Election 2020: Our Challenge to Presidential Candidates

Download our position paper here.

Suggested candidate questions.

The 2020 presidential elections are a crucible for our country, from many perspectives. These include the place of respect and insistence our country accords to the guarantee of human rights for all people — a long-cherished expression of American values that the Trump Administration has debased.

The Council for Global Equality challenges all presidential candidates, on each side of the political divide, to express their support for elevating our country’s human rights policy, and for ensuring that it addresses the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities worldwide. Specifically, we call on all candidates and their campaign staff to ensure that their policy positions:

  • Make specific their support for human rights as a basic tenet of U.S. foreign policy, contrasting that support with the Trump Administration’s embrace of dictators (e.g. Russian President Putin, Egyptian President Sisi, and Philippines President Duterte), withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, and general lack of attention to human rights needs on our border with Mexico and in the world at large.
  • Underscore that the fair and equal treatment of minorities, including LGBTI populations, must be part of any genuine human rights policy, noting that neither President Trump nor Vice President Pence has spoken to global LGBTI rights issues.
  • Stress that the U.S. should use all available diplomatic tools to advance LGBTI-inclusive human rights abroad, including police and rule-of-law training, exchange and speaker programs, targeted development assistance, and consistent bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagement, as a reflection of our country’s values of fairness and equality.
  • Insist that U.S. diplomats not strike references to sexual orientation, gender identity or sexual and reproductive health and rights in UN and other international texts, as this undermines years of human rights advocacy in support of women and LGBTI communities globally.
  • Explain the impact of the global gag rule on women and LGBTI communities abroad, including the diversion of lifesaving funding away from health care providers that traditionally have offered health services, including HIV prevention, care and treatment and psycho-social support, to LGBTI communities in many countries.
  • Show humanitarian understanding of the special plight of LGBTI refugees, who flee abuse at home only to find equal abuse in refugee camps and shelters – a problem the Trump Administration has refused to address.
  • Make clear than LGBTI and gender equality issues are grounded in long-held American principles and precepts and will be restored to a place of respect, drawing a sharp contrast with the current Administration’s lack of respect for both.
  • And affirm that sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex traits are not a bar to service to our country, whether at home or abroad, and that our country should set an example to others in demonstrating its commitment to inclusivity, including proud and open military service by transgender and intersex Americans.

We urge media organizations to explore candidates’ understanding of these issues and, at minimum, to ask each candidate for his or her views on three fundamental points:

  • What would your Administration do to elevate the importance of human rights in American foreign policy?
  •  Will your Administration include the fair and equal treatment of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities as a cornerstone of U.S. human rights and democracy policies — and if so, how would that be expressed?
  •  What would your Administration do better to inform the American public of why respect, fairness and equality for all people, including LGBTI, should be a priority in both our foreign and domestic policies? What diplomatic or economic arguments would you offer to justify the use of U.S. taxpayer funding in support of LGBTI-affirming human rights and development policies?

The time to reaffirm our country’s leadership in advocating for the dignity, respect and human rights for all people is now. We have called repeatedly on the Trump Administration to do so, and we make that call again here. But in the absence of needed changes in Administration foreign policy, we cannot afford another four years of human rights neglect.

Celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia by Opposing Homophobic, Transphobic Leadership at the State Department

May 17, 2019 – Today, as we join colleagues around the world in celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB), it’s worth asking why President Trump – who calls himself a friend of the LGBT community – has nominated someone with a long history of anti-LGBT statements to serve as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights.

Celebrated on May 17, IDAHOTB marks the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1990.  That illicit stigma continues to be instilled by organizations that espouse so-called “conversion therapy,” a psychologically barbaric effort to change a person’s deeply innate sexual orientation or gender identity.  Some of the State Department’s recent human rights reports, such as that for Ecuador, confirm that these efforts exist not only in the U.S., but overseas as well.

Trump’s nominee, Dr. Robert Destro, has written extensively of his opposition to full civil rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans.  But his most malicious writings deny the very existence of transgender individuals, essentially suggesting that they are psychologically disturbed and in need of some type of conversion or identity therapy.  As such, he defends the harmful psychological perspectives that the World Health Organization and all leading U.S. medical associations have long abandoned.  Indeed, his views represent the exact antithesis of the compassionate understanding of LGBTI identities that we celebrate on May 17.

