Pride flags and foreign policy: US diplomats see shift on gay rights

The New York Times

Posted at Jun 10 2019 08:59 AM

RIO DE JANEIRO — American diplomats in Brazil recently sought State Department permission to fly rainbow flags this month at the US Embassy and a consulate, citing an increasingly hostile environment for gay Brazilians since the election of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro last fall.

Washington rejected the request in what some see as the latest sign that the Trump administration may be quietly abandoning the advancement of rights for gay and transgender people as a foreign policy imperative.

The rainbow flag may not be displayed on a “public-facing flagpole,” the department instructed personnel in Brazil and at other missions across the world last Monday.

The symbolic gesture had become routine at US diplomatic posts since 2011, when Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, proclaimed in a landmark speech that “gay rights are human rights.”

The State Department has taken other steps that reflect its shift since the Obama administration days.

There was no public statement this year marking June as Pride Month, and no cable to all its missions like one last year that gave detailed suggestions on celebrating gay pride and “strongly encouraged” them to “advance LGBTI human rights policy objectives” all year.

The department has quietly eliminated the position of special envoy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights as a high-profile, stand-alone job.

And it is creating a Commission on Unalienable Rights, which gay-rights groups fear is intended to narrow the scope of American advocacy. The panel aims to “provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” according to a notice posted on the Federal Register, a government journal, on May 30.

Still, US diplomats in Brazil had no reason to expect official resistance to their proposals to commemorate Pride Month as in years past.

In a memo, teams at the consulate in Rio de Janeiro and the embassy in Brasília suggested that in light of Brazil’s increasing political polarization under Bolsonaro, their actions would “be an opportunity to show support for not only the LGBT community but minority rights as well,” while showcasing “pride and confidence in our own diversity and strength as a society.”

The State Department’s curt rejection left gay personnel and their backers reeling. In conversations this past week, US diplomats who are gay described a prevailing mood of fear and angst. None would speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

Robyn McCutcheon, a foreign service officer who in 2011 became the first transgender US diplomat to transition on the job, expressed disappointment in a recent blog post about the department’s decision not to issue the standard yearly cable encouraging embassies to mark gay pride or a day against homophobia that is observed every May 17.

“Day by day, a death by a thousand cuts, our rights as lgbt+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, the rewriting of a policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a website,” she wrote.

Officials at the State Department did not respond to questions about the flag policy or say whether the advancement of gay and transgender rights continues to be a foreign policy priority. And while they declined to shed light on the intent of the new commission, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently told reporters it would help him decide how to think about human rights in diplomacy.

“How do we make sure that we have a solid definition of human rights upon which to tell all our diplomats around the world how to engage on those important issues?” he asked.

Pompeo has said his religious beliefs shape his approach to policy. “The task I have is informed by my understanding of my faith, my belief in Jesus Christ as the savior,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network in April.

Gay advocacy groups said they expected the commission to be a setback.

“We sincerely doubt that this commission is being organized to ensure that the human rights of LGBTQ people and others who experience extreme violence and discrimination are being protected to the fullest extent,” said Ty Cobb, global director of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group.

He added, “Trump and Pence have made it clear they are not allies to the LGBTQ community — neither here at home or abroad.”

Clinton’s 2011 speech before a United Nations body in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights” represented an ambitious bid by the United States to lead a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality and expand the legal rights of gay and transgender people.

American focus on the issue helped galvanize same-sex marriage movements across the world. The Obama administration sought to make headway even in deeply conservative nations, at times coming under criticism for endangering the advocates it sought to empower.

Washington’s stance matters, rights advocates say.

“In environments in which marginalized populations have little other recourse within their own government, they saw the United States as a protector,” said Rob Berschinski, the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, who worked on rights issues at the State Department in the Obama administration. “The United States government walking back on issues like LGBT rights matters deeply to those communities; for some it’s a matter of life and death.”

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has not formally abandoned gay and transgender rights as a foreign policy imperative, but the quest has lost visibility and momentum. Some senior diplomats have continued to champion the issue, but they no longer have a comprehensive policy directive to follow.

Trump’s announcement this month that his administration would lead an effort to decriminalize homosexuality across the world has been met with criticism, given his administration’s rollback of rights at home for gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In Brazil their rights have been considerably expanded in the past decade, with permission to marry granted by the courts in 2013 and the ability to change names and gender markers on public documents now made relatively easy.

In addition, Brazil’s top court is expected to issue a ruling this month making homophobic acts a criminal offense.

But anti-gay violence is widespread, and many people feel increasingly vulnerable with the rise of elected officials like Bolsonaro, who said in 2011 that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son. In April, he said Brazil should not market itself as a destination for gay tourists because “we have families.” Anticipating action on homophobia from the top court, the president told supporters he was inclined to appoint an evangelical justice.

Amid this backdrop, a midlevel diplomat at the US Consulate in Rio de Janeiro sent an email to a supervisor in mid-May seeking approval to raise the pride flag alongside the American flag for all of June.

Scott Hamilton, the consul general, backed the idea in a memo to the embassy in Brasília, noting the “atmosphere of increased intolerance and acts of homophobic violence.”

Embassy personnel supported the request, too, and planned to raise a rainbow flag at their compound as well during a public ceremony on June 19.

The rejection from the State Department left the diplomatic commemorations in Brazil on hold and set off frenzied speculation about what it meant for US leadership on gay rights.

At other diplomatic posts, including the US Embassies in South Korea and Israel, pride flags or banners have been put up in public view — but not on flagpoles, as the State Department specifically prohibited. The US Embassy in Germany, where the ambassador is the most prominent openly gay diplomat in the Trump administration, plans to do the same.

But not in Brazil. In a notice issued Friday, the embassy instructed personnel at the five consulates in the country to ensure that any pride “flags are placed internally.”