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Biden signs foreign policy memo putting U.S. at 'forefront' of global LGBTQ rights

The president called on embassies and agencies “to lead by the power of our example.”
Image: People wave Biden for President, LGBTQ, and American flags near Columbus Circle.
People wave Biden for President, LGBTQ, and American flags near Columbus Circle on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 in New York.Erin Lefevre / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

President Joe Biden has issued a historic memorandum committing the United States to promoting LGBTQ rights on the international stage.

Released to the public Thursday evening, the Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World directs American agencies operating abroad “to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”

It calls for agencies to combat criminalization of LGBTQ identity or conduct, protect LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers, address human rights abuses affecting LGBTQ people and work with like-minded nations and international organizations to combat discrimination. There are approximately 70 countries around the world that currently have laws criminalizing same-sex relations between consenting adults, according to the Human Rights Watch.

Barack Obama issued the first presidential memorandum directing U.S. agencies abroad to promote LGBTQ rights globally in 2011. Biden indicated his order “builds upon that historic legacy.”

“Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection under the law, freedom from violence, and recognition of their fundamental human rights,” the memo reads, in part. “The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle — speaking out and standing strong for our most dearly held values. It shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.”

Biden announced the directive earlier Thursday in a speech at the Department of State, in which he promised “to reinvigorate our leadership on LGBTQI issues and to do it internationally.”

“When we defend equal rights of the people the world over, of women and girls, of LGBTQ individuals, indigenous communities and people with disabilities, the people of every ethnic background and religion, we also ensure that those rights are protected for our own children here in America,” he said.

He added that the U.S. “cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage.”

The memo also calls for any policies inconsistent with its directives to be rescinded, “including those issued from January 20, 2017, to January 20, 2021.” It gives agencies 100 days to report to the president on their progress and recommend additional actions.

Biden made LGBTQ rights a key plank of his campaign — including promising to help in the passage of the Equality Act, which adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in numerous federal civil rights measures. His LGBTQ platform also includes reinstating protections for LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness, combating violence against transgender women of color, ending broad exemptions for anti-discrimination laws and stopping the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2025.

Flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, President Joe Biden signs an executive order repealing the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military in the Oval Office.Doug Mills / Getty Images file

Since taking office less than a month ago, Biden has already repealed the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving openly in the military and issued an executive order directing federal agencies to implement the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which established that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, said the memorandum signaled “that the United States is a nation that values LGBTQ people at home and abroad, and is willing to fight to ensure every person is able to live free and equal.”

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, an LGBTQ foreign-policy advocacy group, said he was “pleased to see that refugee and LGBTQI concerns featured so prominently in the president’s first major foreign policy speech.”

“It was important for him to recognize that there is ‘no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,’ and that when we defend LGBTQI rights abroad we are also safeguarding them at home ‘for our own children,’” he said in a statement.

Bromley contrasted Biden’s support for the global LGBTQ community with that of his predecessor, Donald Trump. In 2019, then-U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell announced he was leading a Trump administration initiative to decriminalize homosexuality around the world. But that campaign was “completely rhetorical,” Bromley said, and was never backed by Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

“There was never any serious investment of money or diplomatic capital to make that happen in the last administration,” Bromley told NBC News. “We hope — indeed we expect — the Biden administration to take a far more serious and principled approach to decriminalization.” He urged Biden to start making good on his promises by appointing a special envoy for LGBTQ rights within the State Department, a position instituted by Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, in 2015. It remained vacant during Trump’s time in office, but both Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have committed to quickly refilling the role.

“We’ve seen violence directed against LGBTQI people around the world increase,” Blinken said in his congressional hearings in January. “I think the United States playing the role that it should be playing in standing up for and defending the rights of LGBTQI people is something that the department is going to take on and take on immediately.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., reintroduced legislation to make the envoy position permanent and allow it to be named at the ambassador level.

“The United States must reaffirm its support for the promotion and protection of LGBTQI rights around the world and re-engage as a leader on these issues after four years of harmful and discriminatory policies,” Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “This legislation will make it clear that the United States is committed to protecting the human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In addition to cementing the special envoy role, the International Human Rights Defense Act also requires the State Department to respond to anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence, coordinate with local and international advocacy groups, and track LGBTQ rights in the State Department Report on Human Rights, among other directives.

Many of the bill’s directives are referenced in the president’s memo but, advocates say, passage would ensure efforts to protect the rights of sexual and gender minorities would outlast Biden’s administration.

It “institutionalizes a firm commitment to promoting LGBTQI rights everywhere,” said Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBTQ rights program.

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