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Grenell emails reveal internal talk on Trump era policy against Pride flag

U.S. embassies barred from rainbow flag on official poles

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Ric Grenell, Richard Grenell, gay news, Washington Blade
Richard Grenell's emails reveals internal talk about the Pride flag policy at U.S. embassies. (Blade file photo)

The latest emails from the State Department obtained by the Washington Blade via its lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act reveal internal deliberation in the Trump administration over news reports about the prohibition of displaying Pride flags on the official pole at U.S. embassies.

Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, whose emails the Blade is seeking as the public face of a global initiative that pledged to decriminalize homosexuality, is repeatedly shown in the communications instructing his aides at the embassy in Berlin to give no comment to the media, including in response to an inquiry at the time from the Blade, on the flag policy for embassies.

“Thanks. Say nothing. I’m working it internally,” Grenell responds in an email chain after being updated on the latest media inquiries, which included requests from ABC’s Conor Finnegan, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and CBS.

It’s unclear what, if anything, Grenell was doing as part of “working it internally” as news broke that embassies were barred from flying Pride flags on the official pole, or even whether he was seeking a substantive change as opposed to crafting talking points to mitigate the appearance of the Trump administration being anti-LGBTQ.

“No Fox or local German press but I suspect that the latter will be coming today once they wake up and read other coverage,” writes Joseph Giordono-Scholz, who was handling media relations for the embassy. “Will continue as discussed, no responses.”

In 2019, shortly after Grenell announced he’d spearhead a global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality on behalf of the Trump administration, U.S. embassies that had sought to raise the rainbow flag in recognition of June as Pride month were barred from doing so under guidance from the State Department. 

Critics at the time jumped on the policy as further evidence the Trump administration was anti-LGBTQ, despite having recently launched the decriminalization initiative. Trump defenders pointed out the prohibition was limited to the official pole, was a general ban of flying any flag other than the U.S. flag, and embassies found other ways to display the Pride flag on their grounds.

Grenell didn’t respond Tuesday to the Blade’s request for comment on the meaning of “working it internally,” but Log Cabin Republicans, an organization close to Grenell, volunteered a message shortly after the Blade sent its inquiry to him.

Charles Moran, managing director of Log Cabin Republicans, said in the email the conception the Trump administration banned Pride flags at embassies is erroneous.

“We were very pleased that President Trump made it clear that pride flags could continue to be flown at embassies around the globe, despite logistical discussions internally being had at the State Department,” Moran said.

Attached in the email is an image of Moran standing below a pole with both a U.S. flag and a rainbow flag, which Moran said was taken at the U.S. Embassy Berlin on July 26, 2019, when he was en route to a decriminalization discussion forum being hosted there. 

Asked by the Blade whether that was the official pole, Moran replied, “I don’t know what an ‘official pole’ is. It was a professionally installed flag pole, on the embassy next to the front door.” Moran didn’t respond to an additional follow up question on what he meant by Trump making it clear Pride flags would be allowed at embassies.

Morgan Ortagus, then-spokesperson for the State Department, defended former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s policy against Pride flags on as she acknowledged “Pride Month that we’re in right now celebrated around the world by many State Department employees, by many embassies.”

“The secretary has the position that, as it related to the flag pole, that only the American flag should be flown there,” Ortagus said.

The email chain within the U.S. embassy in Berlin on the news development began with Giordono-Scholz forwarding Grenell a link to a story from NBC News’s Josh Lederman, who broke the story on U.S. embassies being unable to fly Pride flags, followed by a subsequent email with the text of his article. The immediacy with which the aide sends the link in an email first before the story itself in a subsequent message suggests a sense of urgency in distribution and awareness the article would be forthcoming.

Other news outlets were quick to follow up, including the Blade, as evidenced by Giordono-Scholz’s follow up question to Grenell after sharing the initial NBC News story.

“CNN (Michelle Kosinski) just called, asked if we had anything to add,” Giordono-Scholz writes. “Wash Blade also just emailed. How would like me to respond to these and coming inquiries — just point them to the NBC statement you gave and refer back to DC on questions about the Dept?”

