Much has been written lately regarding Ric Grenell, the out gay conservative who the Trump administration has tapped as the acting Director of National Intelligence. The thrust of most reporting has focused on Grenell’s lack of experience in the intelligence sector, something that even fellow Republican senators have pointed out. Most see this pick as being a payback for undying loyalty that Grenell (who also serves as Ambassador to Germany) has shown to President Trump rather than a carefully considered choice.
Although for LGBTQ Americans, there’s another focal point of flailing (if not outright failure) that hasn’t earned the scrutiny it deserves. Namely, Grenell’s supposed effort to decriminalize and destigmatize homosexuality worldwide. When that campaign was announced last year, the supposedly bold effort earned much attention in the press, with Grenell positioning himself as a poster child for the Trump administration’s allegedly hidden well of LGBTQ support. Only problem? Here a year in, there doesn’t seem to be much to show for it. In fact, in certain parts of the world, things seem as dire as they’ve ever been, but Grenell and company seem to be showing far less attention to the problem than the Obama administration did before them.
Take Uganda. Over the past decade, reports of cruel and deeply dangerous homophobia and transphobia have been commonplace in the African nation. Most infamously encompassed by the “Kill the Gays” bill that cropped up around 2010, Uganda has been a global focal point for the dire work that the international LGBTQ community still needs to do in order to keep our people safe from bodily harm, as just a starting point. If anyone were to engage in a global effort on behalf of such safety, one would think that Uganda would be a starting point.
Sadly, the state of affairs in Uganda seems as bad as ever. Just this month, two prominent Ugandan newspapers, Trumpet News and Red Pepper, published salacious reports of a same-sex marriage that was supposedly performed at The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries Uganda, a pro-LGBTQ church. Because of these media reports, members of the church are now in hiding, living in fear for their lives.
They have every reason to be fearful. Just last year, Ugandan politicians resurrected the so-called “Kill The Gays” bill, a version that some say is even worse (even. worse!) than earlier versions. Around the time of its 2019 introduction, a prominent young LGBTQ activist was attacked and murdered — the fourth to occur in Uganda in just a four month period! It’s impossible to see the two reports as unconnected.
Yet despite the outsized problem, there has been no outsized attention from the Trump administration. In fact, ever since the headlines at launch time, there hasn’t been much capital at all expended on Grenell’s global effort. David Pressman, an expert who worked on international LGBTQ policy for the Obama administration (where the global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality actually started, as even the Trump State Department accurately noted), told Mother Jones that Grenell’s efforts have “not translated into any meaningful, coordinated, strategic effort.” Most people now see it for what I predicted it was at launch time: a cheap way to score “LGBTQ supportive” political points for an administration with an aggressively anti-LGBTQ record.
And it’s not just Grenell’s campaign that is failing to combat the problem, either. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, both of whom have years of outspoken anti-LGBTQ advocacy on their records (Pompeo’s here; Brownback’s here), have made lots of promises regarding freedom of religion around the world, taking on the plight of persecuted Christians and religious minorities worldwide. Yet here we have a pro-LGBTQ church targeted for their own religious freedom. Will we hear a peep? I’m hopeful, but not holding my breath. With the Trump administration, religious freedom seems to apply far more to the anti-LGBTQ evangelicals who support him, the cake bakers who don’t want to serve same-sex weddings, and the companies that wish to fire LGBTQ workers without penalty.
To be fair, I have no doubt that Mr. Grenell (who I’ve never met beyond sparring on Twitter) is personally committed to such a campaign, and to LGBTQ betterment in general. However, the fact of the matter is that he’s working for an administration that does not prioritize LGBTQ people, something made obvious from virtually day one of taking office. Grenell’s heart very well might be in the right place, but his team is not playing the same game. In fact, it would seem he is the one who is being played here.