Lessons Learned: US-Global LGBTQ+ Foreign Policy

On June 25, 2021, President Biden announced the appointment of Jessica Stern as U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons at the Department of State. As Executive Director of OutRight Action International, Stern has advocated for global LGBTQ+ rights for years, unifying countless global organizations through registration efforts and co-founding the United Nations’ LGBTI Core Group.

The appointment comes on the heels of several other influential LGBTQ+ appointments in US diplomacy: the nomination of Chantale Wong as Executive Director to the Asian Development Bank and Ambassador Rufus Gifford as US Chief of Protocol (Disclaimer: Ambassador Gifford was a Senior Advisor at Out Leadership prior to joining the Biden Election Campaign). These appointments align with the Biden administration’s promise to renew focus on LGBTQ+ rights in the United States Foreign policy, however, it consecutively opens up an opportunity to reflect on the past decade of presidential administrations and their corresponding global LGBTQ+ foreign policy strategies.

The Obama Years:

The Obama administration was the first to center global LGBTQ+ rights as a foreign policy objective. Throughout his term, President Obama carried out a collection of actions to uphold LGBTQ+ rights abroad: appointing Randy Berry as the first U.S. Special Envoy in 2011, sending an LGBTQ-inclusive delegation to the Sochi Olympics, pressuring the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to ban discrimination amongst its contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in 2015, meeting with world leaders to push for the legal decriminalization of same-sex relations, and countless other directives.

Despite these breakthroughs, it is important to note that there was a learning curve on the U.S. engagement of LGBTQ+ issues. The Obama administration understood that it was often best for the U.S. not to be at the forefront of multilateral initiatives, that quiet initiatives were more impactful than grandstanding and that grassroots movements should be in the driver’s seat. This strategy can be seen in the US funding of the “Being LGBTI in Asia” and “SOGIR Africa” projects. The two projects, sponsored in part by USAID and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), aimed to empower LGBTQ+ populations in countries like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Zambia. The programs were effective because of their ability to engage local and regional institutions, advocate for protective laws and policies, and create strategic partnerships with local publishing firms and businesses. Though LGBTQ+ persecution inevitably continues in many parts of the world, the Obama administration proved that small actionable initiatives are an effective way to curb LGBTQ+ discrimination.

Enter President Trump:

Given the stark shift in rhetoric and ideology brought on by the Trump administration, it is interesting to note that President Trump’s stance on LGBTQ+ foreign policy did not differ in form from that of his Democratic counterparts, though motivated by differing sentiments. In line with his isolationist philosophy, President Trump argued that protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans abroad from discriminatory regimes was a top priority of his administration. Though his domestic policies painted a different picture, President Trump did follow through on his conviction to LGBTQ+ global advocacy, making Richard Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, a key proponent for his global advocacy efforts. Sparked by the hanging of a gay Iranian man, in 2019, Grenell organized a meeting in Berlin with LGBTQ+ activists to address decriminalization efforts in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean. The meeting, though a sincere cry of protest, fell short in enacting any real change. Some analysts speculated that the centering of Iran in the fight for global LGBTQ+ rights could have been an attempt by the Trump administration to place global pressure for economic sanctions on the major petroleum provider. Regardless of the motivations, the Trump administration made little progress on a global scale, despite grand public declarations, and definitively rolled back protections on the domestic front.

With President Biden’s recent proposal to expand U.S. international affairs spending by $6.8 billion, it would be remiss to not recognize the flaws in the award disbursement strategies of major aid agencies like USAID that hinder the effectiveness of global development initiatives. USAID often favors major contractors over smaller institutions, which has correlated with longer, ineffective contract timelines and the systematic marginalization of smaller, local organizations.

For example, in FY 2017, 60% of USAID’s total funds were awarded to only 25 contractors. In a survey conducted by Foreign Policy Magazine among 35 smaller international aid organizations, more than two-thirds of respondents claimed that large contractors cut them out of promised work once they received funds. There are countless other cases like this within the US international development space, showing how imperative it is that the Biden administration focuses its efforts on modernizing the procurement and disbursement strategies of its agencies like USAID. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the collective shift across industries towards agile management structures has proven that organizations are ready for change. This is a historic window of opportunity for the Biden administration and U.S. agency leaders to reform their strategies to maximize impact and minimize waste.

This context is crucial to understand the role that the United States plays in global LGBTQ+ rights. It is incumbent upon President Biden and Spec. Envoy Jessica Stern to integrate lessons learned from a decade of advocacy and lead with a gentle, focused hand. The past decade of leadership has shown that strategy is more important than displays of public grandstanding. The state of global LGBTQ+ rights is complex and often static, especially in countries with deeply entrenched social norms and traditions, but with the right strategy, change can be made.