Grenell was succinct in response: “Say nothing. Right now don’t respond.”

Giordono-Scholz acknowledges the instructions from Grenell in a subsequent email, which also notifies him of an inquiry from the Washington Post’s Carol Morello.

“Will continue to let you know about inquires but not respond to any,” Giordono-Scholz writes.

The emails were obtained in a FOIA production from the State Department this week as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Blade with attorneys at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. The litigation was filed in August 2021 after interminable delays in production of communications, which the Blade initially sought by a FOIA request in September 2020.

The State Department has identified tens of thousands of emails potentially responsive to the Blade’s request and is expected to release those it deems to be responsive periodically as a result of an agreement in the litigation.

Also ensnared in the latest email dump are communications on other foreign policy topics, including the Nord Strom 2 pipeline and Iran’s seizure of oil tankers. Many of these emails reveal a preoccupation with using tweets as a tool to convey foreign policy messages with little else mentioned in terms of engagement.

“I’m watching. Already tweeted about it ;)” Grenell responds when an aide informs him that Iran has seized oil tankers.

Evyenia Sidereas, political minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, responds: “My twitter alerts can’t keep up :),” which prompts Grenell to reply: “I’ve been a little busy today. Lol.”

The emphasis on Twitter is also seen after an aide in May 2019 brings to Grenell’s attention the Kenya high court has affirmed the country’s law against homosexuality. An aide (whose name the State Department redacted in the email) informs him then-U.S. Ambassador Kyle McCarter is set to have a meeting with staff “to discuss whether he’ll issue a statement” and the embassy in Nairobi had updated the State Department while awaiting further guidance.

“I’ll tweet about this one, too,” Grenell says. “Can you make a suggestion and I’ll tweet Hungary today. Kenya tomorrow.” (It’s unclear what the reference to Hungary was regarding.)

In terms of discussion at the U.S. embassy on the Kenya decision, whatever was considered apparently didn’t bear fruit. The Blade couldn’t immediately find any public statement on the Kenya decision from McCarter in his capacity as a U.S. ambassador during the Trump administration. McCarter didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment for this article.

In 2018, McCarter was grilled during his Senate confirmation hearing on his record as an Illinois state legislator who opposed LGBTQ rights, including his vote against an anti-bullying measure after stating he believed it would promote homosexuality. McCarter also had a history of misogynistic tweets and in 2016 tweeted: “Hillary for Prison. No, really.”

Much of the focus on the Trump administration’s global initiative appeared to be Iran, which has been an antagonist on the global stage and more so after Trump withdrew from the Iran deal. Iran is also one of the countries where homosexuality is not only criminalized, but punishable by death.

Although Grenell has publicly disputed Iran was the focus, he was quick to provide a quote to his assistant seeking a response from him after the country’s foreign minister affirmed its anti-gay policy in response to questions from a reporter with a German newspaper.

“The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that these answers from the Iranian regime are violating basic UN principles,” Grenell writes. “UN members should agree with the Declaration in order to be members. Criminalizing homosexuality violates the Declaration, plain and simple.”

Grenell’s response was later found online in an article in The Jerusalem Post, which covered reaction to the news in an article titled, “Iran’s FM affirms right to execute gays and blasts U.S. and Israel.”

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Africa

Kenyan LGBTQ rights groups honor transgender refugees, asylum seekers

Event coincided with the Transgender Day of Remembrance

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The Refugee Trans Initiative and the Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health used the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor transgender refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health)

Two LGBTQ rights groups in Kenya this month used the Transgender Awareness Week and the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor transgender refugees and asylum seekers in the country. 

The Refugee Trans Initiative and Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health on Nov. 20 hosted an event in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. It did not take place in the Kakuma refugee camp; but former residents who now live in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa attended. 

