The bizarre Pinkwashing effort of Ambassador Richard Grenell

Who does not want to “legalize love” !?
Back in 2012, Google made the headlines with its Legalize Love” campaign which called for decriminalization of homosexuality and an end to homophobia, worldwide. The campaign had ambitious goals as described at the time by Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, then Google’s head of diversity and inclusion: “We want our employees who are gay or lesbian or transgender to have the same experience outside the office as they do in the office.” Yet a few months after it was publicized and Google raked the social media reputation boost, the “legalize love” campaign was nowhere to be found. Internally Google lawyers had realized that legalization was not something they could single-handedly influence, but perhaps, more importantly, that the company’s leadership was unwilling to put its business at risk on behalf of LGBT+ people.

A year ago, acting intelligence head Richard Grenell, the most influential openly LGBT+ person in Trump’s entourage, and ambassador to Germany, made similar headlines with an announcement that the administration would push for decriminalization of homosexuality in the 68 countries where it is still illegal. I happened to be in Berlin at the time (July 2019) at a meeting bringing LGBT+ activists and companies together to discuss how to best support homegrown movements. I skipped the announcement at the US embassy because the hashtag #NotACrime felt too much like a Pinkwashing operation by the administration. Grenell had not bothered consulting global activists or the United Nations LGBT core-group. The Core Group – to which the US belongs – is an informal cross regional group of United Nations Member States established in 2008 working to end the situation of apartheid faced by LGBT+ people globally with key support from Outright Action International, an organization I serve on the Board of.

[Also read my colleague Rufus Gifford’s take on Grenell’s recent promotion]

From Pinkwashing to Bluewashing
A few months later, the State Department caught up with Grenell’s announcement and hosted a bizarre decriminalization event at the United Nations to which it invited the Core Group. Outright’s Executive Director, Jessica Stern, who was in attendance commented: “Instead of focusing only on decriminalization; we need to promote acceptance, understanding and equality for all LGBTIQ people everywhere.” The event strangely enough featured a pastor close to the administration who called homosexuality an epidemic showing the deep contradictions of Grenell’s ecosystem.

Grandstanding and blackmailing
Four days ago, Grenell reiterated the same claim that he was on a crusade to decriminalize homosexuality in an interview the New York Times, indicating that the administration will be cutting back on sharing intelligence with partner countries that criminalize homosexuality.

Besides my serious doubts that the US will ever reconsider intelligence sharing with strategic partners like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Kenya, on the basis of their abhorrent treatment of LGBT+ people, there are three reasons Grenell’s posturing is just bizarre: (i) the US administration is of course in no position to single-handedly decriminalize; (ii) decriminalizing, as pointed out by Jessica Sterm, is not the panacea if it is not accompanied by changes in “hearts and minds”; and (iii) the Trump administration has been systematically rolling back support for LGBT+ people at home.

Will Kim Jung Un support the US trans movement under attack?
In July 2018, I wrote an article on the topic: “Global decriminalization of homosexuality will require change in hearts and minds.” In it, I relate how on March 16th, 2014 in the immediate aftermath of the anti-homosexuality bill in Nigeria, CNN interviewed a former Managing Director of mine at the World Bank, by then finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. When asked about gay rights, she responded that 96% of people supported these laws. Hers was a very unfortunate answer as public opinion can never justify such abhorrent laws and egregious violations of human rights. But it was also a strong reminder of the urgency for local social change before they even consider decriminalization. The US through USAID used to discreetly fund such efforts like “Being LGBT in Asia” or “SOGIR Africa,” but in the past few years these programs are – in my opinion – in shambles, since key LGBT+ figures, such as Ambassador Randy Berry, left the scene.

Homegrown movements, not Western intelligence agencies, are the ones that ultimately change first “hearts and minds” and then laws. In 2013, Russian activist Igor Yasin said in an article titled “Russia needs its own Stonewall, not western sanctions” in the midst of a call for the boycott of the Sochi Olympics by Western sympathizers that in the sixties and seventies, the American LGBT community did not ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the US government on their behalf. What he meant is that greater respect for human rights of LGBT people in Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Kenya will be achieved through a homegrown grassroots movement. He also hinted that posturing by Western governments – particularly the US perceived as “imperialist”  in many of these countries – on LGBT issues can be harmful, and that Western LGBT attention to, and intervention in, certain situations can be counterproductive. This being said, stakeholders, such as the global LGBT+ groups in the diaspora, companies, or foreign governments, can and must contribute to support these local movements by strengthening the capacity of nascent civil society organizations, providing financial support, and using their voice and influence to call for respect of human rights of LGBT people.

Charité bien ordonnée commence par soi-même
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, Mr. Grenell, and as we pointed out in a recent post, what we would like to see on this Administration’s menu, rather than NYTimes proclamations, is for the current administration to stop its efforts to fight LGBT+ gains on equality at home. Last week Out Leadership published 5 articles exploring the links between the so-called “religious bills” and “conscience clauses” championed by Trump’s Government and employment discrimination. Out Leadership also took advantage of the awaiting of SCOTUS decision on three employment discrimination cases, to build consensus around the need for the Equality Act in a Forbes article, “Why It’s High Time The Law Protects LGBT+ Citizens.” While the decision was not handed-down this Monday, we are keeping an eye for next week. In any case, Out Leadership will use this opportunity to ask Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the #EqualityAct to a vote — Grenell could find himself useful to the LGBT+ community by doing the same.