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Democrats press Biden admin to lift embassy ban on discussing gay marriage

State Department policy advises U.S. diplomats against taking a position, for or against, on same-sex marriage abroad, according to testimony from top officials.
Image: Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the State Department on July 1.Ken Cedeno / Pool/ AFP via Getty Images

More than 60 House Democrats are calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to lift the State Department's blanket ban on U.S. diplomats lobbying for gay marriage in an official capacity.

The lawmakers' request comes after testimony in June from Scott Busby, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau on Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, revealed that the department's official policy is to not "advocate for or against same-sex marriage overseas."

In a letter addressed to Blinken on Wednesday, the group of lawmakers said the policy was "outdated" and should be "rescinded as a matter of urgency."

"We do not ask the State Department to speak to marriage in every country or context," the representatives wrote. "But we do ask the Department to provide the opportunity to U.S. personnel to defend our values and the dignity of our LGBTQI families at appropriate moments when the power of our example might make a meaningful difference."

The effort, which has the support of 61 Democrats, is being led by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada and Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is one of the 11 openly LGBTQ members of Congress.

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, and 28 other countries have done the same, including in Asia and Central America.

In 71 other nations, however, same-sex relations are criminalized, according to Human Dignity Trust, a global advocacy group for LGBTQ rights. In 11 of those countries — including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran — homosexuality is punishable by death, according to the group.

The lawmakers acknowledged in their letter that while many countries "are not at the point" to legalize gay unions, "where marriage is a significant public issue abroad, we trust you would want your Administration to be standing on the right side of history."

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes LGBTQ rights abroad, agreed, saying that U.S. diplomats should be advising international lawmakers on passing same-sex marriage in countries where it is a "real possibility," including Japan, Chile and the Czech Republic.

"It might have made sense 20 years ago, but now we're at a point where there are countries where having the U.S. speak up and explain our own path to marriage equality could make a difference," Bromley said.

However, he added that the State Department's policy "came from a good place," arguing that in countries where homosexuality is still criminalized, talks of gay marriage may disincentivize lawmakers from legalizing same-sex relations.

"What the embassies have to do first and foremost is listen to the LGBTQI community and ask them, 'What can we do that would be helpful or not helpful?'" Bromley added.

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to advance global LGBTQ rights and reverse the Trump administration's "utter failure to defend American diplomats who speak out for LGBTQ+ rights abroad."

In February, the president issued a memorandum to "promote and protect the human rights" of LGBTQ people around the world. The memorandum also directed U.S. agencies to review and rescind "inconsistent directives" that counter the administration's objective to expand LGBTQ rights globally.

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News that the department is "giving the question our fullest consideration, but, married or not, LGBTQI+ couples and their families are valid and valuable."

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