“The event was to celebrate Trans Awareness Week for trans refugees and asylum seekers and we invited other individuals who are part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ refugee community,” Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy Health Director Vanilla Hussein. “We had time to reflect on the memory of our friends we have lost and most recently Francis, who was murdered in Uganda.”

Hussein said the conditions in Kakuma made it unsafe for the group to hold an event in the refugee camp.

Two gay men in March 2021 suffered second-degree burns during an attack on Block 13 in Kakuma, which the U.N. Refugee Agency created specifically for LGBTQ and intersex refugees. One of them died a few weeks later at a Nairobi hospital. 

A report the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and Rainbow Railroad released in May 2021 indicates nearly all of the LGBTQ and intersex people who live in Kakuma have experienced discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. UNHCR in a statement after the March 15, 2021, attack noted Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

“Trans refugees continue to live in appalling conditions due to poor welfare, lack of access to jobs, affordable healthcare and opportunities in Kenya,” said Hussein. “Currently, some trans refugees and gender non-conforming refugees lack proper documentation.”

Hussein further noted NGOs “are not funded by the donors adequately because of bureaucratic hurdles and requirements to access funding such as bank statements, which have made it hard to get access to funds that can provide food, shelter, and relief emergency assistance.”

“To sum up, Kenya remains a threat to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community due to transphobia and homophobia,” said Hussein.

Alvin Mwangi, a reproductive rights activist, stressed trans people simply want basic human rights.

“Basic human rights are not special rights, the right to get and keep a job based on merit is not a special right, the right to be served food in a restaurant is not a special right, the right to have a roof over one’s head is not a special right, the right to walk down a street and not be attacked because of who you are and whom you love is not a special right,” said Mwangi. 

“The government of Kenya should ensure its laws and systems protect transgender persons just like any other citizen of Kenya against all forms of violence and discrimination,” added Mwangi. “The government of Kenya should commit to end all forms of violence and discrimination against transgender persons, by publicly condemning any major instances of homophobic and transphobic violence that occur in the counties and in the country in general.”

Mwangi also stressed trans people are “beautiful” and “deserve love.”

“We all have the right to live with dignity and respect,” said Mwangi. “As we just marked and celebrated the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorializes victims of transphobic violence, and as we continue to celebrate Transgender Awareness month until the end of November, we remember those in the transgender community who have lost their lives due to violence brought by hate and ignorance and we honor, celebrate, and advocate for the respect of the rights of transgender and gender diverse communities.”

“All transgender persons have a right to equality and freedom from discrimination of all forms. All transgender persons require equal protection against any form of violence,” added Mwangi. “The right to equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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Film ‘Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion)’ set for D.C. premiere

Documentary explores challenges faced by queer Catholics

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‘Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion)’ premieres in D.C. on Dec. 12.

A feature-length documentary film called “Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion),” which explores how religion has played a leading role in perpetuating anti-LGBTQ attitudes and highlights the challenges and aspirations of LGBTQ Catholics, is scheduled for a special D.C. screening on Dec. 12 at the E Street Cinema.

The film’s director is gay filmmaker, actor, and LGBTQ rights advocate Yuval David. It was jointly produced by David and his husband, attorney and LGBTQ Catholic advocate Mark McDermott. The premiere D.C. showing of the film is being hosted by Real Affirmations, D.C.’s LGBTQ film festival.

“The film focuses on the Catholic Church because it is one of the largest religious organizations in the world, and because its anti-LGBTQ+ stance is known and growing more hardline, at least in some circles,” a statement announcing the D.C. showing of the film says.

“The narrative of the film is shaped by the process of a fine art project creating unprecedented, photographic iconography depicting Jesus as a member/ally of the LGBTQ+ community, represented by multiple LGBTQ+ models,” the statement says.

David and McDermott told the Washington Blade in a Nov. 21 interview that production of the film was completed at the end of August of this year, and it has since been shown at film festivals across the U.S. and overseas. It was honored as the Best Feature Film at the LGBTQ Toronto Film Festival.

