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Why Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Might Actually Stand Up for LGBT Rights

The State Department wields enormous power to help the cause of equal rights around the world, and Rex Tillerson gives some reason to hope that will continue.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

Like all of Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks, Rex Tillerson has come under fire from liberals. Unlike the others, though, he’s also been attacked from the right, as a few Christian conservatives think that he is too pro-LGBT to serve.

Are they right? Could the ExxonMobil CEO be an exception to Trump’s Cabinet of anti-LGBT zealots?

The answer is enormously important because the State Department under Secretaries Clinton and Kerry has done more for LGBT people than any other department in the Executive Branch.

First, the State Department has dispensed approximately $35 million since 2011 to organizations working on LGBT issues (or “SOGI” in international parlance: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity). And while some have claimed that this aid has led to a backlash against sexual and gender minorities, particularly in Africa, African SOGI activists told The Daily Beast that it has been essential for their very survival. “The African LGBT struggle could not have come this far without the support of the West,” said Nigerian activist Davis Mac-Iyalla.

But the State Department’s impact extends far beyond direct dollars invested. It has worked with embassies to combat criminalization of same-sex conduct, protected LGBT asylum-seekers and refugees, and led the West’s resistance to the efforts of Russia and Islamic countries to enshrine discrimination at the United Nations by favoring the so-called natural family (i.e., dominant husband, obedient wife, many kids) over the diversity of family arrangements found across the world.

The State Department has also brought U.S. HIV/AIDS policy into the 21st century, abandoning the religiously based and ineffective approaches of the Bush administration (such as abstinence-only education) in favor of programs that actually work.

Finally, Secretary Clinton set a global tone for LGBT equality, saying in 2011 that gay rights are human rights (echoing her 1995 comment about women’s rights). These statements were powerful in ways that are difficult to measure. Indeed, State Department emails released in 2015 showed that Clinton’s support for LGBT equality was genuine. Secretary Kerry has carried forward these policies.

The new secretary of State will have the opportunity to continue, slow, stop, or reverse all of these efforts. He could zero out all aid to women’s and LGBT organizations—or, worse, provide it to anti-gay and anti-choice non-governmental organizations instead. He could return to non-evidence-based HIV/AIDS policies, causing infections and deaths to rise again in the name of religion-derived morality. And he could signal to social reactionaries around the world that the U.S. now stands with them, and against human rights.

So what might Rex Tillerson do?

His record has both pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT elements to it.

In 2013, Tillerson successfully urged the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay scouts to participate. This was a matter of personal importance to Tillerson, an Eagle Scout and recent president of the BSA from 2010 to 2012. As reported in The Dallas Morning News, according to a close confidant, Tillerson’s opinion on the matter came as a result of personal prayer and reflection.

“He agonized over this,” the confidant said. “He prayed on it, and ultimately he came to the conclusion the only thing that can guide him here is what’s best for the young boys.”

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It’s easy to forget, from the vantage point of 2016, that this was a divisive, bitter battle only three years ago; indeed, one of Tillerson’s chief opponents at the time was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, perhaps his future colleague in the Trump Cabinet.

That’s why Tony Perkins, the headline-seeking firebrand who heads the Family Research Council, blasted the Tillerson nomination from the right wing, accusing him of “risking the well-being of young boys under his charge in an attempt to placate radical homosexual activists.” It’s hard to know whether to take Perkins seriously; he is a longtime bomb-thrower with a penchant for outrageous hyperbole. Still, his opposition is, for progressives, encouraging.

On the other hand, Tillerson’s LGBT record at ExxonMobil is poor. True, the company has recently improved its score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (PDF), from 40 in the 2016 guide to 85 in the 2017 guide—but a closer look reveals that the change is illusory.

For years, Exxon was a holdout, its shareholders rejecting non-discrimination protections for LGBT employees 17 times. When Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999, former Mobil employees actually lost the same-sex domestic partnership benefits they had enjoyed for years. In 2012 and 2013, the Human Rights Campaign actually gave Exxon a negative-25 score on the index. An in-depth investigation in 2013 by the LGBT magazine The Advocate revealed a corporate culture dominated by conservatism and machismo.

ExxonMobil’s policy changed in 2015, but only because President Obama signed an executive order requiring government contractors—ExxonMobil being among the largest—to adopt such protections. The company had no choice but to comply, and so its score jumped.

Trump, incidentally, is widely expected to overturn that order on his first day in office.

Now, does agreeing that gay youth should be Boy Scouts dictate a particular position on international policy? Of course not. But often in LGBT issues, attitudes shape policy—in particular, basic attitudes about whether LGBT people can be good people, whether sexual orientation is merely a “lifestyle choice,” and so on. That’s why so many conservatives have been claiming that transgender people are mentally ill lately; if you admit that they are, in fact, healthy human beings who lead full lives once their gender dysphoria is addressed, then it’s hard to justify discriminating against them.

Moreover, Tillerson’s attitude puts him to the left of all of Trump’s other Cabinet nominations (perhaps unsurprisingly, since domestic positions were likely chosen by Mike Pence, whereas Tillerson appears to be a Trump pick). Perry, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, and Ben Carson have all gone on record opposing not only LGBT equality, but LGBT existence. To them, we’re still deviants, sodomites, or anti-family sex fiends.

Reaction from the NGO community has been mixed.

Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight International, which works with SOGI organizations around the world, told The Daily Beast, “We’re all asking ourselves if would-be Secretary of State Tillerson will think of U.S. foreign policy like a business. In the best scenario, it could mean we wouldn’t have to worry. Countries that support full and equal human rights are countries that enjoy high levels of education, a thriving workforce, healthy people, and safe communities. Worst case, it means making deals and compromising human rights and the environment for dollars.”

Others have noted that Tillerson has long cozied up to repressive regimes on behalf of ExxonMobil, suggesting that human rights may not be a priority for him. For example, Robert Bank, executive director of the American Jewish World Service, said in a statement that “We believe it is a fundamental requirement for any U.S. secretary of State to ensure that promoting human rights and reversing the horrific effects of climate change are central pillars of our foreign policy. Unfortunately, Rex Tillerson cannot meet either of these crucial challenges, as he has long represented interests that are in deep conflict with these principles.”

And, of course, Tillerson’s close ties to Russia, which include receiving the country’s highest honor given to foreigners, have raised concerns across the political spectrum.

Even if Tillerson is somewhat sympathetic to gay people, it’s highly unlikely that he will continue the pro-LGBT policies of Hillary Clinton. Yet he is, so far, the least anti-gay of any of Trump’s cabinet nominees. That’s not saying much, but at least it’s saying something.