The theme of the May 17 celebration this year is “Justice and Protection for All.”  In recent years, the United States has played an increasingly important role in promoting justice and protection for LGBTI communities globally.  The State Department’s annual human rights reports are by far the most comprehensive reports on human rights trends impacting LGBTI individuals around the world.  The United States administers the Global Equality Fund to support LGBTI rights and at-risk human rights defenders in hostile countries.  And our diplomats continue to support the Equal Rights Coalition and the “core group” of countries that defend LGBTI rights at the UN, OAS and through diplomatic engagement everywhere.

Robert Destro can’t credibly contribute to such efforts because of the heavy baggage he carries from his expansive public record opposing human rights for LGBTI individuals.  His confirmation is an affront to our country’s human rights legacy, and the U.S. Senate should reject his conformation.  That would be a fitting tribute to the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on this May 17.

Ending the Lavender Scare

U.S. Department of StateOn May 1, Senator Menendez introduced legislation to mitigate the consequences of the “Lavender Scare” – the1950’s-era witch hunt that resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of State Department employees owing to their perceived sexual orientation.

Menendez’s bill (the Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act, or “LOVE Act”) accepts overdue Senate responsibility for its role in spurring on that witch hunt.  It directs that a “reconciliation board” be established to clear the names of those who were wrongly dismissed.  And it asks the Department to commemorate the period with a suitable display in State’s Museum of American Diplomacy.

Menendez was joined by 19 co-sponsors.  Why isn’t there a single Republican Senator on the list?

The Lavender Scare ruined careers – and arguably lives – of State Department men and women who wanted nothing more than to serve their country.  It deprived our country of foreign policy expertise and talent.  And it helped ensconce a Foreign Service that, for many decades, remained a bastion of conservative, straight white men – an image of America that was hardly representative of the country as a whole.

The Department’s imperfect record of dealing with LGBT diversity has improved.  By now there have been several out-gay ambassadors, and regulations that enshrined discriminatory treatment for the families of gay and lesbian Foreign Service personnel while posted abroad have been changed.

But Menendez’s bill tackles a lagging problem that still deeply impacts gay Foreign Service personnel:  the denial, by homophobic countries, of family visas to spouses of our gay and lesbian diplomatic personnel.  By bowing to this disrespect toward our country’s judicial institutions, we’ve essentially allowed other countries to dictate this aspect of federal personnel policies.

Since the LOVE Act’s original introduction in 2017, neither Secretary Pompeo nor his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, has shown any attention to this family visa reciprocity problem.  Their inaction is limiting the career options available to LGBT personnel – and limiting, too, the workforce flexibility our Foreign Service needs.

The bill requires the Secretary of State to report to Congress on countries refusing these visas, and to recommend responses that might include reciprocal denial of those countries’ requests for diplomatic family visas.  It thereby puts the issue squarely on the bilateral agenda – a first step toward resolution.

If Republicans won’t support Menendez’s bill, perhaps the Democratic-controlled House should take the matter up, to show that at least half of our country’s political elite care about fairness and equality for its LGBT public servants.

The Wall Facing LGBTI Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Read our Appeal to the Trump Administration

While Congress and the courts deliberate on the legitimacy of the President’s emergency declaration for a wall along our border with Mexico, we ask a parallel question:  what’s happened to this country’s traditional, even foundational, willingness to shelter refugees from harm and injustice?

The wall has become a symbol of a country that’s turning away from its traditional role as a beacon of freedom.  But the Administration’s parallel claw-back of protections for the most vulnerable is no less worrisome.  Our country is being marched toward insularity – and away from the humanitarian principles our families, churches, temples and mosques have taught us to embrace.

The Administration’s wall-obsessed policies are having a profound – and too often deadly – impact on LGBTI asylum seekers at the Mexican border.  At the same time, the simultaneous effort to shut down the U.S. overseas refugee program, which has been a lifeline for LGBTI refugees who can’t make it to the United States or to any other safe border to seek asylum, represents an existential threat to LGBTI individuals worldwide.

In a letter to the Trump Administration sent earlier this week, the Council for Global Equality, together with many of its member organizations and groups that directly support LGBTI asylum seekers at the border, calls on the Trump Administration to take concrete steps to protect LGBTI asylum seekers and restore our overseas refugee program.  As a priority, the letter calls on the Administration to ensure that LGBTI asylum seekers fall under the category of “vulnerable populations” that may be excluded from the new “return to Mexico” policy, which forces asylum seekers to return to Mexico to wait in dangerous circumstances for their asylum cases to be adjudicated in the United States.

The letter also calls for a presumption of parole for LGBTI asylum seekers, given the unique dangers they face in immigration detention.  Unfortunately, the current Trump administration policies already have led to the death of at least one transgender woman, Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez.  The letter calls for these policy steps as an urgent attempt to prevent ongoing suffering and future deaths.

