During the State Department’s Ministerial on International Religious Freedom last week, Mick Mulvaney — President Trump’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget — suggested that the Trump administration would end the practice of punishing African countries for their laws that criminalize homosexuality.
“Our US taxpayer dollars are used to discourage Christian values in other democratic countries,” he said during his remarks to the conference. “It was stunning to me that my government under a previous administration would go to folks in sub-Saharan Africa and say, ‘We know that you have a law against abortion, but if you enforce that law, you’re not going to get any of our money. We know you have a law against gay marriage, but if you enforce that law, we’re not going to give you any money.’ That is a different type of religious persecution that I never expected to see.”
“I never expected to see that as an American Christian,” he added. “There are a lot of people in this government who just want to see things done differently.”
Mulvaney’s portrayal of punishing people over their marriage laws is either intentionally deceptive or unintentionally ignorant. It’s true that the Obama administration responded to homophobic laws across Africa by threatening to withhold aid to countries that enforced them, but that policy was never about laws not recognizing the right for same-sex couples to marry. It was a response to laws on the books in several dozen African countries that criminalize homosexuality itself — putting people in jail just because they were gay, or even just because they were suspected of being gay.
For example, Ugandan lawmakers for many years juggled legislation that would have increased the punishment for homosexuality to the death penalty. Many called it simply the “kill the gays” bill. Ultimately, they passed a law that instead offered life sentences as punishment, though the country’s highest court overturned it. Lawmakers, however, did not give up on the idea of passing another draconian law, but the threat from many other countries, including the U.S., to cut aid appears to have been a deterrent, although anti-gay persecution has continued in Uganda.
Some have argued that threats to aid have actually made things worse for LGBTQ people in those countries. A 2015 New York Times article cited Nigeria as an example of a place where the U.S. position may have actually spurred the country to pass more homophobic laws.
This friction was also evident when Kenyan lawmakers warned President Obama against speaking about LGBTQ rights when he traveled to the country in 2015. At a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama nevertheless took a principled stance. “When you start treating people differently not because of any harm they are doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode,” he said. “And bad things happen.”
Nevertheless, the approach was always about protecting LGBTQ people from persecution under the law, not “religious persecution,” as Mulvaney framed it.
But Mulvaney’s implication that the Trump administration would turn a blind eye to anti-gay persecution around the world is consistent with actions it has already taken. For example, last year the U.S. rejected a United Nations resolution condemning the use of the death penalty to target LGBTQ people. The administration’s excuse was that it didn’t want to appear to oppose the death penalty in other matters.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced earlier this summer that the U.S. would stop granting asylum to people who are victims of gang violence or domestic abuse and would likewise add many other barriers to the asylum process. LGBTQ people fleeing persecution in their home countries already wait years to find safety in the U.S., and these new policies will only make it harder for them to escape.