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U.S. State Department

State Department releases annual human rights report

Anti-LGBTQ persecution, violence remains commonplace around the world

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters on April 12, 2022, after the State Department released its annual human rights report. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s annual human rights report that was released on Tuesday notes anti-LGBTQ+ persecution and violence remains commonplace in many countries around the world.

The report notes consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in Jamaica and dozens of other countries. Iran and Afghanistan are two of the handful of nations in which homosexuality is punishable by death.

The report specifically cites the case of Alireza Fazeli Monfared, an Iranian man whose relatives killed in in May 2021 after they discovered he was gay and non-binary. The report also notes the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan in August 2021 “increased fears of repression and violence among LGBTQI+ persons, with many individuals going into hiding to avoid being captured by the Taliban.”

“Many fled the country after the takeover,” reads the report. “After the takeover, LGBTQI+ persons faced increased threats, attacks, sexual assaults, and discrimination from Taliban members, strangers, neighbors and family members.”

The report includes statistics from Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais, a Brazilian Transgender rights group, that indicate 80 trans people — most of whom were Brazilians of African descent who were younger than 35 — were reported killed in the first six months of 2021. The report also cites Cattrachas, a lesbian feminist human rights group in Honduras that noted 17 “violent deaths of LGBTQI+ persons” in the country between January and August 2021.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out to reporters there are more than 1 million political prisoners in 65 countries. These include Yoav de la Cruz, a gay Cuban man who was sentenced to six years in prison last month after he livestreamed the first anti-government protest that took place on the island on July 11, 2021.

The report notes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s continued efforts to rollback LGBTQ+ rights, which include a decree his government issued on Aug. 6, 2021, that restricted the sale of children’s books with LGBTQ-specific themes. The report also includes incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, discrimination and hate speech in Poland.

This report focuses on 2021, and does not include details of human rights abuses that Russian forces have carried out against Ukrainian civilians during the ongoing war in their country. Blinken nevertheless criticized Russia throughout his remarks.

“In many years running, we have seen an alarming recession in democracy, in rule of law, respect for human rights in many parts of the world,” said Blinken. “In the time since releasing our previous report, that backsliding has, unfortunately, continued. In few places have the human consequences of this decline have been as stark as they are in the Russian government’s brutal war on Ukraine.”

Blinken also described human rights as “universal.”

“People of every nationality, race, gender, disability and age are entitled to these rights, no matter what they believe, who they love, or any other characteristics,” he said. “This is especially important as a number of governments continue to claim, falsely, that human rights need to be applied based on global context. It’s no coincidence that many of the same governments are among the worst abusers of human rights.”

The report also notes LGBTQ+ rights advances around the world.

The Botswana Court of Appeals in November 2021 upheld a previous ruling that decriminalized homosexuality in the country. The report also notes the European Commission sanctioned Hungary over its efforts to curtail LGBTQ+ rights and Poland in response to so-called “LGBT-free zones.”

‘We do not claim a moral high ground’

President Biden in 2021 released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad.

The White House last June named then-OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern as the next special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad. The State Department on Monday began to issue passports with “X” gender markers.

The State Department released its report less than a month after Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Lawmakers in dozens of other states across the U.S. have introduced similar measures and others that specifically target transgender children.

“We’re not trying to pretend that these are not issues that we are grappling with here in the United States,” said Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lisa Peterson in response to the Washington Blade’s question about the release of the report against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQ+ measures in the U.S. “This report, because it is very clearly focused on the rest of the world, we do dig in on other countries. We do not have a mandate to do a report on our own circumstances.”

“The universal nature of human rights also means that we have to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards,” said Blinken. “Even as this report looks outward at countries around the world, we’ve acknowledged from day one of this administration that we have challenges here in the United States.”

“We take seriously our responsibility to address these shortcomings and we know that the way we do it matters; together with citizens and communities, out in the open, transparent, not trying to pretend problems don’t exist, or sweeping them under a rug,” he added.

Peterson echoed Blinken before she took reporters’ questions.

“We can’t be credible advocates for human rights abroad if we don’t live up to the same principles at home,” said Peterson. “We do not claim a moral high ground, but we do, in the words of our Constitution, resolve to form a more perfect union, which means that we must continue to address the many human rights challenges in our own country.”

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U.S. State Department

U.S. demands regular access to Brittney Griner in Russia

Out WNBA star detained in Moscow in February.

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Brittney Griner (Photo by Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

MOSCOW — U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan on Tuesday said Russian officials have denied consular visits to detained WNBA star Brittney Griner three times this month.

“For the third time in a month, Russian authorities have denied an embassy visit to detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” said Sullivan in a statement the U.S. Embassy in Moscow posted to its Twitter account. “This is unacceptable. We call on @mfa_russia (Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry) to provide timely consular access, in line with Russia’s international and bilateral obligations.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department earlier this month determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. 

A Russian court on May 13 extended her detention for another month. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, a union that represents WNBA players, has endorsed a Change.org petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” Griner’s release.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Tuesday told reporters during his daily press briefing that a consular official “was able to speak with” Griner “on the margins of her court proceedings” on May 13.

