Richard Grenell, the former director of acting intelligence who has become the face of LGBTQ outreach to re-elect President Trump, defended on Monday the progress of the global initiative he led in the Trump administration to decriminalize homosexuality.
Grenell, in a rare interview with the LGBTQ media with host Cyd Zeigler on the OutSports podcast, initially shifted blame to the Obama administration when asked about criticism the effort to decriminalize same-sex relations in the 69 countries where it remains illegal amounted to nothing.
“Well, first of all, I find very ironic that political types, partisan types will suddenly say that in the last couple of years, we were supposed to make progress on the 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality after eight years in the Obama-Biden administration,” Grenell said. “They did very little if anything to highlight this problem.”
(The Obama administration did work to address human rights abuses against LGBTQ people overseas. Former President Obama in a United Nations speech in 2011 said “we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere,” eight years before President Trump told the U.N. General Assembly his administration would work with countries to decriminalize homosexuality.)
Rooting the problem in Islamic beliefs, Grenell also said the decriminalization of same-sex relations across the globe is an “incredibly difficult problem,” citing not only laws, but “ties to majority-Muslim countries who believe religiously in denying basic rights to gay and lesbians.”
“And so, this has got to be peeled away from not just a civil society, but many religious societies that believe this is kind of a religious mandate,” Grenell said. “And so, it’s an uphill battle, but we are making incredible strides.”
Grenell also repudiated the idea the global initiative accomplished nothing, saying the State Department launched the initiative worldwide and “we have seen incredible progress in some countries.”
“I hesitate to ever — and this may be one of the problems why people don’t see the progress over the last couple of years — we’re very sensitive to not highlighting a country that is getting close or where we making progress because it only serves as a flashpoint for those who want to stop our progress, or the bad actors that would manipulate what we’re trying to do,” Grenell said.
Indeed, at least two countries have made progress in recent months in decriminalize homosexuality. In July, Gabon decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations, becoming one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa to do so, and Sudan eliminated the death penalty the punishment for same-sex relations, although there is still punishment of prison time from five years to life. There’s no evidence those changes happened as a result of the global initiative Grenell led.
One challenge, Grenell said, is “there’s a big healthy debate” in the diplomatic community on whether or not the United States through its embassies “should speak up and confront say in the Middle East countries who criminalize homosexuality and do it from the U.S. embassies.”
“The debate is let’s not make this an American thing, an American push, because many in the Arab believe that being gay is an American idea and it’s from Hollywood, it’s from America and it’s American values — and they say it in a very negative way,” Grenell said.
For his part, Grenell said he’s been fighting within the State Department and the diplomatic community to say, “that’s a crazy idea” and the United States should be leading at the forefront of the issue.
“We all know that being gay is not an American push, or an American idea, and so why would we be silent when confronting those who want to criminalize homosexuality?” Grenell said. “We should not play into this idea that it’s a Western thing. We should call it what it is, which is a crazy idea. There are gay people in every single country and they deserve to have their human dignity and their human rights. These are basic human rights, and I am one to want the U.S. to get much more aggressive in our embassies, and that is a controversial issue: Some don’t want to have the Americans leading the effort in these countries.”
Grenell added the debate has “largely gotten past that” and U.S. embassies are “stepping out” and taking action, which he called “a change in the direction that many embassies have done.”
“I still, though, have problems when certain…embassies and countries don’t want to make this a Western push or an American push, but we do have greater support in the Trump administration to not back down from that fight,” Grenell said.
Although Grenell faulted of the criminalization of homosexuality on Islamic beliefs, he added there has been progress both in the Middle East as well as the Caribbean, where he acknowledged the issue is also a problem.
“Most people are shocked to know…many countries in the Caribbean are just as bad on this issue as some countries in the Middle East,” Grenell said. “And so, we really need to make progress wherever we have the problem, and the 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality — it just means for the State Department and for the U.S. government — we have to work with our friends and allies to have 69 different plans because every single country is different.”
Grenell’s willingness to discuss the initiative stands in contrast to his reaction earlier this month, when he snapped at the New York Post’s Steven Nelson for questioning him about it during a White House briefing on recent Serbia-Kosovo agreement.
Ryan Thoreson, a researcher in the LGBTQ Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said via email Grenell making decriminalization a partisan issue is “not helpful” and the Trump administration initiative falls short because it ignores its anti-LGBTQ record at home.
“Whatever Ambassador Grenell claims to be doing behind the scenes, what the rest of the world sees is an administration that regularly disregards human rights, including the rights of LGBT people, at home and abroad,” Thoreson said. “A genuine commitment to the full range of human rights for LGBT people would mean far more than reassurances that they’re pressuring governments on this single issue behind the scenes.”
The focus of the Outsports interview was Iran’s recent execution of athlete Navid Afkari, who reportedly was killed earlier this month after denouncing the Iranian regime despite an international campaign to save his life. Grenell is now calling on the International Olympics should exclude Iran from the Olympics — a view Zeigler said he shares. (Zeigler said in his blog post he’s been a longtime friend with Grenell.)
Grenell said Trump “believes engagement is something that should happen” and has been open to speaking with Iranian leaders, but “there are times when you have to say this has crossed the line so much” it’s not an option, such as with Iran, which is one of the countries that not only criminalizes homosexuality, but institutes the death penalty for it.
“The regime in Iran needs to be told by the international community that what they’re doing is not good for their people and I think they need to be ostracized,” Grenell said. “I think the international needs to do more to show the Iranian regime that they are on the wrong path.”
Grenell also disclosed he’s aware of underground groups who work to find save haven for gay people in Iran, which persecutes gay people and imposes the death penalty on same-sex relations.
“I have to be very careful how much I give away here, but there are international organizations who will pay for individuals in Iran who are gay or lesbian to get out, and to use this underground system to escape out of Iran,” Grenell said. “There are many stories, hard-breaking stories, of individuals who get out and escape to another country and then try to get a Western-style democracy so that they can live their life freely.”
Grenell said he gets emails, direct messages on social message and text of urgent pleas from gay and lesbian people for help and themselves and their partners, calling it “truly horrific” and the international community needs to take action. (Grenell notably omitted any concern for transgender people or the larger LGBTQ community in the discussion.)
“I really believe that the gay and lesbian community has to understand that our brothers and sisters around the world are really up against some terrible human rights abuses and that we need to do more,” Grenell said. “We are so lucky to be living in the United States, or where I was living in Berlin for a number of years, to live…throughout Europe. We’re blessed to live in countries where we can be who we are and yet we know that there are individual cases around the world, individual countries that deny just basic human rights.”
Grenell recently became senior adviser to the Republican National Committee for LGBTQ outreach and is a co-chair of Trump Pride, which seeks to build support to re-elect Trump in the LGBTQ community despite his anti-LGBTQ record.