With the oblivious fanfare of a boycotted Olympiad, the Trump campaign’s quadrennial overture to gay and lesbian voters began anew last week with the announcement that President Donald Trump, who has banned trans service members in the U.S. military and opposed legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination, is “the most pro-gay president in American history.”
“Gay people don’t have to vote Democrat, because Donald Trump is the most pro-gay president in American history,” announced Richard Grenell, former acting director of national intelligence and longtime Trump supporter, in a video released on Aug. 19 by the gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans.
The video prefaced the rollout of “Trump Pride,” the campaign’s coalition of gay Trump supporters, and the announcement that Grenell would appear on Wednesday at the Republican National Convention to speak about what he lauded as Trump’s “historic campaign to decriminalize homosexuality around the globe.”
But a year and a half after Grenell first announced that initiative, LGBT human rights advocates and activists told The Daily Beast that the supposed program has almost nothing to show for its efforts—and in some countries has actually lost ground as its domestic policy agenda has undercut the push for equal treatment for queer people abroad.
“Nothing more than a series of self-promoting Twitter photos,” summed up Julie Dorf, a senior adviser at the Council for Global Equality, calling the campaign a “sham.”
“I’m not aware of any major breakthroughs from Ric Grenell’s campaign to decriminalize homosexuality,” said Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International.
“The decriminalization campaign is smoke and mirrors,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, who accused the Trump campaign of sidestepping the administration’s extensive record of hostility towards LGBTQ Americans by highlighting an initiative that functionally doesn’t exist. “The U.S. opposed criminalization long before President Trump took office—and saying people shouldn’t be imprisoned for being LGBT is the bare minimum of what the U.S. should be doing, not a bold endeavor.”
None of the experts in international LGBT human rights policy told The Daily Beast that Grenell’s push to decriminalize homosexuality had led to any tangible results.
“This is window dressing,” said Lucas Acosta, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, “held up as a major accomplishment by Ric Grenell, with no actual credible victory.”
Out of nearly 70 countries that still treat homosexuality as illegal either in law or in practice, only two—Botswana and Gabon—have decriminalized homosexual acts since Grenell announced the initiative in February 2019. Of those two, Botswana’s legalization was the result of a long-fought legal battle that the government has sought to appeal, making Gabon the lone country where decriminalization was enacted with the support of elected officials.
Even that victory, Acosta said, does not appear to have any connection to efforts by the Trump administration.
“We don’t know what involvement Grenell and the people ‘working’ on his initiative even had with that legislative push,” Acosta said, adding that the administration’s “horrible record here at home” seriously undercuts Trump’s moral credibility on LGBT issues abroad.
The apparent failure of the program is not hugely surprising, experts said, in part because Trump himself appeared unfamiliar with its existence the day after it was announced.
“I don’t know, uh, which report you’re talking about. We have many reports,” Trump said on Feb. 21, 2019, when a reporter asked him during an Oval Office gaggle why he had started the initiative. “Anybody else?”
The State Department, for its part, also downplayed the campaign’s significance from the get-go.
“This really is not a big policy departure—this is longstanding and it’s bipartisan,” deputy State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino told reporters after Grenell’s announcement. “I would say that this is a good opportunity to listen and to discuss ideas about how the United States can advance decriminalization of homosexuality around the world, and that’s been our policy.”
Grenell, Dorf told The Daily Beast, “somehow convinced Trump to include one bungled sentence ‘to stop criminalizing of homosexuality’ in his speech to the U.N.” in September 2019. “But there has never been any Trump administration decriminalization plan—no new funding to support the local LGBTQ+ activists working in those countries on decriminalization. They are the true heroes on the ground who deserve America’s support.”
At a U.N. breakout session in December 2019, Grenell insisted that there was a plan, explaining the glacial momentum behind the initiative as a logical consequence of the complexity of addressing the specifics of each statute in each country.
“We need to have 69 different plans of action because we are dealing with 69 different countries,” Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany, said. “It is a long road.”
But advocates told The Daily Beast that the administration’s promises to decriminalize same-sex relationships, though critical for the well-being of queer people around the world, are meaningless without concrete results.
“Ending the criminalization of LGBTQ people is an urgent and a monumental task, but former Ambassador Grenell and the Trump administration have failed to announce actual resources or plans to accomplish it,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, saying that considering Trump’s domestic record on queer issues, it was “no surprise” that the world didn’t heed the administration’s call for equal treatment of LGBT people.
“The Trump administration itself is fighting against LGBTQ rights at home by rolling back multiple policies and arguing all the way to the Supreme Court to deprive hard-working LGBTQ Americans of employment protections,” Ellis said. “Actions speak louder than words, unfortunately to the detriment of LGBTQ people everywhere.”
Advocates pointed to the two most high-profile international crises that have faced LGBT people since Grenell’s pledge: Brunei’s plan, since withdrawn, to legalize capital punishment for homosexuality in the form of stoning; and the ongoing disappearance of LGBT people in the Russian region of Chechnya.
The Trump administration was initially silent on the Brunei law, only telling The Daily Beast that it was “concerned” about the decision after the publication of a story noting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s silence on the matter. As for Chechen LGBT people, who watchdogs say have been subjected to sexual torture and state-sanctioned murder since anti-gay purges began in 2017, the Trump administration has made the receipt of asylum status next to impossible, drawing sharp criticism from the international network of Russian LGBT activists attempting to bring them to safety.
“Recent state-sanctioned LGBTQ discrimination and violence occurred under Trump’s watch, from Poland to Chechnya, and in Brunei, Brazil, Indonesia and more,” Ellis said, “but the Trump administration remained silent instead of holding hostile governments accountable.”
Grenell did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the efficacy of his campaign to decriminalize homosexuality internationally.
Despite the criticism, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are hanging their hat on the decriminalization initiative, part of a broader push to woo LGBT voters—well, at least “L” and “G” voters—despite the administration’t record on queer issues at home. Last week, the Trump campaign announced “Trump Pride,” a coalition of gay conservatives who support Trump’s reelection.
The coalition’s advisory board, composed of 21 people whose names were occasionally misspelled, includes several gay and lesbian conservative mainstays from the Log Cabin Republicans orbit, including Grenell and the group’s vice chair Jill Homan.
But the “Trump Pride” board also includes some more controversial figures, many of whom have a history of anti-transgender and anti-Muslim statements.
Board member David Leatherwood, known by the social media handle “Brokeback Patriot,” frequently derides the legitimacy of trans identity, and has used the slur “tranny” on social media as recently as last summer.
“Trans women are not women, they are men with gender dysphoria,” he tweeted in December. “Trans men are not men, they are women with gender dysphoria.”
Rob Smith, a Black gay conservative who once opposed Trump’s ban on transgender service members in the U.S. military, has since called trans identity a “cult” and says gay groups exist for the purpose of “abolishing biological sex and pushing the trans agenda.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether it was aware of these comments when forming its advisory board, or if those statements comport with the views of the campaign.
But winning over LGBT voters may not even be the point of Trump’s public push, advocates said, theorizing that the “Trump Pride”-Grenell axis seems better suited for winning over suburban straights than actual queer people.
“The reality is that the Trump administration has consistently undermined LGBT rights domestically and internationally,” said Reid, “and the campaign is being used to distract people from that.”
“I think what they’re actually doing is like trying to allay the concerns of, like, the suburban mom of an LGBTQ person in Michigan who voted Republican in every single election cycle for the last while, but because of Trump’s position on equality is now like thinking, maybe they pivot away,” Acosta said. “By highlighting this like initiative that did nothing, they’re just trying to put a mask over the trash heap that is Trump’s record on LGBTQ issues.”