The “Trump Effect” is now a global phenomenon—and not surprisingly, it’s hurting the most vulnerable.
That’s the lesson I took from a gathering convened at the United Nations this week by OutRight International, a leading international LGBT rights organization. Ostensibly, it was a benefit gala, and there was plenty of booze flowing beneath the beautiful spring sky. But talking with activists I’ve known for years—and whose work we’ve covered in these pages before—I got a much more somber view of the damage that the Trump administration has already done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people around the world.
“Every decision and every move that happens in the United States has a wave of impact in the Caribbean,” said Kenita Placide, a St. Lucia-based activist who is also a regional adviser for OutRight. Talking with Placide and other activists, five major trends emerged.
1. The Religious Right’s Delight
First, the rise of Trump, who owes his presidency to the religious right, has emboldened religious conservatives everywhere.
Caleb Orozco, who led the efforts to overturn Belize’s anti-sodomy law—an effort that came to fruition last year—said that “for me, my main worry is seeing hundreds of people who are faith-based saying they want regression on LGBT progress.”
Specifically, Orozco said, religious-right activists in Belize have sent a letter to the Trump administration “saying they want a U.S. ambassador who shares their values.” That is a very real possibility, given Trump’s electoral base, and it would shift the political dynamic against LGBT people in the small Latin American country.
More broadly, said Jessica Stern, OutRight’s director, “We have to worry about what this government does, who elected it, and the way this chasm of U.S. leadership emboldens the religious right globally.” Stern said that this ‘emboldening’ is a global phenomenon, even in LGBT-friendly places like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Placide pointed out that the role of U.S. evangelicals in shaping other countries’ policies toward LGBT people is not new. “Even without Trump,” she said, “you already saw how U.S. evangelicals were moving in. But now the floodgates are open… the right-wing is going to advance further than they have ever before, without having to work for it as much as we had to work for it. They are being handed stuff.”
Americans may not see Trump’s victory as a victory for anti-gay, anti-women religious conservatives, but that is exactly what has happened overseas.
2. Loss of Funding
Second, there are the brass tacks of U.S. funding, particularly for HIV prevention, and for support of tiny LGBT organizations in repressive societies. “Where the Caribbean is concerned, the impact of U.S. policy has been great,” said Placide. “Our entire HIV program was mostly U.S.-funded.”
And with the State Department understaffed (intentionally, it now appears) and foreign aid being decimated in Trump’s budget, it seems certain that the tens of millions of dollars the U.S. spends on protecting LGBT people from persecution, and protecting everyone from HIV, will be eliminated. Such sums are a minuscule amount of money in the context of the overall federal budget, but they are a lifeline for HIV services and LGBT protections in places where being gay is a capital crime.
Placide said this funding has already been cut back locally, in anticipation of cuts in U.S. support. “The impact is real,” she said. “A lot of funding has been pulled, a lot of lives have already been damaged. People are stepping on eggshells because of the fear and uncertainty of what’s next.”
3. A Blank Check for Bigots
“America sets an example to the world,” Orozco told me. When the U.S. secretary of State says that LGBT rights are human rights (that Secretary of State was Hillary Clinton), that changes policies and cultures worldwide. When the U.S. secretary of State says absolutely nothing about LGBT people, that silence, too, sends a clear message.
“A really clear example of this is the tragedy unfolding before our eyes in Chechnya,” said Stern. “There are still over 100 men incarcerated. This is a black-and-white human-rights violation: arbitrary arrest, custodial misconduct, torture, and extrajudicial killing. And yet we have no comment on the record from the U.S. secretary of State or the U.S. president.”
That is indeed remarkable: While the State Department did send out a press release, neither Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor President Trump even broached the issue in their meetings with Russian officials—in contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example.
“If American leadership can’t speak out when the effects are so grave,” asked Stern, “when can we expect them to speak out about any LGBTI [I for intersex] issue or any human-rights issue?”
That is a point worth considering. Trump’s silence has given homophobes around the world a blank check. Not only will America not intervene—it won’t even make the customary statements and gestures of concern. Do whatever you want, the administration is saying. If the Chechens can put gays in concentration camps and their leader encourages their families to kill them, and the U.S. leadership says nothing, what can’t an anti-gay regime do?
4. Human Rights Undermined
“It’s not just liberal democracy in danger,” said Stern, “It’s the rule of law internationally. It’s the international system itself. It’s the notion that human rights are universal and sacred. That’s what’s at stake with the Trump administration.”
For now, LGBT people being tortured in Kenya, or murdered in Cameroon, or arrested in Russia may appeal to international norms and even international institutions for relief. Courts everywhere incorporate these standards—and the treaties that implement them—into their opinions. Media outlets refer to them. And while there has indeed been some backlash against such norms, the fact is they have saved countless lives.
And now they are all in danger, as the Trump administration rejects internationalism, the United Nations, international law, and the concepts of human rights that they all stand for.
Indeed, in this regard, LGBT people are not unique; we may just be the “canaries in the coalmine,” as Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) said at the gathering. “Whenever open violence occurs against us as a minority, it’s a signal, a sign, a symptom.”
It’s not that LGBT people are being singled out by the Trump administration; we don’t have to be. Undermining the notion of international human rights, long a dream of the Putin regime and now a reality of the “America First” Trump administration, covers women, sexual minorities, gender minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, political dissidents, and women all at once.
5. America’s Example
Finally, the “American Example” has cultural, as well as political effects.
“My country, St. Lucia, has been part English and part French,” Placide told me. “Yet America has greater influence culturally. We know that anything that happens here, like it or not, has a direct impact.”
For example, Placide said, “When France and the U.K. got same-sex marriage, we [activists] didn’t get any requests from the media for interviews. But when the U.S. did, every station wanted an interview. They all wanted to know ‘what do you think will be the impact for the region?’ So we understand the impact.”
Once again, neither Trump himself nor his administration has to single out LGBT people specifically. When you’ve got a vulgar bully calling people names on Twitter, bullies everywhere know whose side he’s on. When the president derides the press, science, cosmopolitanism, and liberal values, reactionaries everywhere know whose side he’s on.
Even if the legion of conservative evangelicals in the Trump administration weren’t promulgating “pro-family” policies, even if the religious right weren’t crowing over its new influence and new hand-picked Supreme Court justice, the cultural effect of America’s far-rightward turn would be enormous. Anyone who doesn’t see how the Trump administration is devastating LGBT people internationally is either willfully ignorant or tragically apathetic. Sure, lucky American gays can still get married, but overseas, already-vulnerable populations have been tragically endangered by the new administration.
Is there any hope for LGBT populations around the world? Only the hope of resistance.
“For me,” said Orozco, “it’s about understanding that I started this work against the odds, but despite that, I remained defiant that the odds aren’t going to stop me from doing the work that I do.”
Said Stern, “I don’t think it’s all bad news—this is also a moment when people are waking up and saying ‘We got ourselves here and we’ve got to get ourselves out of it.’”
All that’s well and good, and appropriate for people to say at a fundraiser. For me, however, I kept thinking about something Kenita Placide said, which had more to do with survival than resistance. “How do we as civil society highlight some of the issues?” she asked. “And how do we get through this administration?”