Story at a glance

  • Richard Grenell is the first openly gay person to hold a Cabinet-level position.
  • Before becoming acting director of national intelligence, he led an effort to decriminalize homosexuality in countries where it is illegal.
  • In the year since the effort started, one country has decriminalized homosexuality.

President Trump became the first president to name an openly gay person to a Cabinet-level position this week with the appointment of Richard Grenell as acting director of national intelligence.

Grenell was already the highest-profile gay person in an administration with a mixed record on LGBTQ+ rights. As ambassador to Germany, he spearheaded a global effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality in nearly 70 countries where it is still illegal. The initiative followed the reported hanging of a gay man in Iran, one of the Trump administration’s adversaries, and in an op-ed for a German news publication Grenell voiced a call to arms. 

“Being gay is a death sentence in eight countries and criminalized in 70 more. LGBT status or conduct means arrest, imprisonment, and violence for people who are simply dating or falling in love. Governments that are Members of the United Nations have an obligation to protect, respect, and uphold the dignity and fundamental freedoms of their people,” he wrote. 

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But while some praised the efforts when they were announced in January 2019, there is little to show for them a year later. Only one country, Botswana, has decriminalized homosexuality since then. Ryan Thoreson, an LGBTQ+ researcher for Human Rights Watch, tells NBC News the country's high court decision was made in a case started before Grenell's initiative in 2019. 

"It would be different if they were trying, but it's not even clear they are doing anything meaningful at all," Charlotte Clymer, an HRC spokeswoman, told NBC. "It is yet another case of the Trump-Pence White House making promises to LGBTQ people, even while they enable discrimination and violence against us at home and abroad."

Trump was the first Republican presidential nominee to mention gay rights on the campaign trail. But since taking office, he's rolled back LGBTQ+ protections. The same month this initiative was announced, the Supreme Court granted the Trump administration the ability to temporarily enforce restrictions on transgender people serving in the military, although it left one nationwide injunction on Trump’s order in place. 

NBC News reports the U.S. Embassy in Berlin hosted a roundtable on the subject of decriminalizing homosexuality in July. In December, Grenell hosted a U.N. breakout session to discuss the efforts

"[The] discussion underscored the United States’ commitment to the principle that all governments must respect the equality and human dignity of each person under their jurisdiction, regardless of sexual orientation," he said in a statement. 

Published on Feb 21, 2020