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Vice president to visit three African countries that criminalize homosexuality

Ugandan lawmakers passed anti-homosexuality bill last week

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Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Accra, Ghana, on March 26, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Harris' Twitter page)

Vice President Kamala Harris this week will visit three countries in Africa that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Harris and her husband, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, arrived in Ghana on Sunday. They will travel to Tanzania and Zambia before returning to the U.S. on April 2.

Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia are among the dozens of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The Washington Blade last week reported LGBTQ and intersex Ghanaians remain in limbo as lawmakers continue to debate the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill that, would among other things, further criminalize LGBTQ and intersex people and make advocacy on their behalf and allyship illegal. A Ghanaian representative who spoke during a March 20 meeting that focused on the integration of LGBTQ and intersex rights into the U.N. Security Council’s work said the body is not an appropriate venue to discuss them.

“You know that a great deal of work in my career has been to address human rights issues, equality issues across the board, including as it relates to the LGBT community,” said Harris on Monday during a press conference with Ghanaian President Nana Afuko-Addo that took place in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. “I feel very strongly about the importance of supporting the freedom and supporting and fighting for equality among all people and that all people be treated equally. This is an issue that we consider and I consider to be a human rights issue and that will not change.”

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu, with whom Harris is scheduled to meet on Thursday, last month described LGBTQ rights as “imported cultures.” The Tanzanian government has also banned children’s books from schools because of their LGBTQ-specific content. 

The State Department in 2019 recalled then-U.S. Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote after the Zambian government sharply criticized him for publicly defending a gay couple who had been convicted of violating the country’s colonial-era sodomy law and sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

Then-Zambian President Edgar Lungu later pardoned the couple. Current Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, which whom Harris will meet on March 31, last September reiteated his government does not support LGBTQ and intersex rights.

Harris arrived in Africa less than a week after Ugandan lawmakers approved a bill that would further criminalize homosexuality and LGBTQ and intersex people. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the measure if signed “would impinge upon universal human rights, jeopardize progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, deter tourism and investment in Uganda, and damage Uganda’s international reputation.”

“The bill is one of the most extreme anti LGBTQI+ laws in the world,” she said on March 22 during her daily press briefing. “Human rights are universal — no one should be attacked, imprisoned or killed simply because of who they are or who they love.”

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the White House’s overall foreign policy. Then-State Department spokesperson Ned Price later told the Blade the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations is one of the Biden-Harris administration’s five priorities as it relates to LGBTQ and intersex rights overseas.

A senior administration official told reporters during a conference call that previewed Harris’ trip that she “is very much focused on opportunities in Africa and a positive message and the great things we can do in partnership with African countries. And you’re going to really see that as the theme of the trip, given Africa’s role in the world and what we think can be done with Africans, for the sake of Africans in the United States and the rest of the world.” 
 
“But that doesn’t mean that she would shy away from discussing difficult issues, and you know her track record on the LGBTQ issue,” added the official. “She spent her whole career fighting for rights of overlooked and marginalized people, including LGBTQ people.” 

The official further stressed the Biden-Harris administration “is very clear about the right for all people to live free of harm and discrimination and to realize their full potential and to fully participate in society.”  

“The vice president has been clear about that throughout her engagements in the United States and elsewhere in the world, and it won’t be any different when she is in Africa,” added the official. “We have said, you know, including in recent days — expressed the concerns we have about certain developments that we’ve seen on the African continent, whether it’s laws or practices that are anti-LGBTQ. And that’s not consistent with what this administration stands for.” 

The official also said they “don’t think that is a choice between taking a firm stand on that set of really important issues and the big positive opportunity that the vice president sees in Africa and she’s going to emphasize on this trip.”

The Blade will provide further updates of Harris’ trip as they become available.

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The White House

Biden hosts Kenyan president, unclear whether anti-LGBTQ bill raised

Jake Sullivan reiterated administration’s opposition to Family Protection Bill

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Kenyan President William Ruto speaks at joint press conference with President Joe Biden at the White House on May 23, 2024.

The Biden-Harris administration has not publicly said whether it raised LGBTQ rights with Kenyan President William Ruto during his visit to the White House.

Kenya is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

Opposition MP Peter Kaluma last year introduced the Family Protection Bill. The measure, among other things, would impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” and would ban Pride marches and other LGBTQ-specific events in the country. Advocates have told the Washington Blade the bill would also expel LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Kenya.

