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State Department determines Russia ‘wrongfully detained’ Brittney Griner

WNBA star to appear in Moscow court on May 19

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(Screenshot via Russian television)

The State Department has determined Russia “wrongfully detained” WNBA star Brittney Griner earlier this year.

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

Griner is among the WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s off-season.

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday. “The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate consular support to Ms. Griner.”

The spokesperson said Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens “will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

Russia announced Griner’s detention shortly after it invaded Ukraine.

Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been in a Russian custody since 2019, returned to the U.S. last week after the Kremlin released him in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen who had been in an American prison on drug trafficking charges. Griner is scheduled to appear in a Moscow court on May 19.

“Brittney’s status change is an important moment in the movement to bring her home safely and swiftly,” said National Black Justice Coalition Deputy Executive Director Victoria Kirby York in a statement. “It means there is now a two pronged approach focused on both legal and political strategies.” 

“It has become clear that Brittney’s legal team has acted in good faith to clear her name through Russia’s legal system, and that the Russian government has been actively trying to leverage Brittney’s detainment for political purposes tied to their war on Ukraine,” added York. “This is unfortunate, especially because Griner’s status as a Black, lesbian, woman leaves her vulnerable to increased discrimination and abuse at the hands of the racist and homophobic Russian government. We urge the U.S. government to do all it can to bring her home before she is no longer able to maintain her safety in a nation at war.”

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State Department

State Department hosts meeting on LGBTQ rights and foreign policy

Event took place before Pride Month reception

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department Pride Month event on June 27, 2024. (Screen capture via Forbes Breaking News YouTube)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday hosted a group of LGBTQ activists and politicians from around the world at the State Department.

The event — described as a “Convening on U.S. Foreign Policy: National Security, Inclusive Development, and the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons” — took place before the State Department’s annual Pride Month reception. Participants included:

• Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights

• U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield

• U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai

• U.S. Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti

• Suzanne Goldberg, senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights

• Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya

• U.S. Agency for International Development Senior LGBTQI+ Coordinator Jay Gilliam

• USAID Counselor Clinton D. White

• National Security Council Senior Director for Democracy and Human Rights Kelly Razzouk

• Assistant U.S. Secretary of Health Adm. Rachel Levine

• National Security Council Human Rights Director Jess Huber

• U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ilze Brandt Kehris

• Icelandic Ambassador to the U.S. Bergdís Ellertsdóttir

• Council for Global Equality Co-Executive Director Mark Bromley

• Outright International Senior Advisor for Global Intersex Rights Kimberly Zieselman

• Essy Adhiambo, executive director of the Institute for Equality and Non Discrimination in Kenya

• Pau González, co-chair of Hombres Trans Panamá and PFLAG-Panamá

“Forty-five years ago, thousands gathered in D.C. in what became the first national march for LGBTQI+, demanding their voices be heard,” said Thomas-Greenfield in a post to her X account that showed her speaking at the event. “We must continue to carry forward the spirit of these pioneers and fight for equal rights and dignity for all.”

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

“LGBTQI+ rights are human rights,” said Blinken. “Our government has a responsibility to defend them, to promote them — here and everywhere.”

Blinken noted consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in 64 countries, with the death penalty in 11 of them.

He specifically highlighted Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government’s “smearing scapegoating, stigmatizing LGBTQI+ persons — vilifying them with degrading labels, denying them equal rights, normalizing violence against them.” (Gay U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman this month marched in the annual Budapest Pride parade.)

Blinken noted Iraqi MPs earlier this year “passed legislation that punishes same-sex relations with up to 15 years in prison.” He also pointed out that Indonesian lawmakers approved a new criminal code banning extramarital sex.

“In a nation where same-sex couples cannot marry, these laws effectively make all same-sex conduct illegal and they undermine privacy for all Indonesians,” said Blinken.

“We’re defending and promoting LGBTQI+ rights around the world,” he said.

Blinken noted seven countries — Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Namibia, Singapore, the Cook Islands — have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations over the last two years. He also highlighted Greece, Liechtenstein, and Thailand this year extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, and other countries are banning so-called “conversion therapy.”