“One of the things we discuss in our film and the way this makes it contemporary, and even pertaining to this horrible shooting [at the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado] and the various other attacks on the LGBTQ community, is the fact that the vast majority of anti-LGBTQ and homophobic beliefs, including laws and legislation, are on the basis of religion,” David said.

“Ninety something percent of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ beliefs are on the basis of religion,” David said he and McDermott saw in research findings.

David and McDermott said one of their objectives for the film, which includes interviews with leading LGBTQ Catholic activists and supportive Catholic priests, was to show how images of the church and Jesus through art and iconography going back several centuries has impacted the religious views of Catholics, including LGBTQ Catholics.

Among the LGBTQ supportive people interviewed in the film include Sister Jeannine Gramick, a Catholic nun who co-founded New Ways Ministry, the LGBTQ Catholic advocacy organization; Marianne Duddy-Burke, president of Dignity USA, the national LGBTQ Catholic group; and Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author, and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ supportive policies in the Catholic Church.

The film also discusses the fact that the top leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has issued statements in support of LGBTQ Catholics while at the same time some if not many Catholic cardinals and bishops have continued to promote traditional church doctrine condemning homosexuality.

David and McDermott point to their film’s groundbreaking use of a form of iconography that they and their creative team, including photographers, created as part of an art project to make the church’s imagery more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

“The idea behind this is in Christianity and Catholicism, Jesus has always been portrayed one way for the last 1,700 years,” McDermott told the Blade. “That he has been portrayed as a white man of Northern European descent with blond hair and blue eyes. And as we set up the film, we wanted to challenge that history of art, change it,” he said, to show that “the divine is in all of us,” including LGBTQ people.

McDermott and David told how they conducted a casting call for actors and models to portray Jesus as LGBTQ people who were highly diverse by way of ethnicity, gender, and gender expression. To their amazement, about 500 people responded to the casting call.

“And out of that enormous group we selected nine models,” David said. “And the people we cast are truly a diverse array of LGBTQIA+ people representing different ethnicities, different races, different genders, different body types,” he said. “We wanted to cast people who not only were models but actors and people who truly identify with this topic,” David said.

Several of the actor-models are interviewed in the film, with some describing their own experiences as a person of faith in a church that is sometimes not accepting of them.

David said several thousand still photos were taken of the nine model-actors selected to portray Jesus. He said about 160 of the photo images were selected to be shown in the film in which the actor-models portray Jesus in various stages of his life as described in the scriptures, including scenes of the crucifixion.

The still photos are shown in a dramatic presentation at the conclusion of the film, with each of the model-actors exhibiting highly emotional facial expressions, especially as they are shown tied to a cross with a crown of thorns.

McDermott said he and David came up with the film’s “Wonderfully Made” title from a biblical passage known as the Book of Psalms in which the biblical figure David says while praying to God, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Biblical scholars have said the word “fearfully” as used in that biblical passage by David was intended to mean with great reverence, heart-felt interest and with respect.

Mark McDermott and Yuval David told the Blade that while their film shows the hardship faced by LGBTQ Catholics and people of faith, many people of faith, including the religious experts they interview in the film, believe Catholicism and religion in general can be interpreted to be supportive of all people, including LGBTQ people.

But the two say a positive perspective on how religion has and continues to impact LGBTQ people, such as the story told in their film, is needed.

“Forty percent of our homeless kids are LGBTQ – 40 percent,” McDermott said. “And we know why they ended up homeless. They got thrown out of their houses by their own family,” he said. “And it’s almost always because of their family’s religious views.”

Added McDermott, “One in three LGBTQ kids in the last year contemplate or seriously think about suicide.”

According to he and David, stress or conflict with their family’s religious beliefs is very often the root cause of stress and depression among LGBTQ people. They are hopeful, they said, that their film will be seen by many facing these problems and who may be helped by the film’s strong message that it’s ok to be a person of faith and LGBTQ.

“We created this for those who must see this, so they don’t feel that way,” said David.
Tickets for the Dec. 12, 7 p.m. screening of “Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion),” which is open to the public, can be purchased online or at the E Street Cinema at the time of the showing if tickets are still available.

