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Our LGBT Empire

Why is it America’s business to queer the Donbass?

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Are we fighting in Ukraine in order to “queer the Donbass”? That phrase, which I believe originated with TAC’s editor-at-large Rod Dreher, implies that the ideological package that NATO rallied to Ukraine to defend includes not only freedom and democracy but also pride parades and drag queen story hour. That would, of course, be a ridiculous reason to fight a war. Many Americans don’t want to queer their own kids’ elementary school, much less an industrial Slavic province five thousand miles away.

In August 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged that his government would introduce legislation to create civil partnerships for gay couples. The bill was approved by the Ministry of Justice in October 2023. Instituting gay marriage will require a constitutional amendment, which Zelensky has said will have to wait until after the war ends. In the meantime, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in June 2023 that two Ukrainian men seeking a marriage license had been illegally discriminated against and, as a signatory to the European human rights convention, Ukraine must pass a law that grants them equal treatment.

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In theory, it ought to be possible to be part of the democratic world and not buy in to America’s particular version of non-traditional sexual morals. In practice, apparently, it is not. 

The story of how gay rights came to play a role in American foreign policy is a curious one. It started under Barack Obama and continued, surprisingly, under Donald Trump. It was folded into our broader support for human rights at a time when every single referendum on gay marriage here in the United States had failed and support for gay marriage at home was far from unanimous. In light of that, it should be unsurprising that the answer to our original question is: Yes, in fact, we are fighting to queer the Donbass. The average American may not be interested in that goal, but our State Department is.

In 2004, billboards appeared in the Macedonian capital of Skopje with pictures of gay couples and the slogan “Face Reality, The Campaign to Promote the Rights of Sexual Minorities.” At the bottom right corner of each billboard was the seal of the U.S. embassy. The billboards had been purchased by a local gay rights group called the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which two years earlier had received a $20,000 grant from the U.S. government. The ambassador to Macedonia at the time, Lawrence Butler, was a Clinton appointee rumored to be personally hostile to the “family-values agenda” of Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski. The embassy nevertheless disavowed the posters, saying the CCHR had used the seal “inappropriately.”

The controversy over the Macedonian billboards put a chill on efforts to incorporate gay rights into American foreign policy. Proponents would absolutely continue working toward that goal. They just realized they would have to be cautious. When Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, his State Department appointees got to work on how to frame an international gay rights agenda. After two years, they were ready to proceed.

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The founding charter of American gay rights diplomacy was a speech given by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva in December 2011. In the speech, Clinton modified a line from the famous speech she gave in Beijing as first lady about women’s rights: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” She told gay and transgender people around the world, “You have an ally in the United States, and you have millions of friends among the American people.” She also promised to “use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.”

This was a sweeping new agenda backed by a formidable threat. The caution lay in the narrow definition of gay rights that the State Department would promote. Embassy personnel abroad would not advocate for gay marriage, gay adoption, or even civil unions. They would simply condemn acts of violence against gays, laws criminalizing gay sex, and disparate treatment of gays under the law, such as unequal ages of consent. The idea was to make gay rights seem to be something everyone could get behind. No American evangelical, however conservative, would endorse the South African practice of “corrective rape” for lesbians, one of the examples Clinton cited in her speech.

The second element of caution was designed specifically to prevent embarrassments like the Skopje billboard affair. Normally, when the U.S. government funds a development program abroad, beneficiaries must mark products of this assistance with American branding. However, human rights grantees are exempt from this branding requirement due to the politically sensitive nature of their activities. Gay rights groups that receive money from the U.S. government are free to disclose this funding; they are also free not to.

Alas, the rule that American diplomats would not promote gay rights beyond protection from violent hate crimes was rather like Obama saying in 2008 that he only supported civil unions. Everyone understood that he was just waiting for the right time to declare his real position. In practice, it was difficult to restrict the purposes to which our gay rights funding was put. We gave grants to local LGBTQ organizations around the world, nominally for legal aid and other approved projects, but once organizations are created and activists are trained, the laws of political momentum begin to operate on their own.

A list of examples of grants quickly gets rococo. American taxpayers sent $19,808 to an NGO called Queer Montenegro to introduce Gay Straight Alliance clubs in Montenegrin schools; $24,000 to stage a gay film festival in South Korea; $32,000 to produce a comic “featuring an LGBTQ+ hero” in Peru; $42,000 for the gay classical group the Well-Strung Quartet to perform in Kazakhstan. An NGO in Ecuador received $20,600 to “host 3 workshops, 12 drag theater performances, and produce a 2 minute documentary.” When Fox News ran a story about it, a State Department spokesperson replied that the purpose of the grant was to “promote tolerance” and “provide new opportunities for LGBTQI+ Ecuadorians to express themselves.”  

