“Actions speak louder than words” is a cliché, but it’s also true. And when it comes to promoting LGBTQ+ equality overseas, President Joe Biden’s administration is committed to not only speaking the right words but following through with actions, says State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Just a couple of weeks after taking office, Biden issued a memo directing all U.S. diplomats and government agencies working abroad to “promote and protect” the rights of LGBTQ+ people. The memo builds on the one issued by President Barack Obama in December 2011, in conjunction with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous “gay rights are human rights” speech to the United Nations.
But Biden’s memo is just the beginning, says Price, the first out gay spokesman at the State Department. “Having it as official policy is itself meaningful, but what really matters is how we put that into practice,” he tells The Advocate.
Promoting LGBTQ+ equality around the world isn’t an easy task, and it won’t be accomplished quickly, given that about 70 countries still criminalize consensual same-sex relations, while antidiscrimination laws and marriage equality remain a far-off dream. (And here at home, Biden is still trying to get the Senate to pass the Equality Act.) But the president, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the whole administration are using multiple approaches to fight for global LGBTQ+ rights, Price says.
One example of that came during Biden's recent trip overseas, which included a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "The president pushed human rights, including LGBTQI rights, with President Putin," Blinken told out journalist Jonathan Capehart Monday during an event hosted by the Atlantic Council. "And I think he referred to this in his press conference as well. What he told President Putin is that as an American president, where for all of our challenges — many of which are manifest in recent months and recent years — this is something that is basically stamped into our DNA and he would be abdicating his responsibility as president, as an American president, not to raise these issues." Blinken declined to characterize Putin's response, and Price declines to go beyond Blinken's comments. But the spokesman points out the many other ways in which the Biden administration is promoting equality.
As so many countries are hostile places for LGBTQ+ people, many become refugees, seeking asylum in friendlier nations, including the U.S. Donald Trump was infamous for his hostility to refugees and immigrants in general, setting an annual cap of 15,000 on refugee admissions, an historic low. Biden raised the cap on refugee admissions for this fiscal year, ending September 30, to 62,500 (after some initial hesitation that drew criticism) and committed to raising the cap to 125,000 for the following fiscal year.
This is for all refugees, not just LGBTQ+ ones. Rainbow Railroad, a group that assists LGBTQ+ refugees, recently issued a report calling on the Biden administration to assure that LGBTQ+ refugees make up a significant portion of the total and to use a variety of other means to help this population.
“These are, broadly speaking, priorities we share,” Price says when asked about Rainbow Railroad’s recommendations. “We are a country that has always welcomed refugees. … We’re deeply committed to that.” The historically low rate of refugee admissions under Trump, he notes, has created “a deep hole.”
But there’s also the matter of making life better for LGBTQ+ people in their home countries. The State Department manages the Global Equality Fund, a public-private partnership that makes grants and offers technical expertise to organizations and individuals working for the rights of LGBTQ+ and intersex people in many nations. Various like-minded countries, businesses, and foundations are partners in the fund. Over the past several years it’s made $83 million in grants, Price says, and this effort is continuing. There’s also aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Export-Import Bank, and other programs.
And one action that can improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people overseas involves more talk — talking to the government officials and other influential types in those nations, sometimes in public, sometimes in private, and sometimes in coalition with allies.
“We will press for this in the most effective way we can,” Price says. Speaking in private is at times the right choice so the U.S. does not appear to be strong-arming other countries, but “it’s sometimes also appropriate to make this point in public,” he says. Regarding Blinken, he adds, “When the issue needs to be raised, he does not hesitate to raise it.”
That doesn’t mean change is going to happen overnight, he notes: “We recognize it’s going to be a long-term proposition in many cases.”
Also, to those who would say that pushing for LGBTQ+ equality overseas amounts to imposing Western values, Price has a quick response: Equality and acceptance are “not Western values, not American values, but universal values.”
Price says the Biden administration holds to those values internally as well, with a commitment to inclusivity; 14 percent of administration appointees being members of the LGBTQ+ community. “This work is being carried out be departments, but at its core it’s being carried out by individuals,” Price says. “This is about more than metrics … this is the power of an example,” he adds.
When Price, who worked in the Obama administration and in the private sector, was named State Department spokesman, his Twitter feed and email were filled with congratulations but also a bit of shock and disbelief that an out gay man would be speaking on behalf of the State Department and, therefore, U.S. foreign policy. Just a few decades ago, LGBTQ+ people were often fired from sensitive federal government positions (or not hired in the first place) because they were considered a security risk.
Those days are gone, and the appointment of Price and others is a sign of progress but a reminder of how far we still have to go, he says.
“I’m very fortunate to work for an administration with whom I share values,” he says. “There’s a certain symbolism in having someone who identifies as openly gay addressing and speaking from the State Department. I recognize the power of that.”