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Grenell emails hint at initial steps in Trump effort to decriminalize homosexuality

State Dept. identified 10 countries for int’l efforts

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Ric Grenell, Richard Grenell, gay news, Washington Blade
Richard Grenell's emails hint at groundwork for campaign to decriminalize homosexuality. (Photo public domain)

Emails from the State Department — obtained by the Washington Blade from a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act — reveal the Trump administration had at least laid the preliminary groundwork for a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality to the extent of identifying 10 countries where it was thought most possible.

The initial seven-page batch of emails, obtained by the FOIA lawsuit seeking communications from former U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell in his capacity as leader of the initiative to decriminalize homosexuality, was delivered to the Blade last month and hints at initial steps toward a plan shortly after the announcement of the initiative. 

It’s unclear from the initial production what further efforts, if any, sprang from the identification of these 10 countries. Critics at the time said the campaign was nothing but window-dressing to cover up for anti-LGBTQ policies during the Trump administration.

In an exchange dated Aug. 23, 2019, an assistant to Grenell forwards an email from an individual whose identity is redacted on an edited list of 10 countries where “we believe decriminalization is possible.” Copied on the email is Robin Quinville, who was deputy chief of mission in Berlin.

“Per your request, attached and edited below is the list of 10 countries where LGBTI decriminalization is possible — with your and Robin’s edits incorporated,” the email is redacted.

The names of the 10 countries, however, are redacted in the exchange provided to the Blade, as is an apparent Word document attached in the exchange with a short justification for each of the countries. Also redacted are the names of two agencies an assistant in the email identifies as having “cleared” the list. 

The assistant tells Grenell the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor hasn’t yet responded, but the embassy “will forward their list when we receive it.”

As a result of the redactions, the identity of the 10 countries is unknown at this time. The early production given the Blade in response to a FOIA request filed in September 2020 offers no indication on the extent to which the State Department conducted further efforts to change the law in these countries, or whether there was any engagement after identifying them.

Grenell didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment for this article on how the identification of these 10 countries informed efforts to decriminalize homosexuality. Quinville couldn’t be reached for comment.

The initial FOIA production also includes an earlier exchange between an assistant and Grenell dated June 11, 2019, shortly after Botswana became the latest country to decriminalize homosexuality, forwarding a link to a Washington Post article on that news. The name of the assistant is redacted and may or may not be the same as the one in the other exchange.

“Some good news coming out of Botswana! Their High Court ruled today that parts of the penal code criminalizing same-sex conduct are unconstitutional,” the unidentified assistant writes.

Grenell is short in his reply: “I just tweeted about it.” It’s not clear whether or not Grenell contributed to the decriminalization efforts in Botswana other than the tweet he references. The assistant goes on to share a link from a tweet from the State Department spokesperson congratulating Botswana.

Other countries addressing the criminalization of homosexuality after the Trump administration’s initiative was announced were Gabon, which became one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa to decriminalize homosexuality, and Sudan, which eliminated the death penalty as punishment for homosexual conduct (although the punishment remains prison time from five years to life). 

There’s no evidence those changes happened as a result of the global initiative Grenell led. One of the aims of the Blade’s FOIA lawsuit is to shed light on any activity from the U.S. government during the Trump administration in assisting with efforts, successful or otherwise, to decriminalize homosexuality.

The redactions on the production in the FOIA lawsuit may not be the last word. FOIA was amended in 2016 to clarify federal agencies cannot redact deliberative language without demonstrating revealing that information would cause “foreseeable harm.” The Blade, represented by attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, will have the opportunity to challenge these redactions once the FOIA production is complete.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, the State Department cited a “sizable universe of potentially responsive records” numbering in the thousands of pages as a reason for being unable to produce the records in a more timely manner. The initial seven pages produced by the State Department are an extremely small percentage of that total.

An unnamed State Department official, in response to an inquiry submitted by the Blade’s attorneys on the reasons for the initial limited production, fell back on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and overwhelming nature of the work, citing a need to consult “subject matter experts” before disclosing potentially sensitive material.

“That process can take considerable time, particularly given the substantial constraints that have been imposed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the State Department response says. “Thus, it’s not necessarily the case that the size of the potentially responsive universe returned by your client’s request should dictate the size of State’s first production. Similarly, a small production set does not necessarily entail that State has not processed a sizeable number of records during the preceding processing cycle.”