“That consular official came away with the impression that Brittney Griner is doing as well as might be expected under conditions that can only be described as exceedingly difficult,” said Price.

“But sporadic contact is not satisfactory,” he added. “It also may not be consistent with the Vienna Convention, to which Russia has subscribed. That is why we continue to urge the Russian government to allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizens detained in Russia, in line with those very legal obligations, and to allow us to provide consular services for U.S. citizens detained in Russia.”

Price on Tuesday also said Secretary of State Antony Blinken “had an opportunity in recent days to speak with” Griner’s wife.

Blinken spoke with her on May 14.

He conveyed once again the priority we attach to seeing the release of all Americans around the world, including Brittney Griner in the case of Russia, Paul Whelan in the case of Russia — those are Americans who we consider to be wrongfully detained,” said Price.

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U.S. State Department

State Department: Russia ‘wrongfully detained’ Brittney Griner

WNBA star to appear in Moscow court on May 19

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(Screenshot via Russian television)

WASHINGTON — The State Department has determined Russia “wrongfully detained” WNBA star Brittney Griner earlier this year.

Russian authorities in February took Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner is among the WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s off-season.

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday. “The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate consular support to Ms. Griner.”

The spokesperson said Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens “will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

Russia announced Griner’s detention shortly after it invaded Ukraine.

Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been in a Russian custody since 2019, returned to the U.S. last week after the Kremlin released him in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen who had been in an American prison on drug trafficking charges. Griner is scheduled to appear in a Moscow court on May 19.

“Brittney’s status change is an important moment in the movement to bring her home safely and swiftly,” said National Black Justice Coalition Deputy Executive Director Victoria Kirby York in a statement. “It means there is now a two pronged approach focused on both legal and political strategies.” 

“It has become clear that Brittney’s legal team has acted in good faith to clear her name through Russia’s legal system, and that the Russian government has been actively trying to leverage Brittney’s detainment for political purposes tied to their war on Ukraine,” added York. “This is unfortunate, especially because Griner’s status as a Black, lesbian, woman leaves her vulnerable to increased discrimination and abuse at the hands of the racist and homophobic Russian government. We urge the U.S. government to do all it can to bring her home before she is no longer able to maintain her safety in a nation at war.”

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U.S. State Department

Report details U.S. efforts to promote LGBTQ+ rights abroad

White House policy memo issued in 2021

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Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and other State Department officials help raise the Progress Pride flag over the State Department on June 25, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Thursday released a report on the implementation of President Biden’s memo that committed the U.S. to the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad.

The report notes last June’s appointment of Jessica Stern as the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad and the issuance of passports with “X” gender markers that began on April 11.

Stern on Thursday told reporters during a conference call the State Department has created the Global LGBTQI+ Inclusive Democracy and Empowerment Initiative “that seeks to ensure democracies are inclusive of LGBTQI+ persons, representative of their communities and families and responsive to their needs and concerns.” Stern also noted roughly 60 percent of Peace Corp posts have implemented “specific LGBTQI+ equity practices within their operations.”

Stern highlighted the U.S. supported the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in a resolution in support of “democratization and enhancing periodic and genuine elections” the U.N. General Assembly adopted last November. Stern also noted the U.S. Agency for International Development again tracks how its foreign assistance programs promote LGBTQ+ rights.

Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank who is the first openly lesbian American ambassador, on Wednesday told the Washington Blade during an exclusive interview that she expects the U.S. government will endorse a proposed LGBTQ-specific safeguard for the ADB. Stern on Thursday noted the Department of Homeland Security has issued guidance to recognize informal same-sex marriages for the purposes of obtaining refugee or asylee status, even if they are not officially recognized by officials in countries of origin.”

The report also highlights how the Commerce, Defense, Justice, Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services have implemented the memo that Biden issued in February 2021.

“This memorandum makes clear that promoting and protecting the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is a U.S. foreign policy priority,” said Stern. “The report outlines how U.S. government agencies engaged abroad are working to become LGBTQI+ inclusive. It shows that many individual actions across the U.S. government taken as a whole create institutional change and improves the daily lives of LGBTQI+ persons.”  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement echoed Stern.

“It remains vitally important that we address the violence and discrimination faced by LGBTQI+ persons while acknowledging the effects of the intersections of race and ethnicity, gender, disability, religion and national origin, to name a few,” said Blinken. 

“As the report demonstrates, the U.S. government advances these priorities by supporting efforts to end the criminalization of LGBTQI+ status and conduct, seeking to protect vulnerable LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, providing foreign assistance to protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons and advancing  non-discrimination protections, responding to human rights abuses of LGBTQI+ persons abroad, building coalitions of like-minded nations, and engaging international organizations in the fight against LGBTQI+ discrimination,” added Blinken. “Our collective efforts drive toward the goal of ending violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics. Equality and equity build stronger societies for all.”

USAID Administrator Samantha Power on Thursday said the memo “was a call to action based on a simple premise: That all human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love.”

“Over the past year, as today’s report demonstrates, USAID has made important progress toward achieving these ambitions through a commitment to LGBTQI+ inclusive development in our policies and programs that reach millions of people around the world,” said Power.

The full report can be read here.

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