Standing for the Rights of LGBTQI Persons in the State Department’s Annual Human Rights Reports

March 31, 2021 – Secretary of State Blinken yesterday released the State Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and they reveal an all-too-familiar story of broad societal and government hostility and violence against LGBTQI people around the globe. The reports were prepared by U.S. embassies under problematic reporting instructions issued by the Trump Administration.  Fortunately, they were released by the new Biden Administration after a limited scrub and a promise to do better, including a promise to issue an addendum later this year “to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights,” an area of reporting eliminated by Trump officials.  

Sexual and reproductive rights are LGBTQI rights.  So, when the Trump Administration struck that reporting section in its entirety, it also significantly undermined LGBTQI reporting. The head of the State Department’s Human Rights Bureau, Acting Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson, recognized in her remarks yesterday that the State Department is still trying to assess the cumulative harm caused by the failure of the previous administration to recognize and report on sexual and reproductive rights as human rights.  We know it was significant. 

Secretary Blinken also used yesterday’s release of the reports to repudiate his predecessor’s discredited Commission on Unalienable Rights, which sought to elevate religious rights and property rights over all other rights, including the rights of LGBTQI persons and sexual and reproductive rights.  Blinken noted:

“there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others. Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration.  At my confirmation hearing, I promised the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate those unbalanced views. We do so decisively today.”

This year’s reports represent an improvement over the four years of Trump-era reporting, but to become the useful policy tools we ultimately need, particularly in documenting the full range of human rights abuses impacting LGBTQI communities abroad, the Biden Administration must move quickly to insist on more detailed reporting by U.S. embassies in next year’s reports – the first year that these reports will be fully prepared under the Biden Administration’s substantive instruction and guidance.  

Next year, under the direction of the Biden Administration and with careful attention to President Biden’s Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World, the Council is calling for more detailed reporting on the following points: 

  • A comprehensive understanding of the impact of a full range of punitive laws on the on the lives of LGBTIQ persons globally.  President Biden’s Memorandum orders our diplomats to elevate decriminalization as a foreign policy priority by committing resources to “strengthen existing efforts to combat the criminalization by foreign governments of LGBTQI+ status or conduct.”  To deploy both diplomatic and financial resources effectively, the Administration must identify the diverse range of laws and administrative regulations that are used to penalize LGBTQI identities and expression; harass LGBTQI individuals and organizations and prevent them from meeting, organizing and building community; and limit comprehensive health and rights, including sexual and reproductive health information and LGBTQI-affirming health services.  All reports should consider the full range of laws that are deployed against LGBTQI communities. (For more, read the Council’s longstanding guidance: Toward an Inclusive and Effective Decriminalization Strategy.)
  • A careful focus on the ways in which government laws, policies and other actions – or corresponding inaction – sanction or encourage abuses by non-state actors – including persecution by gangs, semi-official or self-appointed morality police, teachers and other educational leaders, or close family members who may be encouraged to defend their “family honor” through violent persecution, house arrest, or so-called “corrective rape” or even “honor killings.”  This year’s reports on Kyrgyzstan and Poland provide a thoughtful analysis of the ways in which state policies encourage abuse by non-state actors.  This analysis should be standardized in all reports.  
  • For the first time, the human rights reporting instructions should mandate inclusion next year of detailed information on the use of forced anal exams by state officials as a discredited forensic tool to establish sexual activity in criminal prosecutions, along with detailed information on the legality and prevalence of the use of “conversion therapy” to persecute LGBTI or gender non-conforming individuals, including children.  Reports on Egypt, Iran, and Tanzania document the use of forced anal exams.  Likewise, reports on Iran and Kenya discuss the use of conversion therapy as a human rights abuse.  All embassies should collect data on these abuses and report accordingly.  
  • Groundbreaking campaigns in several countries to seek full marriage equality, or some lesser degree of same-sex partnership recognition, are ignored throughout the report.  This is true even in countries like Costa Rica, which began allowing same-sex couples the right to marry in 2020, or in the Czech Republic, Japan, or Panama where there are vibrant public campaigns to build formal equality and humanize same-sex relationships.  The Biden Administration should report on efforts to expand – or deny – marriage equality as human rights efforts worthy of our recognition and support. 
  • The Russia report includes information on coerced intersex “normalization” surgeries, also referred to as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM).  More embassies should report on these abusive procedures, which often subjects intersex babies or youth to harmful and medically unnecessary surgeries without any informed consent. And the United States should institute a moratorium on those procedures as well.  
  • The reports this year provided a strong overview of the impact of COVID-19 on the human rights of marginalized people, recognizing in the introduction that “marginalized populations, including older persons, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQI+ persons, experienced particular vulnerability.”  The reports themselves bear witness to this in often stark and violent terms for the LGBTQI community. We fear that these same vulnerabilities will increase rather than decrease in the next year, as ongoing transmission and unequal vaccine distribution are likely to further marginalize LGBTQI communities in many developing world contexts. As an example, the Kazakhstan report notes that: 

the COVID-19 pandemic situation also impacted LGBTI communities negatively. Locked down in their houses, they often endured stress and abuse from family members who resented their status. Transgender persons were vulnerable to abuse during security checks by police patrols due to their lack of appropriate identification. Transgender persons were among the first whom employers dismissed from jobs because they often worked without official contracts, and they were often not eligible to relieve programs offered by the government to support needy individuals. Transgender persons, like many during the lockdowns, also faced difficulties receiving needed medical care because health facilities were restricted or closed. They often could not get necessary medicines, because they were not available in small pharmacies in their neighborhoods, or they could not afford them.  

  • Finally, reports this year on Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and Poland draw strong connections between ant-LGBTQI laws, anti-gender policies, religious-nationalist initiatives and far-right extremist groups.   These connections are informative.  President Biden and Secretary Blinken have spoken convincingly of the need to connect our domestic and foreign policies as never before.  This must include a better understanding of the connections between racist, xenophobic, white nationalist, anti-gender, anti-LGBTQI and other extremist religious organizations in the United States and their counterparts in other countries.  The State Department should give serious consideration to a new section examining the extraterritorial connections between domestic and international extremist groups for each country in next year’s report.  

Yesterday, Secretary Blinken recognized that: “Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests. And the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.”  We will hold him to that.  

But for the annual human rights reports to be more relevant to policymakers who have been charged with developing new policies that truly stand up for LGBTQI rights abroad, as well as U.S. development agencies seeking to stand up new humanitarian funding for human rights campaigns that meet the most urgent needs of LGBTQI communities, a far more detailed snapshot of LGBTQI life in each country will be essential.  We hope next year’s reporting instructions address those gaps. 

Revisiting Last Year’s Reports: For comparison, it is useful to revisit our three-part analysis of last year’s reports, including political lapses in the reports, the ways in which the reports contradicted the Trump Administration’s refugee policies, and the ghosting of sexual and reproductive rights.  

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