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CGE Newsletter – Global LGBTI Updates from Washington

Don’t miss our January 2020 Newsletter here.


In holiday news you may have missed, the State Department quietly withdrew Daniel Foote, President Trump’s ambassador to Zambia, for angering Zambia’s president and cabinet.  His misdeed?  Trenchant public acknowledgement of the Zambian government’s endemic corruption, along with concern expressed regarding an unusually harsh prison sentence given to two Zambian men for their consensual same-sex relationship.

Ah, yes.  So much for Secretary Pompeo’s swagger.

We believe ambassadors serve our country best when they honestly represent U.S. values and ideals and speak clearly to factors impeding a healthy and progressive bilateral relationship.  Foote set that example by expressing his horror at a 15-year prison sentence meted out to two Zambian men for their consensual sexual relationship.  We share his horror, of course.  And as taxpayers we find it hard to fault his parallel observations regarding the misappropriation of millions of dollars of public funds, raising questions about the efficacy of USG assistance provided to Zambia — reportedly to the tune of some $500 million per year.

The wisdom of Foote making such blunt public remarks can of course be debated. But Americans deserve to know whether Secretary Pompeo, let alone anyone at the White House, sought to intervene with Zambian President Lungu before deciding to remove our ambassador.  Pulling a Senate-confirmed ambassador from duty is a major and disruptive step, after all — one that never should be taken without going through a multi-tiered effort to calm the situation.  And Foote’s remarks clearly were in keeping with the public values of our country, as well as the mission he was charged to lead.

We fully accept the judgment of those observers who believe Foote’s remarks on corruption, not on LGBT rights, may have been the underlying cause of Lungu’s displeasure. From that perspective, the State Department would be wise to conduct a careful review of the volume, use and impact of U.S. bilateral aid before nominating an ambassador to take Foote’s place.  That review should include the question of whether Zambia’s practice of ostracizing its LGBT community, and of criminalizing consensual same-sex relations, has impeded the effectiveness of HIV prevention and AIDS treatment efforts.  But it also should include the full range of U.S. economic and social assistance — not with a view to punishing Lungu, but to ensuring that Zambia’s government is accountable for how U.S. taxpayer funding is put to use.

But given that this bilateral crisis was precipitated by an over-the-top prison sentence for a consensual same-sex relationship, we’d also like to understand how Pompeo’s quick withdrawal of the ambassador comports with the Administration’s declared support for the global decriminalization of homosexuality — a policy Trump declared in his UN General Assembly speech last fall, but which the White House so far has declined to detail.  At minimum, Secretary Pompeo should make publicly clear that our ambassadors and embassies should not shrink from enunciating support for LGBT fairness and equality, in the same terms that Ambassador Foote did.  Without such a statement, we’re inclined to believe that the Trump Administration’s support for LGBTI fairness is paper-thin at best.


GLOBE Act Introduced in the Senate

See the Senate press release here.

U.S. leadership on human rights was in evidence again today, on International Human Rights Day, when Senator Markey (D-Mass.), joined by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the GLOBE (Greater Leadership Overseas for the Benefit of Equality) Act. The legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Bob Casey (D-Penn.).  The bill sets out a comprehensive vision for global leadership in support of human rights for LGBTI individuals everywhere.

Upon introduction, Senator Markey stressed that “We must recommit the United States to the defense of human rights globally.  We must reorient our human rights foreign policy to be in line with U.S. values.”  Senator Shaheen added, “The GLOBE Act sends a strong message to the international community — LGBTI rights are human rights, and the United States will continue to defend those rights.” That is a sentiment shared earlier this year in the House introduction of a companion bill that already enjoys almost 70 co-sponsors.

Over the past decade, the State Department’s annual country human rights reports have documented — with unsettling consistency — abuses, discrimination and exclusion directed against LGBTI people for no reason but their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.  The GLOBE Act would tackle these indignities by directing that an array of U.S. diplomatic and development tools be deployed toward them.  It equally would ensure that the U.S. Government stand with its LGBTI employees when they are assigned abroad in support of American interests.

