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Democrats call for State to lift ban on embassies discussing same-sex marriage

Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds up documents as he testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on September 14, 2021. Blinken was questioned about the Biden administration's handling of the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan
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House Democrats are calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to rescind a blanket ban on American embassies discussing U.S. advancements on marriage equality for same-sex couples. 

The State Department describes its policy as “neither for or against” advocating for marriage equality abroad, its reasoning being that the topic is an unsettled question in many countries and in international law. 

But in a letter to Blinken obtained by The Hill, House Democrats criticize State as operating under an “outdated policy” that bars diplomats from “even discussing our country’s own constitutional rationale” in legalizing same-sex marriage. 

The U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the result of a Supreme Court decision that found barring same-sex couples from marrying violated their constitutional rights. 

“While we recognize that many countries are not at the point of legal partnership recognition, and that far too many countries continue to criminalize same-sex couples rather than recognizing their right to marry, the legal landscape is quickly evolving,” the lawmakers wrote.  

“There are now 29 countries, including in Asia and in Central America, that affirm marriage for same-sex couples. Where marriage is a significant public issue abroad, we trust you would want your Administration to be standing on the right side of history.”

The letter is led by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who was the first openly gay mayor of Providence, R.I., and is chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. 

The letter is signed by 61 House Democrats.  

Advocates who put their support behind the letter from Democrats say they are not calling for a blanket allowance for diplomats abroad to promote marriage equality, saying such advocacy in countries where homosexuality is criminalized can be harmful to the movement of human rights for LGBTQI+ individuals in general. 

But in countries where the push for same-sex marriage is actively part of the domestic discourse, advocates say that American diplomats can, and should, provide information on how the U.S. has moved forward this issue.  

“I think telling all embassies that they have to be silent on this issue no longer makes sense,” said Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality. 

“We’re at a point now where having embassies in Chile, or Japan, or the Czech Republic, speak in favor of marriage equality, and where that is a live issue, it would be helpful.”

Chile is viewed as one legislative step away from legalizing same-sex marriage, following approval by the majority of its Senate in July. Likewise, a Japanese court in March ruled that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and in Prague, Czech legislators have continued to advance same-sex marriage legislation. 

Evan Wolfson, who led the campaign in the U.S. for marriage equality and promotes the freedom to marry globally, said that rescinding the rule would make it easier for diplomats to engage in work with advocates abroad. 

“We have worked with embassies that have been very comfortable, and have done absolutely, just the logical right thing, as if the policy didn’t exist, to the point where I didn’t even know this policy existed,” he said. 

“But it has happened … an embassy official has said ‘we can’t do this because there’s this policy.’ ” 

The Biden administration has put a priority on advocating and advancing rights for LGBTQI+ individuals, with the president publishing in February a memorandum on advancing such rights globally. The memorandum also directed U.S. agencies to conduct a review and rescind any policies found to be “inconsistent” with the administration’s directive to advance and promote LGBTQI+ rights.  

In June, Scott Busby, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau on Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told lawmakers in a hearing that State’s policy is that “We do not advocate for or against same-sex marriage overseas and that’s because it is still an unsettled question in lots of countries and in international law.”

“We have decided to dedicate our efforts primarily to protecting and promoting the core rights of LGBTQI+ persons, such as the right to life, the right to be free of torture, the right to be free from arbitrary detention. So for now, we do not advocate one way or the other overseas on same-sex marriage,” he continued.

Advocates say the time is right to push the State Department to rescind the policy, in particular since Jessica Stern, the special envoy to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, assumed her position in September. 

“She is excellent and a longtime LGBT advocate,” said Bromley, of the Council for Global Equality. “We are thrilled that she is there, and so we wanted this letter to be timed to arrive after she got to the State Department and we hope she can use it for internal advocacy to help get the policy changed.”

Tags Antony Blinken Dina Titus Joaquin Castro

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