The United States has a new Secretary of State, and he doesn’t like queer people. The U.S. Senate voted 57 to 43 to confirm former CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be the nation’s chief diplomat. Five Democratic Senators voted to confirm Pompeo despite protests from LGBTQ rights groups that his virulent homophobia and transphobia should disqualify him from the job.
Pompeo’s confirmation is undoubtedly a disappointment for LGBTQ Americans, but it’s a potentially fatal blow to LGBTQ people around the globe, who look to the United States to put pressure on their governments not to imprison, torture, or even kill them.
Pompeo could be the worst thing to happen to the global fight for LGBTQ rights since Donald Trump himself.
Since President Trump took office last year, the State Department and U.S. diplomats have been less strident in supporting LGBTQ rights as human rights than they were under former president Barack Obama. Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson “didn’t really go after the LGBTQ portion of foreign policy,” Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch told NBC News earlier this month. “Now you’re going to see someone who is explicitly anti-LGBTQ, and I think you’re going to see reversals in policy. It’s very dangerous.”
That’s putting it mildly. There has already been a noticeable change in tone and tenor from this administration. Last year, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley voted against a resolution condemning the executions of LGBTQ people simply for their sexual orientation or gender identity. This was intended to keep from undermining the use of the death penalty by foreign nations, but previous administrations had abstained from similar votes rather than vote with the likes of the Saudi Arabian and Ugandan governments.
With Mike Pompeo at the helm of American foreign policy, this looks likely to become the norm. Pompeo has long had close ties with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, an anti-LGBTQ hate group. Perkins, who has compared queer people to pedophiles, adulterers, alcoholics, and Nazis, complained that the Obama administration “openly demonized other countries that refused to recognize homosexuality as an international ‘human right.’”
Instead, he hopes to see the State Department ignore LGBTQ rights under Pompeo.
Writing for Fox News, Perkins said he expects Pompeo to focus on promoting “religious freedom” around the world, something the far-right uses as a dog-whistle to mean “anti-LGBTQ.” When former Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed his state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” into law, “religious freedom” meant allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Perkins points to the example of Egypt, where ISIS killed nearly 50 Coptic Christians in a series of church bombings last year, as a country where Pompeo can focus on promoting “religious freedom.”
That noble cause, however, fails to include the Egyptian LGBTQ community. Queer and transgender Egyptians are facing a massive crackdown on their rights from the Egyptian government, which has imprisoned hundreds of LGBTQ people since Abdel el-Sisi became president in 2014. Although sodomy isn’t illegal, law enforcement officials target those accused of same-sex behavior under its defunct “debauchery” laws. A proposed law though could change that by criminalizing homosexuality with a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Perkins and the Family Research Council are unlikely to care about the plight of LGBTQ Egyptians. This is the same group that supported Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill (which mandated the death penalty for homosexuality) and lobbied against a U.S. Congressional resolution against it.
The question, now, is whether Mike Pompeo shares this point of view.
All evidence suggests he does. Pompeo had a notoriously anti-LGBTQ voting record as a U.S. Congressman. Pompeo scored a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign during his time in the House of Representatives, where he voted against repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. During his confirmation, he stated he still opposes same-sex marriage but refused to answer whether he considers same-sex attraction a “perversion,” as he insinuated in a 2015 speech.
Despite his tough words on Iran and even Russiaa rarity for this administrationnone of this suggests that fighting for equality in these countries will be a priority for the new Secretary of State. If anything, Pompeo looks set to continue the steady rollback of LGBTQ rights. Randy Berrythe former LGBTQ rights envoy at the State Departmentended his tenure last November, and according to the government agency’s website, the position remains vacant. It’s hard to fathom that Pompeo will fill it anytime soon.
That’s concerning because the Trump administration has largely ignored LGBTQ rights abuses around the world. Despite continued crackdowns in Chechnya, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Indonesia, the White House has remained silent. While Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, did raise concerns about the execution of gay men in Chechnya with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he was hardly forceful in his condemnation.
Human rights abuses against gay Chechens still continue more than a year after the detentions began, on which the State Department has continued its record of silence.
If Pompeo does continue on this trajectory, it will have tangible and dangerous consequences for LGBTQ people. He will be responsible for programs overseeing LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. and policies that tie foreign aid and investment to protecting LGBTQ rights. Curtailing these programs could see the tide of homophobia and transphobia rise even higher in places where queer people are already suffering immensely.
During his confirmation, Pompeo sought to alleviate these concerns. Under intense questioning from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), he insisted he would continue to promote LGBTQ human rights around the world.
“I deeply believe that LGBTQ persons have every right that every other person in the world would have,” he said.
If Pompeo’s support for the Family Research Council is any indication, though, LGBTQ people around the world shouldn’t expect the U.S. State Department to be an ally for much longer. For countless queer people across the globe, it could be the difference between life and death. But while we wait and see what becomes of his tenure, let’s hold out hope Pompeo will embrace the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: LGBTQ rights are human rights.