Trump administration launches global effort to end criminalization of homosexuality

BERLIN — The Trump administration is launching a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations where it's still illegal to be gay, U.S. officials tell NBC News, a bid aimed in part at denouncing Iran over its human rights record.

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, the highest-profile openly gay person in the Trump administration, is leading the effort, which kicks off Tuesday evening in Berlin. The U.S. embassy is flying in LGBT activists from across Europe for a strategy dinner to plan to push for decriminalization in places that still outlaw homosexuality — mostly concentrated in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.

"It is concerning that, in the 21st century, some 70 countries continue to have laws that criminalize LGBTI status or conduct," said a U.S. official involved in organizing the event.

Although the decriminalization strategy is still being hashed out, officials say it's likely to include working with global organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as other countries whose laws already allow for gay rights. Other U.S. embassies and diplomatic posts throughout Europe, including the U.S. Mission to the E.U., are involved, as is the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Narrowly focused on criminalization, rather than broader LGBT issues like same-sex marriage, the campaign was conceived partly in response to the recent reported execution by hanging of a young gay man in Iran, the Trump administration's top geopolitical foe.

RELATED: U.S., Iran relations throughout time

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United States and Iran Relations throughout time
Return of the hostages from Iran as they step off the plane in Germany. Barry Rosen is second from the bottom waving with no glasses and a beard. He has just announced that he will be going back to Iran to meet with his captors. The hostages were kept over a year in captivity after the US Embassy was stormed during the Iranian Revolution. Relations with Iran and the US have been improving lately. (photo by Tim Chapman)
A Kurdish family having fled northern Iraq, carry all their worldly possessions, reach the border town of Nossod, Iran. Saddam Hussein crushed the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq in the aftermath of 1991 Gulf War led by the US and allied forces. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
An Iranian woman pets a dove caged in the belly of a replica of the Statue of Liberty at the former US embassy compound November 3, 2001 in Tehran, Iran. Iranian authorities opened the former embassy to the public for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the US-backed Shah which ultimately led to the breaking of relations between Washington and Tehran. (Photo by Keivan/Getty Images)
Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, speaks to New York University students December 4, 2001 in New York City. Pahlavi spoke of the need to root out terrorism and the need for democracy in Iran. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
An Iranian man teaches his son the 'death to America' chant during a demonstration after Friday prayers April 5, 2002 in Tehran. The protesters opposed the Israeli incursion into Palestinian-controlled territories. (Photo by Keivan/Getty Images)
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage greets people before giving testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill October 28, 2003 in Washington DC. The Committee is hearing testimony on security threats and the U.S. policy toward Iran. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
An Iranian girl rests during a meeting of the conservative group, the Coalition of Builders of Islamic Iran, in Tehran February 16, 2004. The group has taken a tough stance on the country's nuclear prerogatives and a moderate line on US-Iranian relations and the imposition of Islamic social regulations. The main reformist parties are staying away after a conservative-run political vetting body, the Guardians Council, barred some 2,300 people -- most of them reformists -- from even standing in the February 20 polls. (Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush during a protest against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in Enqelab Square May 19, 2004 in Tehran, Iran. Demonstrators reportedly hurled petrol bombs, firecrackers and stones at the British embassy. (Photo by Majid/Getty Images)
This 18 January file photo shows Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss the war in Iraq and tensions with Iran when she meets Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on 04 February 2005.(Photo credit: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) (C) speaks to the media after addressing the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations February 6, 2006 in New York City. Lugar, along with other Senate Foreign Relations Committee members George Voinovich (R-OH) (R) and Norm Coleman (R-MN), spoke on reform at the U.N., Iran and energy conservation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki speaks during a meeting with relatives of the seven Iranian detainees arrested in Iraq by US forces, in Tehran, 18 May 2007. US troops seized seven Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil on 11 January from what Iran claims was an official consular building. Mottaki said after meeting the families of the detainees that Iran maintains that they were diplomats working for a 'consulate'. (Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian students walk past an anti-US mural on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran 24 October 2007. Twenty-eight years ago, 19-year-old Iranian chemistry student Massoumeh Ebtekar agreed to join other students in holding more than 60 Americans captive at their embassy in Tehran, an event that was to last 444 days and leave a rupture in US-Iranian relations that has yet to be healed. For Ebtekar, who was elected last year as a member of Tehran city council, there is no contradiction between her prominent role in the embassy siege and her efforts today for greater moderation in the Islamic republic. (Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