The timing of Senator Markey’s bill could not be of greater import.  To its disgrace, the Trump Administration has cold-shouldered human rights by embracing unethical dictators, mal-treating would-be immigrants, and bringing U.S. refugee acceptances to a post-war low.  It has withdrawn our country from the UN Human Rights Council, knee-capping any effort to right the imbalances of that body.  To deny the legitimacy of transgender people, it has sought to scuttle any use of the term “gender” in UN documents.  And the State Department’s new “Unalienable Rights Commission” threatens to upend any proper understanding of the fundaments of human rights:  that all people are created equal and are entitled to equal protections under any government’s laws.

Republican support at the bill’s introduction is lacking.  We expected more of a party that once stood for the very freedoms and opportunities the bill would enhance, and we call on Republican senators to recommit to human rights leadership as well.  In the interim, we salute Senator Markey and those who have co-sponsored the GLOBE Act, and we look forward to the conversation that the bill should entail.

Richard Spenser, Donald Trump, and Marshall Billingslea

Marshall Billingslea

Much of the attention surrounding President Trump’s ouster of Navy Secretary Richard Spenser has focused on Trump’s disregard for the order and discipline that Special Operations and other military forces must respect.

We have a different optic.

Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher’s demotion for having posed for photographs with the corpse of a dead ISIS fighter — an action that clearly violates military rules and the laws of war — strikes us as reasonable.  But Gallagher’s photo also refreshes the outrage surrounding the Bush Administration’s humiliation of Abu Ghraib prisoners — and Trump’s dismissal of that action, in turn, further underscores his lack of moral compass on the question of war crimes.

This is a man, after all, who had no qualms about nominating Gina Haspell — involved directly in CIA “secret prison” torture during that period — to serve as CIA Director.  And Marshall Billingslea — now awaiting confirmation to serve as the Trump State Department’s Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights — is credibly reported to have pressed for even more abusive measures to be used against ISIS prisoners than those that already have brought international opprobrium to the United States.

The President’s forgiving attitude toward U.S. officials arguably complicit in war crimes makes it hard to hold others accountable — e.g., those responsible for the humiliations and murders of LGBT Chechens.  It cheapens our country and abandons our human rights leadership capacity.

Before the Senate acts on the Billingslea nomination, his Senate supporters might take time to watch “The Report” — a recent movie that chillingly explores efforts by two U.S. Administrations to hide the shameful human rights abuses committed by the United States in the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center bombings.

Mr. Billingslea’s support for those abuses — and his reported advocacy of other, even more stringent “enhanced interrogation” war crimes — make him unfit to serve, with any credibility, as our country’s senior-most human rights-dedicated official.

We again urge the Senate to send Billingslea’s nomination back to the White House.  And as for President Trump, a little history lesson is overdue — and with it, perhaps some training on moral leadership.

Pompeo’s Dangerously Misguided Human Rights Commission

Secretary Pompeo’s new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” met for five hours at the State Department yesterday to refocus our nation’s human rights policy on the principles contained in the  country’s founding documents and religious heritage, because Pompeo believes that the world is confused.  According to Pompeo, this confusion stems from the failure to distinguish God-given, “unalienable rights” from simple political claims or mere personal preferences.  The world is clamoring for moral clarity, and Pompeo’s Commission has stepped up to provide pastoral guidance based on our country’s founding texts – never mind that those early texts enshrined slavery and denied rights to all but a limited group of white men.

The Commission, stacked with religiously-focused academics who oppose the rights of LGBTI individuals and the sexual and reproductive rights of women, took a deep dive into the meaning of “unalienable rights” in the context of our founding texts, including the Declaration of Independence, which most famously affirmed the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They didn’t quite get what they wanted.

The Commission’s first witness, Michael McConnel, a Constitutional scholar at Stanford Law School and a former justice on the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, warned that the term “unalienable rights,” which comes to us from our country’s protestant reform traditions, has never had a common or precise definition.  The phrase identifies a philosophical concept, rather than a concrete set of rights.  And while the concept often prioritizes freedom of religion, McConnel cautioned that our founders were ultimately more concerned with freedom of conscience, which includes but is not limited to a narrow understanding of religious freedom.

