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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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U.S. State Department

State Dept. urged to pressure countries to recognize diplomats’ same-sex spouses

Democratic lawmakers wrote Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 18

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Harry S. Truman State Department Building (Photo: Library of Congress)

WASHINGTON — A group of Democratic lawmakers have urged the State Department to do more to ensure countries recognize the same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats.

“We write regarding the continued challenges surrounding diplomatic accreditation faced by LGBTQI+ Department of State employees and their spouses,” reads an April 18 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) spearheaded. “This issue should be proactively raised in all relevant bilateral meetings by department leaders, especially at the chief of mission level abroad and at the front office or higher level domestically.”

The letter specifically notes upwards of 70 countries around the world “continue to deny visas to same-sex spouses.”

“This effectively renders a vast swath of overseas assignments unbiddable to many Foreign Service families,” reads the letter. “We are concerned that the Department of State has left this issue unresolved for too long, utilizing ‘workarounds’ instead of addressing the problem. We urge you to prioritize raising diplomatic accreditation for same-sex partners at the highest levels in all interactions internally and externally.”

The letter that more than 40 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed indicates “several additional countries” in the Western Hemisphere, the Middle East and North Africa “are finalizing agreements to soon begin accrediting spouses of the same sex.”

“We understand that the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, through the leadership of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joey Hood, has been at the forefront of developing successful strategies for engagement on this issue with countries in their region,” reads the letter. “We hope that you will promote and employ the tactics developed by the NEA (Near Eastern Affairs) Bureau, such as raising the issue of diplomatic accreditation at the ambassadorial level in addition to management counselors and other working level officials, as well as encourage other regional, and where appropriate functional, bureaus to replicate this model.”

“We further urge you to promote equal diplomatic accreditation for LGBTQI+ spouses as a chief of mission priority in Integrated Country Strategies in countries where same-sex couples are currently denied full privileges and immunities and in other high-level department strategic planning,” it continues. “By including diplomatic accreditation as a mission priority, department leadership ensures that attention and resources are dedicated to advancing change. Additionally, we encourage you to develop a robust reporting mechanism that allows ambassadors and chiefs of mission to easily share feedback on successful or unsuccessful strategies, which can be used to the advantage of missions in similar situations.”

The letter also notes the Vienna Convention ensures “our diplomats and their family members should be accredited and receive full diplomatic protections and immunities in the countries to which they are assigned, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, who co-founded LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) in 1992, is among those who expressed support for the lawmakers’ call.

“This initiative could put the United States in the lead when it comes to encouraging equal treatment for all families,” said Osius in a press release that announced the letter. “Inclusivity benefits everyone.”

The Obama administration in 2009 implemented a policy that asked countries to accredit same-sex partners of U.S. Foreign Service personnel on a “reciprocal basis” in order to receive diplomatic visas. The Biden White House last year issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ rights abroad.

“We have made and continue to make strong efforts to engage foreign governments on the issue of same-sex spouse accreditation,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Wednesday.

The spokesperson did not specifically comment on the letter, but stressed “fostering diversity and inclusion in the department is a top priority.”

“The State Department is striving to recruit and retain a workforce of talented people that reflects the true diversity of our country, including in our appointments at the most senior levels,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson noted Blinken appointed former U.S. Ambassador to Malta Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the State Department’s first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer. Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad, assumed her position last September.

“Globally, the United States advances the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons through bilateral and multilateral channels, raising official concerns with governments both publicly and privately, coordinating our response with like-minded countries, and offering emergency assistance to LGBTQI+ persons and groups at risk,” said the spokesperson. “ Through our foreign assistance programming, we support civil society by providing LGBTQI+ individuals and communities with the tools and resources to prevent, mitigate and recover from violence, discrimination, stigma, and other abuses.  We also provide support for programs that empower local LGBTQI+ movements and work to eliminate laws that criminalize LGBTQI+ status and/or conduct.”

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