The official position of the U.S. State Department, even today, is that it does not attempt to impose gay marriage on unwilling nations. But sometimes its representatives get carried away. U.S. ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher—a Trump appointee—said in an interview with a Polish news outlet in 2020, “I fully respect that Poland is a Catholic country, but you need to know that, regarding LGBT, you’re on the wrong side of history.” As ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel put his political weight behind a national anti-discrimination bill and called on Japan to implement gay marriage, which annoyed many Japanese who felt he had overstepped his bounds.

Croatia and Slovenia both passed anti-discrimination and civil union laws because the European Union told them they had to. American pressure is usually not quite so heavy handed, although sometimes it is. We have withheld aid to countries such as Egypt and Uganda over gay rights. As for more subtle pressure, the results speak for themselves: a global map of gay marriage is a map of American influence. Outside Europe, the place where it is strongest is Latin America. The only East Asian country with gay marriage is Taiwan, where it was accomplished by means of a constitutional court decision in 2017.

When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, many people expected that America’s advocacy for gay rights abroad would end. As a candidate, Trump had based his foreign policy on the principle of sovereignty. “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions,” he said at the United Nations in 2018. “The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.” 

Yet throughout Trump’s term, the programs Obama and Clinton had launched were left in place. The leading scholar on this topic, Cynthia Burack of Ohio State University, wrote in her 2022 book How Trump and the Christian Right Saved LGBTI Human Rights: A Religious Freedom Mystery, “I assumed that if the Christian right were in the position to extirpate SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] human rights support and assistance from US foreign policy, they would do so. I was wrong.”

Why did this happen? One answer is personnel. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was, in a previous life, the president of the Boy Scouts who pushed the organization to change its policy on gay scoutmasters. Ric Grenell became the highest ranking gay federal official in American history when Trump made him director of national intelligence in 2020. He had spent the previous year leading a campaign to decriminalize homosexuality in the 70 countries where it remains, to one extent or another, illegal.

Oddly, Grenell’s campaign did not cooperate at all with existing efforts within the State Department. When the umbrella body for international gay rights diplomacy, the Global Equality Fund, had a big confab in Berlin in 2018, Grenell declined to attend, even though he was ambassador to Germany at the time.

Which gets to the other reason for inaction on this issue under Trump: the usual deep state insubordination. Trump’s political appointees and the entrenched federal bureaucracy did not always cooperate with each other. On the issue of gay rights, the true believers in the State Department will only put a brake on their advocacy if forced to do so. Professor Burack, in her book, lists the actions she expected the Trump administration to take, which conveniently doubles as a list of action items for Trump II. In addition to obvious steps like pulling out of the GEF, she floats the idea of a gay rights equivalent of the “Mexico City policy” on abortion (which Trump did reinstate). It’s a blunt instrument, but that’s what it would take.

One victory Trump did have was on flags. Previously, American embassies abroad had blanket permission to fly the rainbow pride flag below the national flag on official flagpoles. The Trump administration modified the rule so that embassies had to request permission to display it; no such requests were approved. But even this rule was flouted. Embassies and consulates found creative ways to display the rainbow flag on their buildings, hanging from windows or balconies.

When the Trump administration did take concrete action to scale back our efforts to push gay ideology on the rest of the world, it got sued. The State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights was launched in July 2019 with a mandate to bring our human rights agenda in line with American values, including religious freedom. Members included prominent academics such as Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon and Stanford’s Russell Berman. Four human rights NGOs sued to have the commission disbanded on the grounds that it was stacked with conservatives known to “treat with skepticism, or outright derision, rights claims by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (‘LGBTQI’) individuals.” This lawsuit harried the commission until it was disbanded and the Biden administration repudiated its final report.

According to one scholar cited by Burack, the reason so many Third World gay activists felt “alarm” at Trump’s election was that they “feared an immediate drop in material and moral support” and “view the U.S. and U.S.-based organizations as critical sources of funding.” They really did believe that without American financial support their organizations would not be able to continue their work. Which, when you think about it, is a shocking admission. If these organizations would not exist without us, then why should the American taxpayer be propping them up?

Sexuality is at the heart of civilization. It distills all of the moral values of a people, what they think is important, their vision of the good life. Little modifications to sexual norms can have huge consequences. “Can cousins marry?” may seem like a rare and irrelevant question, but there are anthropologists who think Christian Europe and the rest of the world diverged economically and morally because the former answered it in the negative.

The American concept of homosexuality is quite unique. It resembles no previous culture’s idea of gay relationships. We certainly do not have a monopoly on acceptance of gay sex. It’s a wild world out there. There is, if I can put this delicately, something funny about the idea that we have anything to teach the Arab world about sodomy. Or Southeast Asia. Albanian sworn virgins are a tradition that originates in the Kanun of Lek. Do we want to send a bunch of Westernized NGO staffers to tell these ladies that they’re actually “trans”? 

