How Leading on LGBTIQ Rights Abroad Could Restore U.S. Credibility

It did not take long after Joseph Biden won the 2020 U.S. presidential election for him to tweet that America is back. Yet soon after this proclamation, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in efforts to prevent him from assuming office. This natural culmination of Donald Trump and his administration’s rhetoric and politicking has left Americans stunned and U.S. allies abroad perplexed. Questions regarding whether the United States would, could, or should regain credibility and moral leadership on the global stage are left unanswered.

As Americans watch the Biden administration attempt to foster unity at home and define a new vision for America’s role abroad, foreign leaders are looking for real evidence of and commitment to what shared values endure. The United States coming out again with strong renewed leadership on LGBTIQ rights globally would send a powerful moral message to the world, bringing old allies closer together and helping restore American credibility abroad. 

Prior to Trump’s election in 2016, the United States was a celebrated vanguard for promoting the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals around the world. Early in his administration, President Barack Obama directed all U.S. diplomacy efforts and foreign assistance to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTIQ persons. This — echoed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her Human Rights Day 2011 speech that “gay rights are human rights” — was a watershed moment for U.S. foreign policy. 

But past this political pageantry, the United States also took specific action. The Obama administration created the position of the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, who used behind-the-scenes diplomacy to engage world leaders and recruited like-minded partner governments to establish the Global Equality Fund, which provides financial support to LGBTI grassroots initiatives around the world. 

While Obama’s record on human rights was not perfect, his administration’s work on global LGBTIQ issues acted as a model for moral leadership and a case study for how to partner with allies to defend and promote human rights abroad. Given his engagement in multilateral venues and his delicate messaging on these issues with foreign leaders, it is unsurprising that polls show that Europeans had high confidence that Obama would do the right thing in world affairs. 

Then came Donald Trump. In his inaugural address as president, Trump promised that the United States would lead by example rather than “imposing our way of life” on others. Yet few knew what an America First foreign policy meant. With time, that became clear: a radical departure from global norms and multilateralism, leaving human rights, both at home and abroad, behind; eschewing U.S. traditional allies, to boot, while doing so. Trump’s affinity for autocrats and his disrespect for democracy itself were indications that he would actually take America to the brink.

The Biden administration inherited a fractured global order plagued by a myriad of the world’s most urgent challenges, not least among them the COVID-19 pandemic recovery and combating climate change. This is to say nothing of America’s need to first turn inward and address its domestic social and political struggles before it can stand tall on human rights abroad. But these deep existential crises do not obviate the need to protect human rights abroad, nor is the solution as easy as picking up where the Obama administration left off.

With less influence and credibility, traditional American foreign policy priorities, like training foreign security forces or promoting democracy, will ring hollow in the ears of U.S. allies. To do this work effectively abroad, the United States will need to rely on old friends, and those friends will need a reliable partner that they can trust. Reestablishing those ties should begin with an unequivocal reinstatement of U.S. values, including once again recognizing the dignity of LGBTIQ people.

Biden recently campaigned for the U.S. presidency on the promise that he would prioritize his administration’s support for LGBTIQ human rights, and Biden has started to deliver. With less than 12 hours in office, he signed an executive order to prevent and combat discrimination against LGBTIQ Americans, and his nominee for secretary of State unequivocally stated support for protecting LGBTIQ people worldwide in front of Congress.

While these are important first steps in restoring U.S. credibility abroad, the Biden administration should build back bolder in promoting LGBTIQ human rights. 

In its international efforts, beyond immediately filling the vacancy of the LGBTIQ special envoy position, a top priority of the Biden administration should be to reopen U.S. doors to vulnerable LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers. Given Biden’s efforts to build an administration that looks like America, those selected to serve as U.S. ambassadors should truly reflect the diversity of America — the first out lesbian and trans ambassadors should be appointed. Further, another profound action would be to swiftly adjust U.S. passports to allow for a nonbinary identification.

The administration should also develop a genuinely inclusive humanitarian relief and development strategy. U.S. foreign assistance should be paired with American values of equality with clear requirements of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and the paltry amount of such foreign assistance should immediately be tripled in the President’s first budget. Given his administration’s focus on pandemic recovery, Biden’s COVID-19 efforts abroad should pay particular attention to the social and economic vulnerabilities that the novel coronavirus poses to LGBTIQ communities around the world.

Lastly, the United States should take leadership once again in multilateral spaces — such as the United Nations Core Group and the Equal Rights Coalition — along with other government champions of LGBTIQ rights to seriously move forward global norms of equality.  

A Biden administration will find like-minded governments and civil society activists eager to work with them in these areas. Since Obama and Biden left the White House in 2017, social acceptance of homosexuality has significantly increased in the U.S.-ally geographic strongholds of Western Europe, Latin America, and the Indo-Pacific. And each year, due to the tenacious work of activists, several nations take progressive action by decriminalizing homosexuality or enacting marriage equality.

In the weeks following the 2020 election, global LGBTIQ activists began celebrating the Biden-Harris win. These elated congratulatory messages came in via emails, calls, and texts from all parts of the world. Ranging from “We’re dancing in the streets of Nigeria like we’re Americans” to “A Biden win is a win for all of us,” the messages were deeply moving. In a collective sigh of relief, one activist texted, “We are all sleeping easier tonight.” Whether from Russia, Uganda, Jamaica, or Lebanon, the expectation that the U.S. government will once again be visibly and solidly on the side of LGBTIQ equality was immediately palpable.

The shock of the Trump-incited insurrection contrasted starkly with the beautiful inauguration of Biden as the 46th president of the United States last week. These images leave Americans and the world deeply aware of the fragility and imperfection of the U.S. democracy and with many questions about moving forward to make a more perfect union. 

But the arc of the moral universe is clearly bending — albeit slowly — toward greater acceptance and fairness for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender and intersex people around the world. And the world has been waiting and is ready for renewed U.S. leadership on global LGBTIQ rights. 

Julie Dorf is a senior advisor with the Council for Global Equality. Dominic Bocci is a deputy director at the Council on Foreign Relations.