A senior administration official on Wednesday did not directly respond to the Blade’s question about whether President Joe Biden would speak to Ruto about the Family Protection Bill — neither he, nor Ruto discussed it on Thursday during a joint press conference at the White House. The official, however, did reiterate the administration’s opposition to the bill and other laws around the world that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

A reporter on Wednesday asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during the daily press briefing about whether Biden would discuss with Ruto any concerns over “some authoritarian moves” in Kenya. (The International Criminal Court in 2011 charged Ruto and five others with crimes against humanity in relation to violence that surrounded Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. The ICC dismissed the case against Ruto in 2016, although the prosecutor said widespread witness tampering had taken place.)

“We’ve seen robust and vigorous democracy in Kenya in recent years,” Sullivan said. “But, of course, we will continue to express our view about the ongoing need to nurture democratic institutions across the board: an independent judiciary; a non-corrupt economy; credible, free, and fair elections.”

Sullivan added “these kinds of principles are things the president will share, but he’s not here to lecture President Ruto.”

“President Ruto, in fact, is somebody who just was in Atlanta speaking about these issues,” he said. “We will invest in Kenya’s democratic institutions, in its civil society, in all walks of Kenyan life to help make sure that the basic foundations of Kenyan democracy remain strong.”

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman in March 2023 sparked criticism when she told reporters in Kenya’s Kajiado County that “every country has to make their own decisions about LGBTQ rights.”

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the White House’s overall foreign policy. A State Department spokesperson in response to Whitman’s comments told the Blade that “our position on the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is clear.”

“A person’s ability to exercise their rights should never be limited based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics,” said the spokesperson. “Governments should protect and promote respect for human rights for each and every human being, without discrimination, and they should abide by their human rights obligations and commitments.”

The White House on Thursday released a “Kenya State Visit to the United States” fact sheet that broadly notes the promotion of human rights and efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in Kenya.

• Promoting Human Rights: The United States and Kenya affirm their commitment to upholding the human rights of all. Together they stand with people around the world defending their rights against the forces of autocracy. Kenya and the United States commit to bilateral dialogues that reinforce commitments to human rights, as well as a series of security and human rights technical engagements with counterparts in the Kenyan military, police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at strengthening collaboration on security sector governance, atrocity prevention, and women, peace and security in Kenya and regionally.

• Continuing the Fight against HIV/AIDS: The United States and Kenya are developing a “Sustainability Roadmap” to integrate HIV service delivery into primary health care, ensuring quality and impact are retained. With more than $7 billion in support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) spanning two decades, Kenya has successfully responded to the HIV epidemic and strives to end HIV as a public health threat in Kenya by 2027. These efforts improve holistic health services for the 1.3 million Kenyans currently receiving antiretroviral therapy and millions more benefiting from HIV prevention programs, while allowing for greater domestic resources to be put toward the HIV response, allowing PEFPAR support to decrease over time.

Biden and Ruto on Thursday also issued a joint statement that, among other things, affirms the two countries’ “commitment to upholding the human rights of all.”

“Our partnership is anchored in democracy and driven by people,” reads the statement. “Together we share the belief that democracy requires ongoing work, and thrives when we commit to continually strengthen our democratic institutions.”

“This historic state visit is about the Kenyan and American people and their hopes for an inclusive, sustainable, and prosperous future for all,” it adds.

The White House said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Democratic National Committee Deputy National Finance Chair Claire Lucas and her partner, Judy Dlugacz, are among those who attended Thursday’s state dinner at the White House. Ruto on Friday is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department.

Ugandan officials sanctioned after Anti-Homosexuality Act signed

The U.S. has sanctioned officials in Uganda, which borders Kenya, after the country’s president in May 2023 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The White House also issued a business advisory against Uganda and removed the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows sub-Saharan countries to trade duty-free with the U.S.

Sullivan, Whitman and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are among the officials who joined Biden and Ruto at a meeting with CEOs that took place at the White House on Wednesday. Ruto earlier this week visited Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

The company announced it will invest $175 million in Kenya.

Coca-Cola on its website notes it has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index each year since 2006. The company also highlights it has supported the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the Trevor Project, and other “LGBTQI-focused organizations and programs in our communities.”

“Coca Cola is proud of its history of supporting and including the LGBTQI community in the workplace, in its advertising and in communities throughout the world,” says Coca-Cola. “From supporting LGBTQI pride parades to running rainbow-colored billboards, Coca Cola has demonstrated its commitment to protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.”

Health GAP Executive Director Asia Russell in a statement to the Blade said Ruto “is choosing to align with anti-gender extremists and is allowing queer Kenyans to be put at extreme risk.” She also criticized Biden for welcoming Ruto to the White House.

“Biden is campaigning as an LGBTQ+ champion, but he is ruling out the red carpet for someone who is explicitly siding with the extremists,” said Russell. “It’s doublespeak on the part of the White House.”

Brody Levesque, Christopher Kane, and Sam Kisika contributed to this story.