A trailer preview of the film can be viewed here: wonderfullymadefilm.com; you can follow news of the film on social media, instagram.com/WonderfullyMadeMovie. Tickets can be purchased from the Reel Affirmations website and more information can be found on the Facebook event page here.

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Russia

Lower house of Russian Parliament passes anti-LGBTQ propaganda law

Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized proposal

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(Public domain photo)

A new law which expands Russia’s “gay propaganda” law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2013 passed the lower House of the State Duma on Nov. 24.

The legislation, which still needs the approval of the upper house of the Duma and Putin, introduces an expanded “all ages” ban on “propaganda of non-traditional relations,” pedophilia, as well as a ban on the dissemination of information about LGBTQ people in the media, the Internet, advertising, literature and cinema. 

The language of the bill, according to the official Russian state news agency TASS, also introduces a ban on issuing a rental certificate to a film if it contains materials that promote non-traditional sexual relations and preferences is established. The document also provides for the introduction of a mechanism that restricts children’s access to listening to or viewing LGBTQ information on paid services. 

The newly expanded law provides for the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, to be vested with the right to determine the procedure for conducting monitoring on the Internet to identify information, access to which should be restricted in accordance with the federal law on information.

A requirement is also set on paid services to enter codes or perform other actions to confirm the age of the user. At the same time, access to LGBTQ information is prohibited for citizens under 18 years of age.

In addition, it provides for a ban on the sale of goods, including imported goods, containing information, the dissemination of which provides for administrative or criminal liability. 

Also, the law “on the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development” is supplemented by an article on the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations, pedophilia and information that can make children want to change their sex.

The latter language pointedly inserted as transgender people have been a frequent target of attacks by the Russian president in speeches recently blaming the West for a global decay in moral values that run counter to what Putin describes as “Russia’s strong morals.”

In an October speech announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, Putin attacked Western nations on the issue of gay and transgender rights.

“Do we want children from elementary school to be imposed with things that lead to degradation and extinction?” he asked. “Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries?”

It’s not just the Russian leader.

Patriarch Kirill, head of the powerful and influential Russian Orthodox Church, portrayed the war with Ukraine as a struggle seeking to reject Western values and LGBTQ Pride parades.

Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma and a former aide to Putin, is one of the bill’s sponsors. Volodin told TASS that the bill is “adopted exclusively in the interests of all Russians.”

“We have a different path, our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers chose it. We have traditions, we have a conscience, we have an understanding that we need to think about children, families, the country, to preserve what we handed over by the parents,” Volodin said.

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch told the Washington Blade this expansion of the 2013 “gay propaganda” law “is a classic example of political homophobia. It targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain.”

A young Russian LGBTQ activist, who asked to not be identified for fear of Russian government reprisals, spoke to the Blade from Helsinki regarding this latest effort by the so-called conservative “family values” politicians in the Duma.

“This is a distraction to avoid the real news of dead young Russian males killed in his illegal war in Ukraine,” they said. “These [Russian obscenity] politicians want to so-called ‘non-traditional’ LGBTQ+ lifestyles practiced by lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people out of public life, make us erased. They and their so called colluders in church are ignorant of truth that LGBTQ+ people will exist no matter what. It is scientific fact not their religious fairytales and fictions.”

The activist also told the Blade they had fled to avoiding the Russian military draft enacted by Russia to replenish the levels of combat troops fighting in Putin’s illegal war, in the face of mounting casualties and wounded soldiers.

Human Rights Watch noted that given the already deeply hostile climate for LGBTQ people in Russia, the organization warned there will be uptick in often-gruesome vigilante violence against LGBTQ people in Russia — frequently carried out in the name of protecting Russian values and Russia’s children.

Legal scholars say the vagueness of the bill’s language gives room for government enforcers to interpret the language as broadly as they desire, leaving members of the Russian LGBTQ community and their allies in a state of even greater fear and stress filled uncertainty.

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