Thanks, Donald Trump, but as a gay man I'd rather you didn't go on a global campaign in my name

The far-right has a long history of pretending to be friends with LGBT+ people — at the end of the day, this neo-colonialist effort will only serve to bolster Trump's hardline Republicans and alienate developing countries

Louis Staples
Wednesday 20 February 2019 17:49
Do you really want this man to be responsible for handling LGBT+ conversations in the world?
Do you really want this man to be responsible for handling LGBT+ conversations in the world?

In news that few people expected, the Trump administration has announced the launch of a global campaign to end the criminalisation of homosexuality worldwide. Next week, the US embassy is reportedly flying LGBT+ activists from across Europe to Berlin to plan a push for decriminalisation in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.

As a gay man, I find the idea that anyone like me is considered a criminal simply for their identity extremely distressing. Seventy countries currently criminalise same-sex acts and, in many more, LGBT+ people face systemic persecution, discrimination and violence. Yet while I am, of course, pro-decriminalisation, I am sceptical of this announcement from the Trump administration.

It is clear that this initiative has more to do with denouncing and out-manoeuvring Iran – Trump’s current geopolitical nemesis – than the welfare and safety of gay people. With calls to abandon the Iran Nuclear Deal and reintroduce sanctions generating little enthusiasm in Europe, this move is a clear an attempt to refocus the Iran conversation around gay rights, an issue that is supported by most European nations.

The campaign will be led by US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, the highest-profile openly gay person in Trump’s administration. This month, Grenell called Iran’s recent hanging of a gay man “a wake-up call” for anyone who supports human rights.

“This is not the first time the Iranian regime has put a gay man to death with the usual outrageous claims of prostitution, kidnapping, or even paedophilia. And it sadly won’t be the last time,” he wrote. He also urged “politicians, the UN, democratic governments, diplomats and good people everywhere” to “speak up loudly” on the issue.

The Trump administration’s unlikely foray into the realm of LGBT+ rights is just the latest in a long tradition of far-right parties attempting to rebrand themselves as pro-gay. Marine Le Pen surrounded herself with gay advisers during the 2017 French presidential election. Geert Wilders from Holland – the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage – cherishes the “tolerance of homosexuality” as a Dutch value. Alice Weidel, leader of Germany’s far right party Alternative for Germany, is a lesbian. So is Britain’s Anne Marie Waters, who was even considered too right-wing for UKIP. Tommy Robinson even said in 2015 that he wants to “fight for a gay man’s rights”.

These people have one thing common: they loathe Islam and want you to hate it too.

Using gay rights to whip up hostility against Muslims is a classic western far-right move. It is designed to associate non-white cultures, specifically Muslims, with homophobia, while othering ethnic and religious minorities from supposedly “tolerant” – and presumably white – western society. It appears to be a somewhat effective strategy. Even within the LGBT+ community, there has been a rise in “homonationalism” – the union between gay people and nationalist movements. The BBC reported that one in five French gay men was expected to vote for Le Pen as president in 2017.

On the domestic front, Trump’s intervention reeks of hypocrisy. Following his inauguration, a report released by Crisis of Hate revealed that 2017 was the deadliest year in recent history for LGBT+ people in the US, with a rise in anti-LGBT+ hate crime including 52 homicides. LGBT+ organisation Human Rights Campaign claim that, in the same year, least 129 anti-LGBT+ bills were introduced in numerous states across the country. Trump has vowed to sign federal bills that roll back LGBT+ discrimination protections and is hell-bent on banning trans people from serving in the US military. His administration supports transgender discrimination in the school system and it is still legal to fire someone for being gay in 30 US states.

Vice president Mike Pence has been a vocal advocate of conversion therapy and was blamed for creating an HIV epidemic in his home state of Indiana after diverting sexual health funding towards the widely discredited practice. Trump himself reportedly joked that Pence wanted to “hang” gay men. Pence and his wife Karen are evangelical Christians, a demographic that overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2016. A majority of American Muslims now believe that it’s fine to be gay, but polling shows that just 34% of white evangelical Christians believe that homosexuality should be tolerated.

Internationally, the hypocrisy continues, as many of the US’s allies are also vociferously anti-gay. In Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy Trump has repeatedly defended in the face of human rights allegations, homosexuality carries the death penalty. The same can be said for the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are all key US allies. While Trump continues to align himself with homophobic leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who each actively encourage violence against LGBT+ citizens in nations where homosexuality is legal – it’s difficult to take any of this seriously.

Given that, in October 2017, the US voted against a UN motion that condemned the use of the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations, Trump’s sudden intervention seems opportunistic. It is a clear example of “pinkwashing” - the practice of governments rebranding themselves as pro-gay to distract from their own issues. US ally Israel frequently faces accusations of pinkwashing, with The Jerusalem Post reporting in 2011 that the Foreign Ministry was promoting “Gay Israel” as a campaign to counter the negative views of Israel’s behaviour towards Palestine.

Though most crucially, Trump’s intervention shamelessly politicises a delicate and complex cultural issue. Many of the nations that criminalise homosexuality, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, have a history of being colonised by white people. More accepting attitudes towards homosexuality were common in countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Jamaica before colonisation by the British, who imposed strict anti-gay laws. Framing homophobia as an issue associated with foreign cultures ignores the role westerners have played in exporting it.

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Given the history of white people from the global north imposing themselves on developing nations, many countries which criminalise homosexuality are intensely wary of the west re-colonising their minds. David Cameron and Barack Obama’s clumsy past interventions on gay rights in Africa drew furious responses from countries like Uganda and Kenya, illustrating that institutional homophobia can become a form of “cultural resistance” in former colonies.

LGBT+ rights should be expanded in criminalising countries by the activists on the ground already working tirelessly to create change. Progress is happening all the time, with legal challenges in Trinidad and Tobago and Belize resulting in changes to the law. Kenya’s supreme court looks likely to decriminalise in a matter of days. The optics of a group of US-led, predominantly white activists from the global north gathering in Europe to demonstrate their superiority over other cultures is extremely unhelpful to the cause.

I am extremely tired of watching far-right politicians use gay people to increase hostility towards Muslims and non-white cultures, while actively encouraging discrimination at home and turning a blind eye to their homophobic allies. LGBT+ rights are not a game. For some of the most marginalised people in the world, they are the difference between life and death.

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