Donald Trump’s victory threatens to set back years of international progress on LGBT rights made during the Obama administration, and perhaps the very international human rights framework, advocates from around the world warn.
Trump’s victory comes as countries like Russia and Qatar have been waging a campaign to undermine the foundations of international human rights law, arguing that the framework has become a tool of wealthy, Western nations to impose “cultural imperialism” around the world. For them, the United States is the biggest offender, and its defense of LGBT people is the most potent evidence to question the legitimacy of the entire premise of “human rights.” That is why they’re so afraid of President Trump.
“To me this is not a regular election at all,” said Polina Andrianova, an LGBT activist in St. Petersburg who was a key figure in protesting Russia’s “gay propaganda law” ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. “For me it is really about fundamental values — values of respect for human dignity and for human life... I'm afraid not just for LGBT people, but where [Trump is] going to take the entire world.”
It’s not clear exactly what Trump’s position on LGBT rights abroad will be once he assumes the presidency — and he’s sent mixed messages about LGBT rights in the US — but the signals he’s sent are not encouraging to advocates who want the US to continue to be a voice for human rights. He has praised totalitarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and derided multinational institutions from the European Union to NATO.
One area he has been clear on, however, is shutting down the US refugee resettlement program, and there are now roughly 1,000 queer refugees from countries like Syria and Iran currently waiting to be resettled from Turkey, said Neil Grungras of the LGBT refugee organization ORAM.
The US takes roughly 80% percent of all the refugees in Turkey resettled to other countries, and it fast-tracks LGBT refugees' applications because they are considered at high risk of violence inside Turkey. But the backlog means that LGBT refugees can still expect to spend more than two years waiting to be resettled.
If Trump makes good on his promise to freeze refugee resettlement, Grungras said, “It adds a cataclysmic dimension to the situation…. It’s going to mean a lot of people are just going to die.”
But activists in countries where US support has been critical to promoting LGBT rights say they are afraid more broadly that a Trump victory could tacitly encourage governments with weak commitments to human rights or democracy.
“I don't think he'd be able to hold our leaders accountable or uphold American values abroad,” said Clare Byarugaba, who co-chaired the coalition of groups in Uganda that fought the sweeping Anti-Homosexuality Act passed in 2014. Opposition to the bill from the US and other nations that help fund Uganda’s government is credited with help ensuring that a suit against the law quickly reached the country’s highest court, where it was struck down.
If Trump cozies up to Putin, Byarugaba wonders, “Can the US be trusted to protect our rights?”
“This is horrible,” said Olena Schevchenko, a Ukrainian LGBT activist who was also a leader of the “Euromaidan” protest movement that ousted the country’s former president when he moved toward closer ties with Russia. “The United States was a great example for us… Now we expect the backlash in all spheres of rights — LGBT rights, minority rights, women’s rights, migrant rights.”
The role of the Obama administration in transforming the global conversation over LGBT rights “cannot be overstated,” said David Pressman, who recently stepped down as the ambassador to the United Nations representing the United States in the Security Council and previously was director for War Crimes and Atrocities on the National Security Council. (He is now a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner and executive director of the Clooney Center for Justice.)
“We made choices based on where we thought we could advance the fundamental rights of LGBT people around the world including in Russia … [that were] fundamentally … informed by a core belief that the US has a responsibility to play a role in the world that no other country plays: standing up for people who are persecuted and who are vulnerable,” Pressman said.
Under President George W. Bush, the United States had been a chief opponent to European and Latin American-led efforts to insert LGBT rights language into United Nations documents; under President Obama, it became a key advocate. Hillary Clinton spelled out this sea change as secretary of state in a 2011 speech, in which she declared “[G]ay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
Since then, the Security Council issued a statement condemning violence targeting LGBT people for the first time, and the Human Rights Council created the UN’s first-ever watchdog for rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The US has worked closely with many key partners on this battle — and often prefers to let other countries be the public face of an initiative — but it has unique leverage to help advance the agenda.
This was a radical break from the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, and Donald Trump will now decide if this will continue to be US policy — or if the US will emphasize human rights in diplomacy at all.
And the backlash continues to build. Last week, a bloc of 54 African states introduced an unprecedented resolution attempting to oust the LGBT rights watchdog appointed by the independently operating Human Rights Council. The proposal comes as several African countries are pulling out of the International Criminal Court which they contend has become an agent of imperialism. It is expected to also have near-unanimous support of the 57-member Organization for Islamic Cooperation, which includes nations like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, which have also resisted international human rights norms — especially on questions concerning gender equality — as representing Western bias.
The fact the US controls such a large portion of global aid dollars has given it a special kind of leverage, which the US most visibly used for LGBT rights by shifting aid away from the Ugandan government after the Anti-Homosexuality Act was adopted and the World Bank — which gets major funding from the US — delayed a $90 million loan to the country. It also has quietly funded many LGBT rights initiatives around the world through small grants through its embassies; the State Department also houses a partnership between foreign governments, corporations, and advocacy groups to support LGBT rights work called the Global Equality Fund.
This influence could quickly evaporate if Trump scales back foreign aid. This would leave Russia and China as increasingly powerful players in the game of dollar diplomacy, and vulnerable groups could be the ones who pay the price.
“If Donald Trump is the president of the United States, the implications for LGBT communities in the US and around the world are more than disastrous,” Asia Russell, the Kampala-based executive director of Health Gap, a US group advocating for support for international HIV efforts, said as the returns were coming in Tuesday night.
“I firmly believe, as an activist, that we can live through four years — the world has lived through worse than this person,” Russell said. But LGBT people and other vulnerable communities face “outright murder, detention, and assault” in many countries around the world, and now “the politicians who support those actions just got a president in Donald Trump.”