McConnell also recognized the implicit failures of this philosophical approach.  While the term “unalienable rights” makes for inspirational prose, the philosophical concept behind it embraced our country’s original sin of slavery and denied women full standing in society. Concepts of equal protection could not, and did not, exist at this time, under this philosophical tradition.

This all must have been a blow to the Commissioners, since Pompeo clearly wants them to propose a new hierarchy of unalienable rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals with specific “preferences” in the alienable category.  Indeed, Pompeo constantly speaks of religious freedom as the “first right” from which other rights flow, proclaiming, often in messianic terms, that human rights “came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.”

While U.S. moral leadership ebbs and flows, and our commitment to human rights institutions has been uneven over the years, it is simply wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts a limited number of political and religious rights above all others.  Indeed, this enterprise stands to harm religious freedom itself, as it gives philosophical justification to theocratic governments and religious majority populations who are, by far, the leading persecutors of religious minorities around the world. Those same oppressors also happen to be some of the leading persecutors of LGBTI individuals and other marginalized groups.

It is clear that our worst fears have been confirmed and that yesterday’s meeting was the christening of Pompeo’s intensely academic attempt to justify his efforts to elevate religious freedom to a position of dominance in our country’s human rights diplomacy.  This policy shift was already foreshadowed by Pompeo’s announcement in June, marking the release of the State Department’s 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, that he would strip the State Department’s office of religious freedom out of the Department’s human rights bureau, where it long has served to integrate religious liberty concerns with other human rights priorities, to a position of independence and priority in the Department’s organizational hierarchy.

But this project also seems designed to justify America’s loss of moral authority by blaming it on a “crisis” in the modern human rights system, as described by Commission Chair Mary Ann Glendon. Apparently, it has nothing to do with President Trump’s delight in cozying up to the world’s worst human rights abusers, or to his chaotic policies that green-light human rights atrocities, like the current ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Syria.  This Commission is dedicated to the proposition that it’s all a matter of human rights confusion, not a failure of leadership.  Our best hope is that the Commission itself fails in this misguided enterprise.

First Meeting of State Department’s Dangerous Commission on Unalienable Rights

U.S. Department of StateThis week, Secretary Pompeo’s new commission aimed at narrowing our country’s human rights advocacy to fit with the “natural law” and “natural rights” views of social and religious extremists will meet in Washington.  We know that the Commission on Unalienable Rights is stacked with religious activists who oppose the rights of LGBTI individuals, along with the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, so we can only expect the worst.

The meeting this week will examine the ways in which our country’s founding documents — texts that enshrine slavery and deny rights to all but a limited group of privileged white men — should inform our human rights priorities in the modern age.  That focus hardly allays our concerns.

The formal announcement of the Commission was read awkwardly by Secretary Pompeo at a July press briefing, at which he took no questions.  Pompeo referred without specificity to concern that human rights not be “hijacked” by those who would use the name for their own purposes.  He suggested that the institutions designed to protect human rights had drifted from their mission and claimed that the new commission will offer an “…informed view of the role of human rights in foreign policy….”  Most of the commissioners he named publicly are known for their highly conservative views, often framed with a religious slant.  The Chair of the Commission, Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, has long opposed sexual and reproductive rights, and, as documented by Equity Forward, has written in the most alarmist of terms about the supposed social harms of marriage equality in our country.

We have written earlier of our suspicions that the so-called “Unalienable Rights Commission” is but a thinly guised mechanism to jettison LGBT populations and reproductive rights from the purview of U.S. human rights policies and protections.  Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have raised questions about the new committee’s purpose and membership.  They also have questioned the way in which the committee was conceived, noting in particular its circumvention of the very bureau (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor) charged with integrating human rights concerns into U.S foreign policy at the State Department.

But our concern goes far deeper.  In an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, Secretary Pompeo worries that we have lost our focus, and that today “[r]ights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.”  With language like that, we see this as part of a broader effort to push back against human rights for LGBTI individuals and other “subgroups” by creating a hierarchy of rights — with religious freedom at the pinnacle and the rights of LGBTI and other individuals in the “alienable” category.  We believe it wrong-headed to create an artificial human rights hierarchy — one that strips away the universality of human rights and puts political and religious rights above all others.