As a coalition of human rights and LGBTI rights organizations, our most immediate concern is that individuals are being punished for seeking asylum.  The violence, persecution and hate-motivated discrimination, even murder, that LGBTI individuals face in many countries around the world is precisely why our country has long-established asylum and refugee protections.  And in turning its back on men, women and children in danger, this Administration also turns its back on U.S. citizens who believe we can and should do more.

We don’t deny the right of any new Administration to pursue policies at variance with those of its predecessor.  But none of us, on either side of the aisle, should expect such a drastic rollback of American refugee and asylum policy without a genuine national discussion of what’s at stake.  This week’s letter is an urgent plea to restore some of those most fundamental protections for those most in need.

Read the community letter here.

Robert Destro Can’t Credibly Lead America’s Human Rights Policy

The Council rarely takes positions on nominations for high-level positions.  However, we urge that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote against Robert Destro’s nomination to serve as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).

The job of DRL Assistant Secretary is foundational to our work.  To serve effectively, there can be no doubt that the person in that position fully and credibly embraces the equal respect, dignity, and protection due to all people.  These principles, core to American belief, are embodied not only in U.S. law, but in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights conventions.

To his discredit, Mr. Destro has a long history of inflammatory statements that denigrate the rights of LGBTI people in this country.  To wit:

  • He has suggested that transgender gender identity is a “hotly disputed proposition,” and has asked whether someone who disagrees with transgender gender identity is obliged to treat a person according to his or her identity.  How might this position impact Destro’s stewardship of DRL policies and programs aimed at challenging transgender stereotypes and affirming related sexual orientation and gender identity rights?
  • He has asserted the right of Catholics not only to think like Catholics, but to act like Catholics by discriminating against LGBTI people as a religious precept.  How can this not impact his own embrace and advocacy, as Assistant Secretary, for the fair and equal treatment of LGBTI people?
  • And how can that same view, along with Mr. Destro’s more straightforward defense of the right of Christians to deny services to LGBTI people, be squared with the Department’s embrace of non-discrimination in the delivery of U.S.-funded humanitarian and development services abroad?

Mr. Destro did nothing at the hearing to distance himself from these points – or to explain how, in view of such baggage, he can be credible, as Assistant Secretary, in asking other countries to treat LGBTI people with the fairness, equality and respect that he himself has opposed for LGBTI Americans.  Senator Menendez valiantly asked that question repeatedly; the best he was able to elicit from Destro was a low-bar pledge to seek equal protection for all.  But how can you protect LGBTI individuals, particularly transgender individuals, when you deny the reality of their identity?

We are troubled by the gap between Destro’s record and the requirements of this job – and the gap, indeed, between equal protection and the broader advocacy needs of a DRL Assistant Secretary.  Nor were we encouraged by Destro’s repeated touchstone of religious freedom, given how fervently that freedom has been abused to justify discrimination against LGBTI people.

Destro’s answers to other questions were no more comforting.  He dodged Senator Murphy’s question regarding the damage done to human rights policy by this Administration’s embrace of dictators near and far.  He pointedly sidestepped Senator Shaheen’s questioning of the Administration’s newly announced efforts to restrict funding for organizations that exert their freedom of speech in advocating for abortion among a spectrum of family planning options – even when those organizations themselves do not carry out abortions.  He would not commit to restoring reproductive rights descriptions in the Department’s annual human rights reports.  His anecdotal recounting of having supported a person with AIDS, in the context of claiming that he is not anti-LGBT, was patronizing at best. And his past and current affiliations with extreme anti-LGBT groups make his testimony about “protecting” LGBT rights nearly impossible to believe, including his membership on the Board of Advisors of the anti-LGBT Catholic League, speaking on panels for the notoriously anti-LGBT Family Research Council, serving on the board of the anti-equality Marriage Law Foundation, and signing a public letter to Congress calling for an amendment to ban marriage equality.

Senator Menendez was right to ask whether Mr. Destro’s claim of not being anti-LGBT amounts to a case of “nomination conversion,” in view of Destro’s contrary record.  We ask the same question here.  But even if his conversion is heartfelt, he still can’t credibly lead America’s human rights policy because of the heavy baggage he carries from his expansive public record.  He should not be confirmed.

Read more about his record from GLAAD here.

The Question Looming Over Trump Nominee Robert Destro

To the Council for Global Equality, the protection of human rights globally is hardly a luxury.  It’s integral to democratic values, to humanitarian values, and to the genuine rule of law – and it’s a critical component of America’s strategic interests in reducing the causes of instability, conflict, and emigration.

So we take seriously nominations to government positions intended to safeguard human rights.  For that reason, we are deeply concerned at the background and philosophy of President Trump’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).