“These achievements are possible because of incredibly courageous human rights defenders and government partners on the ground, but I believe America’s support is indispensable,” said Blinken. “When we engage — sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, sometimes both — when we share our own knowledge and experience, we can and we do achieve change.”

Blinken also announced the U.S. now considers sexual orientation and gender identity are part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that took effect in 1976.

“This is one of the key treaties committing nations to upholding universal rights,” he said. 

“In our regular reporting to the council on human rights, we will continue to include incidents of discrimination or abuse committed against LGBTQI+ persons, now with the clear framework of this well-supported interpretation,” added Blinken. “That will further empower our efforts.”

Blinken reiterated this point and the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad when he spoke at the State Department’s Pride Month event.

“Defending, promoting LGBTQI+ rights globally is the right thing to do, but beyond that, it’s the smart and necessary thing to do for our country, for our national security, for our well-being,” he said.

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State Department travel advisory warns of potential anti-LGBTQ violence

FBI issued similar warning this week

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department on Friday issued a worldwide travel advisory that warns of potential violence against LGBTQ people and LGBTQ-specific events.

“Due to the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests, the Department of State advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution,” reads the advisory. “The Department of State is aware of the increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events and advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution.”  

The advisory further urges U.S. citizens to:

  • Stay alert in locations frequented by tourists, including Pride celebrations and venues frequented by LGBTQI+ persons.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive information and alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency overseas.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Homeland Security Investigations earlier this week issued a similar advisory.

The advisory notes June 12 will mark eight years since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

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State Department releases annual human rights report

Antony Blinken reiterates criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday once again reiterated his criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act upon release of the State Department’s annual human rights report.

“This year’s report also captures human rights abuses against members of vulnerable communities,” he told reporters. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban have limited work opportunities for women, shuttered institutions found educating girls, and increasing floggings for women and men accused of, quote, ‘immoral behavior,’ end quote. Uganda passed a draconian and discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Act, threatening LGBTQI+ individuals with life imprisonment, even death, simply for being with the person they loved.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last May signed the law, which contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The U.S. subsequently imposed visa restrictions on Ugandan officials and removed the country from a program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to trade duty-free with the U.S. The World Bank Group also announced the suspension of new loans to Uganda.

Uganda’s Constitutional Court earlier this month refused to “nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act in its totality.” More than a dozen Ugandan LGBTQ activists have appealed the ruling.

Clare Byarugaba of Chapter Four Uganda, a Ugandan LGBTQ rights group, on Monday met with National Security Council Chief-of-Staff Curtis Ried. Jay Gilliam, the senior LGBTQI+ coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, in February traveled to Uganda and met with LGBTQ activists who discussed the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s impact. 

“LGBTQI+ activists reported police arrested numerous individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and subjected many to forced anal exams, a medically discredited practice with no evidentiary value that was considered a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and could amount to torture,” reads the human rights report.

The report, among other things, also notes Ugandan human rights activists “reported numerous instances of state and non-state actor violence and harassment against LGBTQI+ persons and noted authorities did not adequately investigate the cases.”

Report highlights anti-LGBTQ crackdowns in Ghana, Hungary, Russia

Ghanaian lawmakers on Feb. 28 approved the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill. The country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, has said he will not sign the measure until the Ghanaian Supreme Court rules on whether it is constitutional or not.

The human rights report notes “laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults” and “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex persons” are among the “significant human rights issues” in Ghana. 

The report documents Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of his right-wing Fidesz party’s continued rhetoric against “gender ideology.” It also notes Russia’s ongoing crackdown against LGBTQ people that includes reports of “state actors committed violence against LGBTQI+ individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in Chechnya.”

The report specifically notes Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 24 signed a law that bans “legal gender recognition, medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person, and gender-affirming care.” It also points out Papua New Guinea is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The Hungarian Parliament on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party in 2023 continued their anti-LGBTQ crackdown. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Cook Islands and Mauritius in decriminalized homosexuality in 2023.

The report notes the Namibia Supreme Court last May ruled the country must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed outside the country. The report also highlights the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling against marriage equality that it issued last October. (It later announced it would consider an appeal of the decision.)

Congress requires the State Department to release a human rights report each year. 

The Biden-Harris administration in 2021 released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad.

The full report can be read here.

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