The Blade, through its attorneys, has asked the State Department to determine how much of the “sizable universe” has been reviewed and determined to be responsive or non-responsive (“fully processed”) and how long would the process involving subject matter experts take.

Daniel Fiedler, representing the Blade in the FOIA lawsuit as an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said the initial production from the State Department was unsatisfactory.

“In December, the Department of State made its first production in response to the FOIA request submitted by the Washington Blade over a year ago,” Fiedler said. “This nominal production consisted of two email records, both heavily redacted. Such a token response after so much time is truly disheartening, and we will continue to push to ensure that the Department satisfies its obligations under FOIA.” 

Fiedler concluded: “The American public is entitled access to the records sought, and every additional day without that access causes further harm.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge blocks White House from ending Title 42

Advocacy groups say policy further endangered LGBTQ asylum seekers

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The Mexico-U.S. border in Mexicali, Mexico, on July 22, 2018. A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the Biden administration from terminating Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. The previous White House's policy was to have ended on May 23, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic was to have ended Monday, but it remains in place after a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end it.

The White House last month announced it would terminate Title 42, a policy the previous administration implemented in March 2020.

U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Louisiana on May 20 issued a ruling that prevented the Biden administration from terminating the Trump-era policy. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announced the Justice Department will appeal the decision, while adding the administration “will continue to enforce the CDC’s 2020 Title 42 public health authority pending the appeal.”

“This means that migrants who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will be subject to expulsion under Title 42, as well as immigration consequences such as removal under Title 8 (of the U.S. Code),” said Jean-Pierre.

Advocacy groups and members of Congress with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Title 42 took effect say it continues to place LGBTQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups who seek refuge in the U.S. at even more risk.

Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, last month described Title 42 as a “racist and harmful policy.” ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth said Title 42 “put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States.”

Title 42 was to have ended less than a month after five members of Congress from California visited two LGBTQ shelters for asylum seekers in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.

The Council for Global Equality, which organized the trip, in a tweet after Summerhays issued his ruling described Title 42 as a “catastrophe.”

“The Biden administration cannot breathe a sign of relief until it’s a matter of the past,” said the Council for Global Equality on Saturday. “We remain committed to end Title 42.”

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Russia

U.S. official meets with Brittney Griner

Consular visit took place on May 19

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A mugshot of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. (Russian television screenshot)

A U.S. consular official on May 19 visited detained WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Friday told reporters during a virtual briefing the officer “found her continuing to do as well as could be expected under these exceedingly challenging circumstances.” The officer met with Griner two days after U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said Russian officials had denied consular visits with her three times this month.

“Our message is a clear and simple one,” said Price. “We continue to insist that Russia allow consistent and timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees. One-off visits are not sufficient, and we will continue to call on Moscow to uphold its commitments under the Vienna Convention for consistent and timely access as well.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department has determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. 

A Russian court on May 13 extended her detention for another month. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, a union that represents WNBA players, has endorsed a petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” Griner’s release.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on May 14.

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Latin America

U.S. announces more funding to fight HIV/AIDS in Latin America

Jill Biden made announcement on Saturday in Panama

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Former Panamanian first lady Lorena Castillo and UNAIDS in 2017 launched a campaign to fight discrimination against Panamanians with HIV/AIDS. Panama will receive $12.2 million in new PEPFAR funding to further combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

First lady Jill Biden on Saturday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America.

Biden during a visit to Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano, a shelter for people with HIV/AIDS in Panama City, said the State Department will earmark an additional $80.9 million for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-funded work in Latin America. A Panamanian activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke said LGBTQ people were among those who met with the first lady during her visit.

Pope Francis visited the shelter in 2019.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to talk about how the United States and Panama can work together to combat HIV,” said the first lady.

Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, noted Panama will receive $12.2 million of the $80.9 million in PEPFAR funding.

“This funding, pending Congressional notification, will support expanded HIV/AIDS services and treatment,” said LaRosa.

UNAIDS statistics indicate an estimated 31,000 Panamanians were living with HIV/AIDS in 2020. The first lady’s office notes the country in 2020 had the highest number of “newly notificated cases of HIV/AIDS” in Central America.

The first lady visited Panama as part of a trip that included stops in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The Summit of the Americas will take place next month in Los Angeles. The U.S. Agency for International Development and PEPFAR in April announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

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