A US soldier carries on March 1, 2008 a platter of mutton and rice offered to the troops by the mayor of the village of Nafet Khana on the Iraq-Iran border, which was destroyed during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war. An Iranian delegation left Baghdad for home today without holding talks with officials from archfoe the United States on the security situation in Iraq, an Iranian official said. Iran and the United States, which have had no diplomatic relations since 1980, held three rounds of talks about Iraq last year, but a fourth round scheduled for last month was postponed. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - July 09: Undersecretary of State William Burns testifies during the Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Iran. On the same day Iran test-fired missiles in a show of force in the Persian Gulf, the Bush administration Wednesday sought to downplay the country???s power and influence. ???For its part, Tehran seems to relish heightening concerns by promoting the illusion that Iran is on the ascendance,??? Undersecretary of State William Burns said in prepared testimony. ???However, Iran is not 10 feet tall, nor is it even the dominant regional actor.' (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
Japanese Akiko Saberi, mother of US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi, holds press cards and ID's for her jailed daughter at the family's house in Tehran on April 18, 2009. An Iranian revolutionary court has sentenced Roxana Saberi, 31, to eight years in jail on charges of spying for the United States, her lawyer said. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri stands with his father upon arrival at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran on July 15, 2010. Amiri, who claimed he was 'abducted' by US spies last year, denied that he was a nuclear scientist, but said he was questioned by Israelis during his 'harsh' captivity. Amiri had gone missing from Saudi Arabia in June 2009 while on a pilgrimage and surfaced in Iran's Interests Section in Washington on July 13, 2010. Upon his arrival in Tehran he immediately told reporters that he was just a 'simple researcher'. Iranian officials claim he was kidnapped by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. US officials have denied these accusations. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JULY 30: (L to R) Laura Fattal, Cindy Hickey and Nora Shourd, mothers of three U.S. Citizens being detained in Iran, hold photos during a protest outside the Iranian mission to the United Nations on July, 30, 2010 in New York City. Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, have been held by Irainian authorities since July 31, 2009 after they were detained along the Iraq and Iran border and accused of spying. (Photo by David Goldman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Josh Fattal (C) and Shane Bauer (R), two American hikers released after spending more than two years imprisoned in Iran, were joined by Sarah Shourd (L) and family members in front of a press-filled conference room at the Parker Meridien New York on September 25, 2011 in New York City. Fattal, Bauer, and Shourd were charged with trespassing and espionage, after allegedly crossing the border between Iraq and Iran on a hiking trip. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. Senator John Kerry stressed the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He described the 'immediate, dangerous challenges' facing the nation as he seeks confirmation to become secretary of state. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22: Ali Rezaian looks at a picture of his brother, Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian, after a news conference at the National Press Club July 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. The news conference was to give an update on the case of Jason Rezaian, who is being held in Evin Prison in Iran since July 22, 2014. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sarah Hekmati(R), sister of US Marine Corps veteran Amir Hekmati, speaks about her brother May 19, 2014 during a vigil held for him in Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, DC. The vigil was held on the 1,000th day of Amir's imprisonment in Iran. Amir is an Iranian-American detained in Iran while visiting his grandmother. Falsely accused of being a spy, he was detained in August of 2011, held in solitary confinement for months and hidden by the walls of Irans Evin prison. He was sentenced to death in January of 2012, the first American to receive the death penalty in Iran in over 33 years. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Committee chairman Senator Bob Corker(L) , R-TN, and ranking member Senator Benjamin L. Cardin , D-MD, shake hands before a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill April 14, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee met to debate and vote on S.615, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 23: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., takes his seat for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iran Nuclear Agreement on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew testified. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
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Grenell, as Trump's envoy to Germany, has been an outspoken Iran critic and has aggressively pressed European nations to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions. But while the Trump administration has had some success in pressuring Iran through stepped-up U.S. penalties, efforts to bring the Europeans along have thus far largely fallen flat.

