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Gay Diplomat Nominated as Ambassador to Conservative Lithuania

Robert Gilchrist
Robert Gilchrist

Trump nominee Robert Gilchrist previously praised his former bosses, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

A gay man has been nominated to be ambassador to Lithuania -- an assignment that may be challenging given the country's anti-LGBTQ attitudes, although there is some evidence of progress.

Donald Trump intends to nominate veteran diplomat Robert Gilchrist to be ambassador to the Eastern European nation, the White House announced Monday. Although the Trump administration has taken many anti-LGBTQ actions, it does have some out gay people in high-ranking positions, such as Richard Grenell, a gay conservative who is ambassador to Germany. Ambassadorial appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.

Gilchrist is currently director of the operations center at the State Department. He has served in diplomatic posts under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He has been deputy chief of mission -- a rank second only to ambassador -- at the U.S. embassies in Sweden and Estonia, and the director of Nordic and Baltic affairs in the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, in addition to assignments in many other parts of the world.

He was a foreign policy aide to a Democratic congressman, William Delahunt of Massachusetts, in 2002 and 2003. For several years he was president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, an organization of LGBTQ people and allies working in foreign affairs for the U.S. government.

He opened Baltic Pride in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2011, with a speech saying, "My name is Robert Gilchrist and I am the number two -- the deputy chief of mission -- at the U.S. Embassy. I am also gay. So being here this evening is not just important to me as a U.S. diplomat in reaffirming my government's respect for the integrity of every human being. It is also important to me as someone who has been active in the gay movement back in my own country and as a fellow gay person who is out and proud." In the speech he also praised then-President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Baltic Pride rotates between the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics.

Lithuanian attitudes toward LGBTQ people are slowly becoming more positive, but the laws and public opinion remain largely hostile. The heavily Roman Catholic country is one of only six European Union member states without any form of legal recognition for same-sex couples, but in January its highest court ruled that it must at least grant residency permits to foreign same-sex spouses of Lithuanian citizens. And Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis last year urged Parliament to establish registered partnerships for same-sex couples, although it has yet to do so.

It has a law similar to Russia's so-called "gay propaganda" statute. Its Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information has often been used to censor positive information about LGBTQ and intersex people. The Lithuanian government has claimed that "it is not the depiction of gender diversity that has detrimental effect on minors and is therefore restricted (not prohibited), but rather encouraging of family relationship between people of the same sex."

The nation has a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it is poorly implemented, according to a 2018 report from LGL, Lithuania's national LGBTQ rights organization, and other human rights groups. The law does not cover gender identity.

Reactions to Baltic Pride have shown some progress. When the event was first held in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, in 2010, protesters hurled smoke bombs at Pride marchers and then attacked police who were trying to protect the marchers. Anti-LGBTQ demonstrators again tried to disrupt the event when it returned to the nation in 2013, but Pride participants carried on. The 2016 event in Vilnius proceeded without incident and with much support from onlookers, although a small contingent of protesters showed up. And next time Baltic Pride came to Lithuania, in June of this year, there was a "celebratory atmosphere," with leaders of political parties and corporations joining in the parade, according to ITV News.

The nation has also given shelter to people fleeing antigay persecution in Chechnya, a semiautonomous republic within Russia. On May 17, 2017, that year's date for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius announced that his nation had granted visas to two Chechens escaping the purge, making it one of the first to do so. He urged other countries to extend help to Chechnya's embattled LGBTQ population as well.

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