Global LGBTQ+ rights: Brezhnev, Mao, and Joe Biden

There is a quote that I love from Russian LGBTQ+ activist Igor Yasin in 2013. In an interview titled “Russia needs its own Stonewall, not Western sanctions” around the time of the uproar over the Sochi Olympics he says: “In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf”.

 What he means, in his reference to the Stonewall Inn riots, is that only homegrown grassroots movements deliver long-lasting changes towards social justice. They always did and always will.

As an aside, if you need a refresher on what the Sochi controversy was, this piece from The Atlantic in 2014, How Sochi Became the Gay Olympics – The Winter Games are serving as a barometer for the international politics of LGBT rights, is worth reading.

 Grandstanding by foreign nations and global public condemnation, unfortunately, are often ineffective and play into the hands of those that want to create an artificial cultural divide between a “perverted west” and a “traditional east”.

 Yet, it is frustrating for our global community and its many allies to watch, powerless, our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters used as political pawns in Poland or Malaysia as examples. Not so long ago, in the United States and France, we too were vilified by the likes of Anita Bryant or Ludovine de La Rochère in the name of protecting family and tradition. And still today, in the United States, a minority persists in trying to limit equal rights enshrined in law by invoking “religious freedom” to discriminate.

 As individuals, civil society, companies, or governments that stand for the human rights of LGBTQ+ people, we can support LGBTQ+ grassroots movements everywhere in a nuanced and strategic manner. They are often underfunded, fragile, stretched at capacity, and plagued by a clamp-down on civil society which almost always accompanies anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. We must also act swiftly and rapidly to protect those whose lives are in immediate danger.

 Quiet diplomacy, elevating the voices of local LGBTQ+ activists, funding programs such as the State Department’s Global Equality Fund (of which Out Leadership is a partner), campaigning capacity building (such as the Being LGBTI in Asia or SOGIR Africa projects funded by USAID over the years), global coordinating mechanisms (the LGBTQ+ UN core groups) or allyship (by displaying the Pride flag on US embassies as examples) are among the hundreds of tools that the Obama used in making LGBTQ+ equality a central part of US foreign policy and diplomacy.

 I like to remind people that Samantha Power, when US ambassador to the United Nations, used to bring fellow diplomats from nations “hostile” to human rights of LGBTQ+ people to Broadway shows to expose them to the LGBTQ+ lived experience. If you do not believe me, read this 2016 story here.

 After a four year hiatus, support from the US Government for global LGBTQ+ equality is not only back but will be ramped up. Last week, President Biden issued a presidential memorandum committing the United States to protect the safety and rights of LGBTIQ persons worldwide. It aims “to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTIQ+ persons”.

 You can read the memorandum here. Rather than the imperialistic spreading of American values that the Malaysian religious affairs minister Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad decried last week, the plan articulated by President Biden is a coordinated approach to support and protect LGBTQ+ human rights defenders everywhere.

 US leadership on global LGBTQ+ rights already made a difference during the Obama administration. That is why it was one of the priorities listed in the Out Leadership transition memo. Our reaction to the Biden Memorandum is to say “Welcome back, America, we missed you and we stand ready to support your work”.