This seems all the more concerning in the context of Pompeo’s two high-powered Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department.  And in a speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump Hotel, Pompeo professed his personal belief, which is quickly becoming State Department policy, that human rights should be grounded in religion: “I know where those rights came from.  They came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.”

We categorically reject these hierarchies and insist on an integrated approach to human rights for all.  Freedom of religion must be integrated within – and reinforcing of – the full range of human rights protections that honor the dignity of all persons in all of our many pursuits.

The Commission on Unalienable Rights Pompeo announced is less a group of thoughtful experts than a narrowly gauged, packed court.  In so blatantly appealing to their political base, Trump, Pence and Pompeo are dimming our country’s beacon of principle and freedom, hobbling U.S. human rights leadership, and thoughtlessly undermining the wider human rights platform on which other strategic U.S. interests rest.

With its embrace of dictators, its walk away from the UN Human Rights Council, which is still the world’s most important human rights mechanism despite its faults, and its diminution of LGBT and gender rights as a legitimate part of policy, this Administration already has done far less to advance the cause of human rights than to harm it.  The new Commission seems designed to continue that retreat from U.S. leadership in forging a better world.  What a disgraceful — and steadily worsening — legacy.

Homophobia at Pompeo’s State Department

Last month, Dr. Kiron Skinner disappeared from her job as Secretary Pompeo’s Director of Policy Planning, allegedly ousted over poor and abusive leadership that included use of homophobic language.

Bravo, we guess:  by this point in our country’s history, surely homophobic leadership is beyond the pale.

But there’s been no public statement by Secretary Pompeo on the ouster, of course, so Pompeo’s motives in the dismissal are the stuff of conjecture.  Nor is there public evidence otherwise that Pompeo was displeased personally by anything that Skinner might have said:  no rumors of internal “team talk” to make clear that he won’t tolerate homophobic remarks, and no leaked internal memoranda to suggest concern about Department morale.

And importantly, despite a scathing Inspector General report rebuking yet another of Pompeo’s assistant secretaries for complicity in derailing an employee’s promotion partly for homophobic reasons, that assistant secretary remains in place.

So whatever the reasons for Skinner’s departure, one thing is clear:  Pompeo continues to tolerate homophobia in the workplace.

The aide in question — Kevin Moley, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs — reportedly green-lighted cancellation of the selection process of a new Deputy Director for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (IO/HRH) after the leading candidate was found to be someone that one of his senior bureau political appointees had “…found to be not ‘trustworthy’…,” partly because of “….his relationship with the gay and lesbian community.”**

There are regulations in place at State to guarantee a fair workplace and guard against these sorts of reprisals.  So why is Moley still there?

Pompeo himself, of course, hails from a fundamentalist religious culture and has characterized being gay as a “perversion.”  At his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of State, he notably declined to walk away from that characterization when pressed by Sen. Corey Booker. And in a speech to Concerned Women for America at the Trump hotel last week, he once again professed his personal belief, which is quickly becoming State Department policy, that human rights should be grounded in religion: “I know where those rights came from.  They came from our Lord, and when we get this right, we’ll have done something good, not just I think for the United States but for the world.”

But Pompeo’s personal views aren’t the question here.  Rather, the federal hiring and firing process is subject to federal rules, regulations and practices, and Pompeo’s role as leader of a diverse federal workplace makes it imperative that he ask Moley to leave.

There’s speculation that were Moley, like Skinner, an African-American and/or a woman, by now he would have been let go — or that if Skinner enjoyed Moley’s political connections, she might still be at Policy Planning’s helm.  Who knows?

But what we DO know is that Pompeo hasn’t honored his leadership obligations to ensure a fair government workplace.  Moley should be shown the door — and Pompeo should make clear to appointees and employees alike that homophobia has no place in the workplace he oversees.

**“Review of Allegations of Politicized and Other Improper Personnel Practices in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs,” Office of Inspector General, United States Department of State, August 2019, p. 18.

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