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Blinken speaks at U.N. LGBTI Core Group event

Gathering took place on eve of U.N. General Assembly

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday spoke at an LGBTQ and intersex rights event that took place on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly.

Blinken in his remarks at the LGBTI Core Group, a group of U.N. countries that have pledged to support LGBTQ and intersex rights, noted the meeting took place at “a time when the movement for equality is showing some encouraging momentum.”

He pointed to the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual acts over the summer in St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda. Blinken also noted the Vietnamese Health Ministry’s announcement last month that it no longer considers LGBTQ people to be sick. 

“At the same time, for that progress, which is real and which is worth underscoring, we know that people worldwide continue to experience alarming levels of violence, discrimination, isolation,” said Blinken. “Risks are the highest for people with disabilities, people of color, refugees and LGBTQI+ women. Transgender people are often denied access to legal identity documents that reflect their names and gender markers. Intersex people, including minors, continue to be subjected to unnecessary surgeries without their consent.”

Blinken further stressed that members of the U.N. LGBTI Core Group and countries around the world “have work to do to ensure that LGBTQI+ people have the same rights, the same protections as all other people.”

“Defending these rights is central to the health of our democracies,” he said. “Any system where some groups are treated as ‘less than’ simply because of who they are is fundamentally flawed.”

President Joe 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 Jessica Stern as its special envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights overseas.

The State Department in April began to issue passports with “X” gender markers. The White House’s efforts in support of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad now includes marriage equality in countries where activists say such a thing is possible through legislation or the judicial process. 

Blinken in his speech noted Biden in June issued a sweeping executive order that, among other things, prohibits the use of federal funds to support so-called conversion therapy. The ceremony, which occurred during the White House’s annual Pride reception, took place against the backdrop of the passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and efforts in several other states across the country to curtail the rights of transgender students. 

“Standing up for LGBTQI+ people is a top priority for our administration,” said Blinken.

Blinken also referenced the 1969 Stonewall riots.

“Everything we’re doing builds on the work of literally generations of advocates who have — and still are — risking so much to put LGBTQI+ people and their rights on the map,” he said. “And I have to say, as I read the history, learn the history, hear of experiences, I’m quite in awe of generations of advocates who have done so much to put us where we are today. The work we’re doing is only possible because of the work they did — but not only the work they did, the courage that they showed.” 

“The 1969 protest at the Stonewall Inn marked a turning point in our nation’s struggle for LGBTQI+ rights and helped galvanize the global movement,” added Blinken. “This is something that is seared into the memories, seared into the consciousness of so many of us.  And particularly for me as a native New Yorker, it’s something that I have seen and been inspired by for many, many years.” 

Blinken further noted “Stonewall is also a stark reminder of all the places worldwide where people are still subject to abuse simply for being themselves.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir; Permanent Brazilian Representative to the U.N. João Genésio de Almeida Filho, Peruvian Foreign Minister Cesar Landa Arroyo, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt and OutRight Action International Executive Director Maria Sjödin are among those who attended the event alongside Stern and Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ and intersex issues.

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State Department

U.S. discourages Dennis Rodman from traveling to Russia to seek Brittney Griner release

Former NBA star says he plans to ‘go this week’

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Dennis Rodman (Screenshot courtesy of YouTube/NBA)

The U.S. on Monday discouraged former NBA star Dennis Rodman from traveling to Russia in order to help secure Brittney Griner’s release.

Rodman on Saturday told NBC News while he was at a D.C. restaurant that he “got permission to go to Russia to help that girl.”

“I’m trying to go this week,” said Rodman.

A Russian court earlier this month convicted Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. Brittney Griner’s lawyers have appealed her sentence.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday told reporters during a press briefing that Rodman “would not be traveling (to Russia) on behalf of the U.S. government.” A White House source told the Washington Blade the administration is “really not thrilled about Rodman and he definitely was not given permission by (the) U.S. to negotiate with Russia over” Brittney Griner’s release.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap. A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry has confirmed negotiations between the two countries over a potential prisoner swap have begun.

We put forward a substantial proposal to Russia to seek the freedom of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” said Price on Monday. “We believe that anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder those release efforts.”  

“We’ve also provided very clear guidance to American citizens owing to a number of threats, not the least of which is the threat of wrongful detention, that Americans should not travel to Russia,” he added. “That has been our message to private Americans across the board.”

Rodman in 2014 traveled to North Korea with a group of former NBA players who played in an exhibition game for leader Kim Jung Un’s Birthday. Rodman has made several other trips to North Korea in recent years, despite the country’s deplorable human rights record.

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State Department

Blinken, Russian counterpart speak about Brittney Griner

Call took place after public acknowledgment of deal to secure U.S. citizens release

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday spoke with his Russian counterpart about efforts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

The Associated Press reported Blinken urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to accept a deal to obtain the release of Griner and Whelan, an American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying. American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

Blinken, according to the AP, described the call with Lavrov as a “frank and direct conversation.”

“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” said Blinken. “I can’t give you an assessment of whether that is any more or less likely.”

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner’s trial began in Moscow on July 1.

It continues to take place, even though she had pleaded guilty to charges that she smuggled drugs in Russia. Brittney Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted.

Friday’s call took place two days after Blinken for the first time publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Whelan.

“We are determined to bring her home along with Paul (Whelan) and for that matter, any and every American who is being unjustly detained anywhere in the world,” said Blinken on June 15 during a roundtable with LGBTQ and intersex journalists in which the Washington Blade participated. “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.”

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State Department

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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