Reframing the conversation on Iran around a human rights issue that enjoys broad support in Europe could help the United States and Europe reach a point of agreement on Iran. Grenell called the hanging "a wake-up call for anyone who supports basic human rights," in Bild, a leading German newspaper, this month.

"This is not the first time the Iranian regime has put a gay man to death with the usual outrageous claims of prostitution, kidnapping, or even pedophilia. And it sadly won't be the last time," Grenell wrote. "Barbaric public executions are all too common in a country where consensual homosexual relationships are criminalized and punishable by flogging and death."

He added that "politicians, the U.N., democratic governments, diplomats and good people everywhere should speak up — and loudly."

Yet by using gay rights as a cudgel against Iran, the Trump administration risks exposing close U.S. allies who are also vulnerable on the issue and creating a new tension point with the one region where Trump has managed to strengthen U.S. ties: the Arab world.

In Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy Trump has staunchly defended in the face of human rights allegations, homosexuality can be punishable by death, according to a 2017 worldwide report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). The report identified 72 nations that still criminalize homosexuality, including eight where it's punishable by death.

That list includes the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Afghanistan — all U.S. allies — although those countries aren't known to have implemented the death penalty for same-sex acts. In Egypt, whose leader Trump has effusively praised, homosexual relations aren't technically illegal but other morality laws are used aggressively to target LGBT people.

New U.S. pressure on those countries to change their laws comes as the Trump administration is working to use nascent ties between Arab nations and Israel to form a powerful axis against Iran, a strategy that dovetails with the administration's planned rollout of an ambitious plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In the Gulf state of Oman, for example, the Trump administration has touted a recent, historic visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a sign that old taboos are eroding. But any campaign to decriminalize homosexuality would ostensibly also have to call out Oman, where prison sentences can be handed out for being gay.

The push to end laws that outlaw homosexuality abroad also stands in contrast to the Trump administration's mixed record on gay rights at home.

As a candidate, Trump was ambiguous about his position on many gay rights issues, but notably became the first Republican nominee to mention LGBT rights in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. His convention also featured another first: PayPal founder Peter Thiel became the first gay person to acknowledge his sexuality in a speech to the GOP convention, declaring he was "proud to be gay."

Trump, after being elected, also said he was "fine" with same-sex marriage. But since he took office, his administration has scaled back some workplace protections for gay people and has argued in court that a federal anti-discrimination law doesn't protect gay employees. He has also announced a ban on transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military, which the Supreme Court last month said could be implemented even as lower-court challenges play out.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is supporting the work by U.S. embassies and consulates to fight violence and discrimination against LGBT people. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Pompeo asserted: "I deeply believe that LGBTQ persons have every right that every other person in the world would have."

Grenell, known for his hawkish views on national security, is also currently under consideration to be Trump's ambassador to the U.N., three U.S. officials tell NBC News, after Trump's previous pick for the job, Heather Nauert, withdrew from consideration over the weekend. Grenell once served as spokesman for the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. when that role was inhabited by John Bolton, who is now Trump's national security adviser.

Planning for the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality started before the U.N. job became open. It was a topic of conversation over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference, where Grenell discussed it with a visiting congressional delegation that included Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.; and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas.

Despite the dozens of countries that still outlaw homosexuality, LGBT rights have proliferated in recent years in many parts of the world. Two dozen countries now recognize same-sex marriage, according to the ILGA report, while another 28 recognize domestic partnerships. The last U.S. laws outlawing same-sex activity were invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas.

Grenell, in his editorial in Bild, pointed out that India, Belize, Angola, and Trinidad and Tobago recently decriminalized same-sex conduct among consenting adults. But he said "reasonable people" must keep speaking out about laws in other places, including Iran and Chechnya, the Russian region where authorities have cracked down violently on gay people in recent years.

"While a student at Evangel University, a Christian liberal arts college in Missouri, I was taught by biblical scholars that all truth is God's truth, no matter where it is found. The truth for LGBT people is that we were born gay," Grenell wrote. "People can disagree philosophically about homosexuality, but no person should ever be subject to criminal penalties because they are gay."

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