There are many places where our version of gay rights is extremely unpopular. The two biggest religions in the world are the Roman Catholic Church and Islam. Both condemn gay sex. China does not go for it either; there is no gay marriage there, and the ruling party periodically cracks down on gay activism, which it considers contrary to Chinese family values. The entire continent of Africa has exactly one country that has legalized gay marriage (South Africa).  

Even many places that are inclined to be chill about private acts between adults balk at how far America is taking things. In America, tens of thousands of people cut off their breasts or genitals every year trying to change their sex. Judges tell parents they will lose custody if they don’t let their children be castrated. Rising STD rates among gay men have led the CDC to approve the continuous use of antibiotics as a prophylactic (DoxyPEP), even though this will surely result in antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Our birthrates are collapsing, and almost half of the children we do have are out of wedlock. There are lots of reasons other countries might look at us and think maybe we don’t have our sexual norms exactly right.

If our idiosyncratic vision of sexual liberation is so unpopular, why do we push it? Even if you really believe in the gay cause, surely you can understand, as a point of prudence, that other people don’t like it and that it will harm other causes you care about to link them. It is a genuine mystery. I am not sure I have the answer, but I have two theories.

When Hillary Clinton gave that speech in Geneva, she was joined by a beautifully diverse bunch of gay activists from all around the world—Malawi, Lithuania, the Philippines, Moldova, Jamaica. One of them was Ukrainian. That man, Zoryan Kis, now works for the Foreign Ministry in Kiev, after stints at the National Democratic Institute, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. 

Being a gay rights advocate in Eastern Europe seems to be a good way to attract favorable attention from big Western institutions. Bart Staszewski organized a pride parade in the Polish city of Lublin and for this achievement was selected to receive fellowships by the Obama Foundation and the Atlantic Council. Maksym Eristavi, a gay activist in Lvov, was a Poynter fellow at Yale in 2015 and more recently had fellowships at the Atlantic Council, the Millennium Leadership Program, and the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. 

It makes sense. These fellowships are about picking individuals and investing in them, tying them to your networks and boosting their careers. If you pick a homosexual, you can be certain his loyalty to the American empire will remain absolute. As long as America stands for giving gay people special legal protections and high social status, self-interest will urge him to maximize its influence. 

The above-mentioned Maksym Eristavi contributed a chapter to an edited volume titled Untapped Power: Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion for Conflict and Development (2022). The subtitle practically gives the game away. The book is about how “leveraging diversity and fostering inclusion” have led to “a more effective approach to international affairs.” Eristavi’s chapter, on gay rights, describes how, in countries from Vietnam to his native Ukraine, American diplomats used the power of their office on behalf of gay rights and had their influence enhanced in return by this exercise of sway. Being the gay empire alienates some people, but it inspires others to rally to America’s cause, and perhaps the latter make up in usefulness for what they lack in numbers. 

That sounds a bit conspiratorial, even for the deep state, so let me end with the second possible explanation, in which I have more confidence. Gay rights have always been a useful mechanism for liberals to politically neutralize conservatives. When it becomes illegal to disfavor homosexuality in any way—which is what anti-discrimination protections do—it becomes difficult for any person or institution with traditional values to operate in the public square. Catholic adoption agencies, Yeshiva University, and that poor funeral home director in the Bostock case were all told that their beliefs were incompatible with running a charity, a school, or a business. Traditionalists can believe what they want only on the condition that they remain politically and commercially inert. 

Adding a gay rights dimension to foreign policy takes the above maneuver to a whole new level. In October 2022, Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin stated that the war in Ukraine was justified because “Moscow right now is a hub of corrupt tyranny [and] a world center of antifeminist, antigay, anti-trans hatred, as well as the homeland of replacement theory for export.” As TAC’s backpage columnist Matthew Schmitz observed on Twitter, Raskin “has laid out a casus belli that applies to a significant portion of the American public,” including anyone who is not a feminist, rejects trans ideology, or worries about demographic replacement.

It is funny that Vladimir Putin, of all people, has become a symbol for global homophobia. In the 1990s, when he was deputy to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, his boss got flustered by the presence of a flamboyantly gay man from New York among the American consultants sent to advise the city government. Putin told his boss to relax and that the man’s private life was his own business. He later toasted the man at his farewell luncheon as “a member of our family.” His personal views were considered tolerant by Westerners who knew him. If he has become an opponent of gay activism, it is only because he sees it, rightly, as a force for foreign subversion, rather as the samurai in 17th-century Japan regarded the church.

If you make adherence to gay ideology the standard for national allegiance, as Representative Raskin did, then dissent from it becomes treason. You can read your domestic enemies out of the nation. That is the left’s goal, which explains why they are pushing a sexual revolution abroad that has not been fully accepted at home. They want to make it so that anyone who criticizes the latest trans excesses can be painted as Putin’s dupe and America’s enemy. That, and not the plight of the drag queens of Senegal, is a sufficiently compelling motivation to make sense of the mystery.

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