Richard Grenell, the out former U.S. ambassador to Germany, defended the Trump administration’s initiative to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide.
The initiative, which Donald Trump himself was unaware of even after it was announced, has been accused by LGBTQ activists of not doing anything, not even helping to fund local LGBTQ activists working for decriminalization. Now Grenell says that it’s making secret, behind-the-scenes progress. Trust him.
The decriminalization initiative has been a touchy subject for Grenell, who exploded on journalists earlier this month who tried to ask him about it. But in a recent podcast with OutSports, the former Trump administration official claimed that the initiative has made “incredible progress in some countries.”
“I hesitate to ever — and this may be one of the problems why people don’t see the progress over the last couple of years — we’re very sensitive to not highlighting a country that is getting close or where we making progress because it only serves as a flashpoint for those who want to stop our progress, or the bad actors that would manipulate what we’re trying to do,” Grenell said.
Since bans on homosexuality are often part of a country’s criminal code, successful decriminalization efforts in the past several decades usually happen through courts (like in South Africa in 1998, the U.S. in 2003, and India in 2018) or a legislative body (like in Ireland in 1993, Azerbaijan in 2000, or São Tomé and Príncipe in 2012). It’s unclear how a country could be “getting close” to decriminalizing homosexuality – that is, issuing a court decision or passing a law – without that effort being public knowledge.
In the interview, Grenell blamed religion for bans on homosexuality.
“This has got to be peeled away from not just a civil society, but many religious societies that believe this is kind of a religious mandate,” he said.
It’s an odd position to take considering the Trump administration’s view that religious freedom is more important than LGBTQ rights and Grenell’s own work with the Christian conservative organization American Center for Law and Justice, which tries to implement religious laws in other countries and that Grenell himself praised for “defending religious freedom here and around the world.”
He said that laws against homosexuality have “ties to majority-Muslim countries who believe religiously in denying basic rights to gay and lesbians.” He did not mention that several countries whose bans on homosexuality have gotten international attention over the last decade – like Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica – are majority-Christian.
Grenell also blamed Barack Obama for the lack of progress.
“Well, first of all, I find very ironic that political types, partisan types will suddenly say that in the last couple of years, we were supposed to make progress on the 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality after eight years in the Obama-Biden administration,” he said. “They did very little if anything to highlight this problem.”
The Washington Blade notes that Obama talked about LGBTQ rights at the U.N. in 2011.
“No country should deny people their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but also no country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere,” Obama said at the time.
Grenell said that part of the issue is the State Department not wanting to center the U.S. in discussions of LGBTQ rights internationally out of fear that other countries will see homosexuality and trans identity as too Western.
“The debate is let’s not make this an American thing, an American push, because many in the Arab believe that being gay is an American idea and it’s from Hollywood, it’s from America and it’s American values — and they say it in a very negative way,” he said.
“We all know that being gay is not an American push, or an American idea, and so why would we be silent when confronting those who want to criminalize homosexuality?” Grenell continued. “We should not play into this idea that it’s a Western thing. We should call it what it is, which is a crazy idea.”
Ryan Thoreson of Human Rights Watch said that the Trump administration initiative, though, has not helped LGBTQ people.
“Whatever Ambassador Grenell claims to be doing behind the scenes, what the rest of the world sees is an administration that regularly disregards human rights, including the rights of LGBT people, at home and abroad,” Thoreson said. “A genuine commitment to the full range of human rights for LGBT people would mean far more than reassurances that they’re pressuring governments on this single issue behind the scenes.”