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Blinken holds roundtable with LGBTQ, intersex journalists at State Department

Brittney Griner, Saudi Arabia among issues discussed

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The Washington Blade attended a roundtable with LGBTQ and intersex reporters at the State Department on June 15, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Ronny Przysucha/State Department)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week reiterated the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world is a key element of U.S. foreign policy.

“We are determined, starting with our boss, the president, that the United States be a champion for these rights around the world and a defender of the rights when they are under siege,” said Blinken on Wednesday during a roundtable with six LGBTQ and intersex reporters at the State Department. “Unfortunately, this is something that we see, you know very well, to be the case all too often in all too many places: Basic human rights, out of reach, under threat, active rollback in many places. And for that reason we try to focus all of our missions in our embassies as well as the senior officials here on the challenges that we see.”

The Washington Blade is among the media outlets the State Department invited to the roundtable, which was the first time a secretary of state sat down with a group of LGBTQ and intersex journalists during Pride month. Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, and State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who is gay, are among those who attended the roundtable with Blinken.

The roundtable took place a day after a Russian court once again extended the detention of Brittney Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married.

The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage.

Blinken on May 14 spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.

Officials with the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on Monday met with Griner’s teammates to discuss her detention and efforts to secure her release.

“We’re very much engaged with them,” said Blinken.

He added the State Department is “very focused” on securing Griner’s release.

“We are determined to bring her home along with Paul (Whelan, an American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after a court convicted him of spying) and for that matter, any and every American who is being unjustly detained anywhere in the world,” said Blinken. “It’s something that I am personally focused on, and I want to leave it at that because it is obviously an ongoing issue. But just know that this is a matter of intense focus for us.”

Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been in a Russian custody since 2019, returned to the U.S. in late April after the Kremlin released him in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen who had been in an American prison on drug trafficking charges.

“We are working day and night relentlessly to bring Brittney, to bring Paul home, to bring every American who’s unjustly detained around the world,” said Price.

Price further described the decision to extend Griner’s detention through at least July 2 as “an injustice on top of broader injustice.”

“She should be released,” said Price.

Griner was supposed to have her first phone call with her wife on Monday, the couple’s anniversary. But Cherelle Griner told the AP that the 11 attempted calls went unanswered at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. A State Department spokesperson said they “deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error.” It turns out the number Brittney Griner had been given to call is not answered on weekends. 

LGBTQI rights part of ‘efforts to defend democracy’

President Biden in February 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. The White House four months later appointed Stern, who was previously the executive director of OutRight Action International.

Blinken noted the State Department in April began to issue passports with “X” gender markers. Blinken also highlighted the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of a free elections resolution last November that specifically includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Price during a May 2021 interview with the Blade said the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations is one of the Biden administration’s five priorities in its efforts to promote LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world. Stern recently noted “among a wider set of priorities, marriage equality is one element of our longstanding and ongoing commitment to advance the rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”

Blinken during the roundtable said U.S. efforts to promote LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world are “attached to our own efforts to defend democracy and human rights around the world.”

“This is a deadly serious time around the world,” said Blinken. “And in some ways whether or not the rights of this community remain protected or defended and advanced or whether they are being increasingly trampled on is the canary in the coal mine because we know as go the rights of critical groups, ultimately so goes everyone, so that’s another reason we’ve got to be so attentive to this.” 

“If threats, acts, violence, repressive repression, laws are being increasingly wielded against the LGBTQ community, then you can almost bet that that’s going to be expanded to other groups, other communities,” he added. “It’s indicative of an even larger problem.”

The roundtable took place two days after the White House announced Biden would travel to Saudi Arabia in July.

The kingdom is among the handful of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain punishable by death.

“The president will be bringing up rights issues across the board when he’s in Saudi Arabia, as he does in any country where we have or he has concerns,” said Blinken in response to the Blade’s question about the trip. “As he said the other day, his views on human rights have not changed. The challenge, and I think the responsibility that we have, is to make sure that we are most effectively advancing the issues of values of this country.” 

Blinken said the U.S. welcomes the Saudi government’s efforts to combat extremism — 15 of the 19 men who carried out the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks were Saudi citizens — and to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Blinken also noted the country’s role in the continued ceasefire in Yemen.

“We have an opportunity … to maybe have something enduring in terms of the longer lasting cease fire and peace negotiations that profoundly advances our values, as well as our interests in putting in the rights of people of all kinds in Yemen who’ve been suffering terribly,” he said.

“At the same time, we have been very determined from day one to recalibrate the relationship, not rupture it, recalibrate, because we had concerns that it wasn’t as effectively as it could be advancing our own interests and our own values,” added Blinken. “So, we took the time to do that.”

Blinken noted the State Department has used the “Khashoggi Ban” — named after Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018 — to sanction more than 70 Saudi citizens and others who have targeted journalists, government critics and others in a third country. Blinken also told the Blade that he raises “individual cases where we have concerns, as well as systemic challenges” with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud during their meetings.

“We have a real engagement on these issues,” said Blinken. “We’ve also seen some positive steps on individual cases, but there are also systemic challenges.” 

“It’s a long way of saying that there are complex issues,” he added. “Human rights, including LGBTQI rights, are something that is central to our foreign policy, but it’s not the totality of it. And everything has to be reflected in what we do and we have to make a judgment, which may be right or may be wrong, about what is the most effective way to advance these issues in this agenda.” 

Blinken told the Blade that he is “quite confident that everything I’ve just said to you will be reflected in what the president does and says when he’s in Saudi Arabia.”

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State Department

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

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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State Department

Russian activist meets with US global LGBTQ, intersex rights envoy

Aleksander Voronov visited the State Department last week

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Aleksandr Voronov from Coming Out, a Russian LGBTQ rights group based in St. Petersburg, met with Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, at the State Department last week. (Photo courtesy of Stern's X account)

A Russian activist last week met with the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights at the State Department.

Jessica Stern on March 29 posted to her X account a picture of Aleksandr Voronov of Coming Out, an LGBTQ advocacy group that was previously based in St. Petersburg.

“I was honored to host Coming Out activist Aleksandr Voronov at the State Department,” said Stern. “Russia’s transgender ban and designation of the so-called ‘LGBT movement’ as extremist undermines the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Russians. We stand with all LGBTQI+ persons.”

Voronov told the Washington Blade he “gave her an update on the situation with LGBTQ rights in Russia.” Voronov said Stern “was very supportive and unbelievably kind.”

The Kremlin over the last decade has cracked down on LGBTQ rights.

The Russian Supreme Court last November ruled the “international LGBT movement” is an extremist organization and banned it. The Moscow Times on March 31 reported authorities in Orenburg, a city near the country’s border with Kazakhstan that is roughly 900 miles south-southeast of Moscow, arrested a gay bar’s owner and charged him with “extremism.”

Voronov fled Russia and now lives in Lithuania. 

“Most of the organizations and public activists, such as me and the organization I lead, were forced to leave the country, but continue working ‘in exile,'” Voronov told the Blade. “Most openly queer-places were closed during last months; but there are still lots of activists, organizations and of course ordinary LGBTQ individuals in Russia who are still there, and will be staying there. And we try to support them as much as we can.”

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