Trump Admin Wants to Decriminalize Being Gay Worldwide — but LGBTQ Activists Are Skeptical
President Donald Trump‘s administration on Tuesday met with 11 activists in Europe as a part of a worldwide effort aimed at persuading countries to decriminalize being gay — a move met with almost immediate skepticism from LGBTQ activists in the U.S., given Trump's previous policies.
The initiative, as first reported on by NBC News, began with a summit dinner at the U.S. embassy in Berlin on Tuesday. Leading it was the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who is the administration's highest-profile openly gay member.
“It is concerning that, in the 21st century, some 70 countries continue to have laws that criminalize LGBTI status or conduct,” an anonymous U.S. official connected to the campaign told NBC News.
While NBC described the campaign as brand new, the State Department later said otherwise.
“This is longstanding and it's bipartisan,” a spokesperson told PEOPLE, echoing what the department's deputy spokesperson, Richard Palladino, told reporters on Tuesday: “This really is not a big policy departure.” (Reached Tuesday, a White House spokesman did not have a comment.)
NBC reported that the campaign is political as well as moral: The administration believes it can further ostracize Iran, who recently reportedly executed a gay man, and rally European support against the Middle Eastern country — long a target of President Trump.
“This is not the first time the Iranian regime has put a gay man to death with the usual outrageous claims of prostitution, kidnapping, or even pedophilia. And it sadly won't be the last time,” Grenell wrote in one of Germany's leading newspapers last month, according to NBC. “Barbaric public executions are all too common in a country where consensual homosexual relationships are criminalized and punishable by flogging and death.”
During his successful presidential campaign, Trump made himself an early outlier from other leading Republicans with his unusually soft rhetoric about the LGBTQ community. At his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he vowed: “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
But since taking office — with Vice President Mike Pence, who has a history of anti-gay politics while governor of Indiana — Trump has largely sided with his conservative base on LGBTQ issues.
Gay advocates were quick to highlight the hypocrisy of the new campaign given this pattern, including the president's ban on transgender members of the military. According to the fact-checking website Snopes, the Trump administration argued in court in 2017 that federal law did not protect a gay employee from being fired because of their sexual orientation.
In a statement Tuesday morning, GLAAD said, “We'd believe that the Trump administration will work to protect LGBTQ people around the world if they had not attacked LGBTQ people in the U.S. over 90 times since taking office.”
Despite this contradiction, a State spokesperson told PEOPLE, “The policy from the beginning of this administration is that the United States firmly opposes criminalization, violence and serious acts of discrimination such as in housing, employment and government services directed against LGBTI persons. LGBTI persons have the same rights as any other persons in these respects.”
In a statement to the Washington Blade, a senior official with the Human Rights Campaign, said much the same. According to the Blade, neither the HRC nor two other leading LGBTQ rights groups were invited to attend the meeting with Ambassador Grenell
“Donald Trump and Mike Pence have turned a blind eye to a campaign of violence and murder targeting LGBTQ people in Chechnya that has stretched on for two years,” the HRC official told the paper. “They have turned away LGBTQ people fleeing violence and persecution and sent them back to countries that criminalize them, and have consistently worked to undermine the fundamental equality of LGBTQ people and our families here at home from day one. If this commitment is real, we have a lot of questions about their intentions and commitments, and are eager to see what proof and action will follow.”