the rights of LGBTQ people and Muslims.
"That's often a strategy that has been used by political parties like Alternative für Deutschland and Front National," he said, referring to far-right parties in Germany and France campaigning on a link between LGBTQ safety and migration issues. "Front National had an openly gay candidate for vice president," Bonny said, and earned support from gay men in particular, The Associated Press reported in 2017.
During his tenure as ambassador to Germany, Grenell developed a reputation for being outspoken on Twitter and Instagram, platforms he uses to denounce the Iranian government and to tangle with media outlets he thinks are too friendly to it.
When Grenell announced his plan, NBC News reported that U.S. officials said the homosexuality campaign was "aimed in part at denouncing Iran over its human rights record."
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