In every country, LGBTQ+ people face discrimination, from economic inequality and housing discrimination to, in the most severe cases, state-sanctioned violence up to murder. The incoming Biden administration has an opportunity for the United States to help—at home and abroad
Already, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to revamp the offices at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights and development. Beyond that, there are policy decisions he and his cabinet can make on day one to truly support and dedicate resources to LGBTQ+ people around the world.
Homosexuality is illegal in 70 countries around the world and is punishable by death in eight of them. Unofficially state-sanctioned executions of LGBTQ+ people occur regularly as well. In particular, in Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, President Ramzan Kadyrov oversees a brutal regime supporting and sponsoring the execution of gay and bisexual Chechens. Although homosexuality is legal in the Russian Federation, Kadyrov oversees his own fiefdom, and his killings are tolerated by President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. It is unknown how many lives Kadyrov has taken. In July 2020, the Trump administration imposed U.S. economic sanctions on Kadyrov, accusing him of “abuses against LGBTI persons, human rights defenders, members of the independent media.”
But such sanctions, absent a joint international effort to cut off an individual from the international financial system, are not economically effective. And in this case, given the difficulties building a consensus around them in multilateral bodies, the sanctions against Kadyrov were doomed from the start.
This points to a repeated failure throughout outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure. Although the United Nations Human Rights Council is far from perfect, leaving it in 2018 has directly impaired the United States’ ability to advocate human rights and dignity in a critical international forum. The United States has been absent from key decisions made by the body, including reauthorizing the mandate of the independent U.N. expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, voting on a global ban of the discredited practice known as “conversion therapy,” and a 2019 joint statement about investigating the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya. The Trump administration was also absent from the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the U.N. LGBTI Core Group, which advocates for the human rights of LGBTQ+ people at the United Nations, and it failed to fill the role of special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons at the State Department. Plainly stated, over the past four years, the United States abandoned the advocacy of LGBTQ+ people in its foreign-policy mission. The Biden administration has an opportunity to reverse this.
The Biden administration should immediately fill the State Department position of special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons, and the administration should modify the rank of this position to an ambassador-at-large level. The person in this position would be tasked with the recruitment of individuals to fill other key roles left vacant by the Trump administration and assist in the formulation of policy to protect and advocate for LGBTQ+ people abroad. The special envoy would also be focused on the issue of extreme discrimination and violence against LBGTQ+ people abroad and assisting the administration with the formulation of immigration policies that protect LGBTQ+ people. Filling this role at the ambassador level would ensure that Biden’s planned secretary of state, Antony Blinken, would have an individual with direct knowledge and oversight of international LGBTQ+ issues.
The Trump administration has been hostile toward individuals seeking to immigrate to the United States, in particular those seeking asylum. Last month, the Trump administration published the “Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal; Credible Fear and Reasonable Fear Review,” which, according to Human Rights Watch, appeared designed to target “Central Americans fleeing gang violence; women fleeing domestic abuse; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.” Historically, though, the United States has generally been an unwelcome place for individuals seeking asylum on the basis of sexual orientation. It wasn’t until 1994 that Attorney General Janet Reno directed immigration authorities to consider those targeted for their sexuality as a “particular social group” worthy of protection.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to completely reverse course on asylum and indeed expand protections beyond those offered in the Obama administration. The Justice and Homeland Security departments should first issue public rule modifications reversing the December 2020 “Credible Fear” procedures on day one. They can go even further and revise the outdated “five grounds of persecution”—race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion—in asylee proceedings to incorporate a more modern understanding of why individuals seek asylum. In particular, the administration should add gender identity and sexual orientation to allow individuals to seek refuge in the United States on the basis of a threat or action of violence by the government or supported by the government due to sexual orientation or gender identity, forced marriage, domestic violence protected by the government, and female genital cutting.
Additionally, by rewriting the standards for asylum this way, it would give the government the opportunity to collect data on individuals seeking asylum status on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, which is not collected today. In turn, the government could be nimbler in processing asylee cases, determining where gaps exist, and ensuring that the U.S. immigration system is fair, transparent, and fulfills the country’s international obligations to protect human rights. This is an action that can be undertaken via a revision of the Federal Register done without Congress. Additionally, this should be coupled by working with Congress to revise the outdated Immigration and Nationality Act.
The incoming Biden administration should also seek a stronger support of sexual health and reproductive rights via USAID, the World Health Organization, and others. Under the Trump administration, officials openly hostile to LGBTQ+ people have been appointed to USAID. The office has also expanded its global gag rule (also called the Mexico City policy), which, as the department specifies, “requires foreign NGOs to agree, as a condition of receiving global health assistance, that they will not perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration withdrew from the World Health Organization—in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic—which also prohibited the United States from working on health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, that disproportionately impact the LGBTQ+ community.
Protecting the health of LGBTQ+ people requires building an inclusive and productive international aid agency, with an explicit commitment to human dignity and rights, including on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. The Biden administration could go even further and immediately rescind the global gag rule, permitting beneficiaries of USAID funding to promote reproductive rights, offer comprehensive sexuality education, and protect other sexual rights. The Biden administration should also work with other nations and multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to focus on LGBTQ+ inclusion. By promoting such inclusion in various multilateral development banks and international health and financial institutions, the Biden administration has the opportunity to combat and target international critical poverty impacting the LGBTQ+ community.
The incoming Biden administration has made a commitment to “Build Back Better.” LGBTQ+ rights, public health, international development, and immigration are all opportunities where the president-elect can lead from early on, as he did when he endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012. If he prioritizes LGBTQ+ people in U.S. foreign policy, he will help protect some of the most marginalized and targeted people in the world. In doing so, he will make the United States live up to its obligations under the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ensure that the inherent dignity of LGBTQ+ people both at home and abroad is protected. That way, LGBTQ+ people around the world can come to see the United States again as a place where they have the opportunity for and right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.