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Senate confirms Biden’s 200th judicial nominee

Diverse group includes 11 LGBTQ judges

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Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden at the White House on Jan. 5, 2023. (Screenshot via White House YouTube channel)

With the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of his 200th judicial nominee on Wednesday, President Joe Biden surpassed the number who were appointed to the federal bench by his last two predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

Among them are 11 LGBTQ judges, the same record-setting number who were nominated and confirmed under former President Barack Obama over the course of his two terms in office.

In a statement celebrating the milestone, Biden highlighted the diverse identities, backgrounds, and professional experiences of the men and women he has appointed over the past four years.

They “come from every walk of life, and collectively, they form the most diverse group of judicial appointees ever put forward by a president,” he said, noting that “64 percent are women and 62 percent are people of color.”

“Before their appointment to the bench, they worked in every field of law,” Biden said, “from labor lawyers fighting for working people to civil rights lawyers fighting to protect the right to vote.”

The president added, “Judges matter. These men and women have the power to uphold basic rights or to roll them back. They hear cases that decide whether women have the freedom to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions; whether Americans have the freedom to cast their ballots; whether workers have the freedom to unionize and make a living wage for their families; and whether children have the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.”

The LGBTQ judges who were confirmed under Biden include Beth Robinson, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal court of appeals, Nicole Berner, the 4th Circuit’s first LGBTQ judge, Charlotte Sweeney, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal district court west of the Mississippi River, and Melissa DuBose, the first Black and the first LGBTQ judge to serve on a federal court in Rhode Island.

Echoing the president’s comments during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted Biden’s appointment of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“We’ve confirmed more Hispanic judges circuit courts than any previous administration,” she said. “We’ve confirmed more Black women to circuit courts than all previous presidents combined.”

Jean-Pierre added that while these milestones are “great news,” there is still “much more work to be done.”

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The White House

White House acknowledges IDAHOBiT, reiterates support for global LGBTQ rights

WHO on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as a mental illness

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Pride flags fly from an apartment's terrace in Warsaw, Poland, on April 11, 2024. The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia commemorates the World Health Organization's declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden-Harris administration on Friday used the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia to reiterate its support of LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world.

“On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, my administration stands in support and solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people around the world as they seek to live full lives, free from violence and discrimination,” said President Joe Biden in a statement. “This is a matter of human rights, plain and simple.” 

“The United States applauds those individuals and groups worldwide working to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ people wherever they are under threat,” he added. “We are grateful for the contributions that LGBTQI+ people make every day across our nation.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden.

“On this day, we reflect upon the violence and discrimination lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons worldwide suffer and re-commit ourselves to opposing these acts,” said Blinken in his own statement. “This year, like every year, we state unequivocally: LGBTQI+ persons deserve recognition of their universal human rights and human dignity.” 

IDAHOBiT commemorates the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder on May 17, 1990.

Blinken in his statement notes LGBTQ and intersex people around the world “continue to face insidious forms of stigma and discrimination.”

Dominica last month became the latest country to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in May 2023 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act that, among other things, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

“Even as more countries make meaningful advancements towards full equality; LGBTQI+ persons continue to be sentenced to death for daring to live their sexual orientation or gender identity, subjected to coercive conversion ‘therapies’ and ‘normalization’ surgeries, discriminated against while receiving health services, restricted from exercising fundamental freedoms, and denied the dignity of same-sex partnership and fulfillment of family,” said Blinken. 

“As we reflect upon the injustices that LGBTQI+ persons and their allies endure, we must not forget that today is fundamentally a day of action,” he added. “On this day and every day, the United States stands with LGBTQI+ persons around the world. We will continue to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ persons not just because we have a moral imperative to do so, but because it helps to strengthen democracy, bolster national security, and promote global health and economic development.”

The Tonga Leitis Association is among the myriad LGBTQ and intersex rights groups around the world that acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

The Human Rights Campaign announced advocacy groups in 24 countries that include Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia, Estonia, Morocco, and Peru received grants through its Global Small Grants Program. These funds, according to a press release, will allow them to “advance LGBTQ+ equality.”

“This year, the Human Rights Campaign is honored to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia by highlighting the powerful impact of the Global Small Grants Program,” sand HRC Global Advocacy Associate Director Andrea Gillespie. “IDAHOBIT is a great opportunity for reflection of both the great strides made in our movement and just how far we need to go to achieve equality for all.” 

“As the anti-rights and anti-gender movement seeks to rollback progress on LGBTQ+ rights globally, HRC is proud to stand in solidarity with our partners around the world facing new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and policies, and redouble our commitments to the important work of HRC’s Global Alumni Network,” added Gillespie. 

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