On Tuesday morning, NBC News reported that the Trump administration will seek to decriminalize homosexuality in “dozens of nations,” citing unnamed U.S. officials.
But LGBT and human rights groups largely responded with skepticism—both over the report itself and the sincerity of the Trump administration’s motives.
“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,” said Human Rights Campaign senior international policy advocate Jeremy Kadden in a statement.
In addition to the Trump administration’s anti-LGBT domestic policies, Kadden pointed to the ongoing anti-LGBT violence in Chechnya—and the administration’s reported inaction in addressing it—as reason to approach the NBC News report with caution.
“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,” said Kadden. “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.”
NBC News reported early Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, would be launching the decriminalization campaign in Berlin on Tuesday night in conjunction with European LGBT advocates.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a State Department spokesperson confirmed that the meeting between Grenell and “11 activists from different countries in Europe” took place—and that it “was an opportunity to listen to and discuss ideas on how the U.S. can advance decriminalization of LGBTI status and conduct around the world.”
“The United States continues to work to protect and defend human rights for all,” the spokesperson said. “Governments have an obligation to ensure that all people can freely enjoy the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled.”
The State Department did not characterize this is as a change in position for the Trump administration, saying that “from [the] beginning of this administration,” the United States “firmly opposes criminalization, violence, and serious acts of discrimination such as in housing, employment and government services, directed against LGBTI persons.”
“This is not a policy departure,” the spokesperson stated. “It is longstanding and bipartisan U.S. policy.”
According to NBC News, the campaign will focus on countries where homosexuality is still against the law, primarily in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean.
But in the immediate aftermath of the NBC News report, some expressed concern that these efforts would be focused more on Iran than on anti-gay countries that Trump favors—and that have closer relationships with the United States government.
“From the report, it does seem like it’s quite an instrumentalized move—if it’s true—around Iran,” Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast. (Reid also told The Daily Beast that the NBC News report was “a surprise to everyone I know” and that there had been “no advance warning of it.”)
According to the NBC News report, the campaign “was conceived partly in response to the recent reported execution by hanging of a young gay man in Iran”—an incident that Grenell highlighted in a recent op-ed for the German newspaper Bild. That detail raised questions about this new campaign to decriminalize homosexuality—especially amid the administration’s continuing efforts to establish an anti-Iran international coalition.
Former CIA analyst and Obama-era National Security Council spokesman Ned Price tweeted that the Trump administration “will have to be as forceful with our adversaries, namely Iran, around which this policy is built, as they are with their friends and allies, including Saudi Arabia, [United Arab Emirates], and Russia.”
If the campaign is motivated in part out of a desire to persuade European nations to join in U.S. in opposition to Iran, Reid warns that it could actually backfire on LGBT people in the Middle Eastern country, who are already at risk of being killed due to their sexual orientation.
“Whenever gay rights are instrumentalized—either in a negative way or in a positive way, as in this situation—it often negatively affects LGBT people on the ground,” he told The Daily Beast.
Until the human rights community learn more about this reported campaign, Reid says he cannot say “categorically” that this is the motivation for it. But he would generally caution against using LGBT people as pawns within broader foreign policy initiatives rather than working to advance LGBT equality alongside a coalition of other countries.
When world leaders choose the former strategy, Reid told The Daily Beast, LGBT lives become “symbolic political terrain,” potentially putting them at further risk.
“For those people who are living under conditions in which same-sex relations are outlawed or there’s a public hostility toward LGBT people, that hostility can increase if this becomes a very politicized issue,” said Reid. “These issues issues need to be dealt with carefully and they need to be dealt with with strong international allies.”
According to a recent report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, Iran is one of over 70 countries in which same-sex sexual activity is illegal and one of only four in which a death penalty for homosexuality is codified in the law and implemented at a country level. Also among those four, however, is Saudi Arabia—a country that, as NBC News noted, President Trump has “staunchly defended.”
Most notably, President Trump has largely stood by Saudi Arabia even in the face of the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite widespread condemnation from Republican senators. (Trump has also praised other leaders of countries in which LGBT people can be subject to severe penalties, like Egypt, as NBC News noted.)
The president’s record of praise for strongmen on the international stage is just one of many factors that has made human rights advocates skeptical of any new initiatives.
“It’s not an administration that’s known for championing human rights internationally in general, so it would come as a surprise if one issue is singled out as priority of the administration at this particular time,” he told The Daily Beast.
Other LGBT advocates highlighted what they see as the hypocrisy of attacking LGBT rights at home while rolling back protections domestically. GLAAD for example, pointed to the administration’s LGBT record at home to cast doubt on the reported campaign.
But Jerri Ann Henry, executive director of the LGBT conservative organization Log Cabin Republicans, told The Daily Beast that she found it “a little saddening to see everybody so negative about a really great thing.”
“I’m excited to see it,” she said. “Of course, I want to see follow-through on it.”
Whatever catalyzed the campaign, Henry believes that it is important for the LGBT community to stand in support of decriminalization efforts abroad, saying that “we need to be firm on that front.”
“In no way, shape, form, or fashion can I guess as to what has gone through the administration’s mind and what their motivation might be,” Henry said. “But whatever the motivation, it is still a good thing and I still think we should be celebrating that and taking a stand on this issue.”
At worst, Henry warns, greeting news like the Tuesday NBC report with immediate criticism could disincentive the administration from undertaking LGBT initiatives.
“If everybody attacks the president for doing a good thing, I see him having very little motivation to do that again,” said Henry.