Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of the Trump presidency, it might be easy to assume that his recent call to decriminalize homosexuality is just as inexplicable as the rest. After all, how could a president who elected an openly homophobic vice president, called for the dismissal of trans people from the military and slashed queer health care resources claim to be an advocate for the LGBT rights? At first, it seems paradoxical that Trump’s politics could realign so suddenly.
However, upon further analysis, the social and political tactics undergirding Trump’s response become more clear. The plan was instigated primarily by the gay U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who described it as emerging directly in response to the “persecution of homosexuals in Iran.” He was careful to reinforce that he and the entire administration were committed to leading a worldwide effort to decriminalize homosexuality.
This activism was new even for Grenell, who had shown little previous interest in the LGBT community beyond his personal affiliation. Instead, he been been working to convince European nations to levy sanctions on Iran for other political and economic reasons. His campaign was receiving little international support until Iran publicly hanged a 31-year-old man for violating homosexuality laws, in response to which Grenell invented his worldwide plan that immediately garnered “wild support by both parties.” Despite his somewhat shotty track record, Grenell justified the plan on the moral grounds that no place in the world should allow that violence to continue.
However, this seemingly uncharacteristic progressivism belies the administration’s ulterior geopolitical motives, which has been confirmed empirically throughout the presidency. Trump’s response last week is reminiscent of his response to the shooting that happened at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016. The attack was conducted by a self-proclaimed ISIL terrorist, which devastated the queer community.
In the days following the shooting, Trump called it, “a very dark moment in America’s history,” explaining that he would “do everything in [his] power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” He went on to say that he “wanted to live in a country where gay and lesbian Americans and all Americans are safe from radical Islam, which, by the way, wants to murder and has murdered gays and they enslave women.”
In this way, Trump attempted to prove his allegiance to the LGBT community by demonstrating his desire to tighten national borders. By framing it as a forced choice between the “at-risk LGBT community” and outside immigrants, Trump attempted to justify his exclusive policies on the basis of national security, and moralize them by “mourning” with the queer community during a time of loss.
In the weeks following the Pulse shooting, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” using the attack as justification for his “sneaking suspicions” about radical Islamic terrorism. He was able to simultaneously sympathize with the queer community and demonize the Middle East, galvanizing good press and a glut of nativist discourse about the need for tighter screening and better national security. In 2016, Trump weaponized death within queer community as a bargaining chip to further his racist immigration policy.
This time under the veil of liberalizing the “backwards” and “uncivilized” countries of the Middle East, Trump’s plan to decriminalize homosexuality emerges too from his own investment in the Iran Nuclear Deal and anti-immigrant sentiment. By feigning his own inclusion of the LGBT community, he was able to moralize and justify his decision to exclude others, marking and conflating them by race, religion and political ideology. In 2019, Trump weaponized the death within the queer community as a bargaining chip to further his imperial tactics abroad.
From this perspective, Trump’s recent action hardly seems unpredictable at all. In fact, it neatly fits his existing track record of recognizing the queer community only when it benefits him geopolitically against his “top foes.” Just as he used the Pulse shooting as ammunition against unrelated Muslim immigrants, so too will Trump use this opportunity to obfuscate his complicity in queer violence and make his xenophobia seem more palatable to the general public. Claiming to decriminalize homosexuality gives Trump a political alibi on one of the biggest sticking points of his platform, while also making the movement for LGBT equality synonymous with his racist depictions of Iran and the Middle East.
Despite his rhetoric being cloaked in atypical benevolence, Trump’s action is a reminder of the power of nativism, dogma and misinformation, but it is also a warning for future challenges to come.
Contact Tony Hackett at arh2020 ‘at’ stanford.edu