Robert Destro is known as a religious freedom academic, not a human rights expert.  His focus and credentials suggest, indeed, that if confirmed, his service in this position might duplicate that of the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom position that Sam Brownback now encumbers.

Viewed in the broader human rights perspective of the DRL Assistant Secretary job, there’s a serious question of whether Destro is the right person for these duties.  The top DRL job, after all, is an advocacy position, not just for religious freedom but for all human rights.  And at the core of human rights advocacy is the belief that all individuals deserve equal respect, equal dignity, and equal protection under the law.

Robert Destro has denigrated the legitimacy and equality of LGBT persons.  Destro argues that Christians who oppose homosexuality, on the basis of religious belief, should be permitted to deny equal treatment and services to LGBT individuals. He questions whether a transgender person must be accepted as such by someone who doesn’t accept the basis of gender identity.  And he opposes the Equality Act – legislation re-introduced less than a week ago – that focuses on the need for protections against LGBT-focused discrimination in employment and housing and opportunity.  If these precepts are fundamental to a fair and equal society, how can DRL’s Assistant Secretary find himself so far from the mark?

At a bare baseline, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has an obligation to ask whether Destro would speak clearly in favor of the human rights of LGBT people in every country in which the Department’s own human rights reports have signaled problems.  The Committee needs to ask, too, whether Destro would ensure that DRL programs are used to address, in every country, structural challenges to LGBT fairness and equal treatment under the law.  And it needs to probe deeply into how Destro’s support for religious exemptions might negatively impact the use of taxpayer funds to promote the equal treatment of LGBT people abroad.

We easily can imagine that Destro will offer carefully parsed pablum in response to these points.  But one question he should be made to answer meaningfully is this:  how can Destro be credible, to any foreign official or public, in demanding that LGBT citizens be treated fairly and respectfully, given what he has written and said on these matters?

That question is critically important to Destro’s effectiveness, which should be paramount in the minds of those reviewing his qualifications for the job.  How incisively Senate Foreign Relations Committee members question Destro will tell us whether they are committed to truly inclusive human rights – and whether he, or they, should be out of a job.

State Department Releases Human Rights Reports

U.S. Department of StateThe State Department’s annual country human rights reports were released today, to little fanfare.  And the news of the day – Paul Manafort’s sentencing and his parallel indictment in New York – virtually guarantees that these important analyses will sink to the bottom of the news feed.  They already have.

In general, we are pleased that the reporting on abuses targeting LGBTI individuals remains strong, but we also are deeply disappointed that, for the second year in a row, the State Department has refused to report on women’s sexual and reproductive rights as human rights.  We’ll have more to say about the contents of the reports after we’ve parsed them.  But if best practices on human rights begin at home, we ask this question today:  will any of the worst human rights violators abroad take these human rights critiques seriously?

Respect for human rights is hardly a feature of Trump Administration foreign policies, after all:

  • The Administration has separated children from their parents at our southern border, and hasn’t complied with court orders to reunite them.
  • It has thumbed its nose at longstanding refugee policy, snuffing out the very beacon of hope that has made America a multiethnic and multicultural success.
  • President Trump continues to embrace some of the world’s most human rights-challenged dictators, from Putin to Sisi to Duterte.
  • His administration has stepped away from the challenge of holding Russia accountable for the arbitrary arrests and murders of LGBT Chechens.
  • Ten months into his tenure, Secretary Pompeo still has not fulfilled his commitment to Congress to appoint a Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.
  • And the nominations of two individuals for the Administration’s senior-most jobs with human rights-specific attributions – Marshall Billingslea as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, and Robert Destro as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor – show a worrisome lack of concern about their record of engagement, respect and support for human rights and the advancement thereof.

To be clear, we fully support the dedicated efforts of U.S. embassy and consulate personnel abroad to prepare the human rights reports that were released today.  We believe it critical that respect for human rights remain a central foreign policy goal, and thus that these reports be compiled.  But if these efforts are to carry impact, the Trump Administration needs to reverse or revise policies that lay bare its own hypocrisy in criticizing others.

The question in our mind is not how to change Trump.  He has shown no interest in becoming a better man.  But what of Congress, which commissioned these reports?  What will Congress do to challenge the Administration’s lapses and excesses, as noted above?  Will the Congress that legislated these reports exercise its oversight into why the Administration’s human rights policy has become so calcified, so pained, so denuded?

In our last blog, we called for Congress to exercise greater oversight regarding the degree to which this Administration’s foreign policies demonstrate respect for, and advancement of, human rights.  We renew that call today.


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