December 7, 2020

Biden-Harris Administration: Will their time in office become a renaissance for the LGBTQ community and human rights in Ukraine?

Less than two months are left before the inauguration of Joe Biden, the newly elected 46th President of the United States, and Camilla Harris, the Vice President-elect. In the meantime, Donald Trump is busy attempting to challenge the election results in certain states.

While Biden is in the process of forming his leadership and transition teams, we can have an opportunity to analyze both the president-elect’s platform and the Democratic Party to understand the main policy changes of Ukraine’s key partner, as well as, the impact on the human rights situation for LGBTQ people in the world and Ukraine in particular.

America is back!

One of the Biden team’s main messages is that the United States is back to active geopolitics and big diplomacy, which means that after four years of isolationism, the United States is once again becoming a major player in advocating for democracy and human rights internationally. In this context, the Ukrainian human rights movement has been lucky three times: Joe Biden and Camila Harris are well-known advocates for human rights and the LGBTQ community (Biden advocated for same-sex marriage while serving in the US Congress, and has systematically fought for equal rights for same-sex couples since 1992). One of Biden’s priorities for the next four years in office is to push for equal rights and counter discrimination towards the LGBTQ community on the world stage.

Biden is well versed in the Ukrainian social and political landscape. It is already possible to predict a future Biden visit to Ukraine, and a future Zelensky visit to Capitol Hill. The Democratic Party defined supporting Ukraine as one of the priorities in its political platform. They also intend to support democratic reforms and Ukraine’s advancement to NATO, which further signals Ukraine as a priority for US international policy over the next 4 years. It should also be noted that the Republican Party removed support for Ukraine from the party platform back in 2016.

What will change?

In contrast to domestic policy, the President of the United States has more tools at his or her disposal for deployment in the international arena. Biden will be able to act quickly, and in most cases, on his own without getting approval from Congress (particularly through the use of Executive Orders), which take immediate effect and are binding on US government agencies. During his first week in office, President-Elect Biden intends to sign a special memorandum on the prioritization of human rights for LGBTQ people, in his administration’s international agenda. This will be a signal to both the US government and international partners that the United States plans to restore its leadership position regarding the advancement of human rights for the LGBTQ community around the world.

President-Elect Biden’s campaign platform also promised to create several new positions, including a special high-level commissioner in the Department of State to coordinate the US government’s efforts to ensure human rights for LGBTQ people internationally. He also intends to appoint a National Security Council official who will be working with high-level politicians and governments, as well as a special representative at USAID who will oversee LGBTQ programs in projects implemented by the agency in other countries. If we take a closer look at Biden's political platform, it is full of promises for the LGBTQ community. In this context, the Obama Administration comes to mind. In fact, during his term in office we saw the greatest progress in equal rights for the LGBTQ community, in particular, gays were allowed to serve openly in the armed services, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was abolished. They also banned discrimination based on sexual orientation for federal employees and achieved same-sex marriage equality, adoption by same-sex couples, and many other significant changes at both the federal and state levels.

In the context of US international policy, the Biden Administration promises to be the most progressive and liberal administration in the country’s history. In particular, we can expect a very active U.S. State Department, programs to support local LGBTQ communities, exchange programs for LGBTQ human rights defenders, training programs, and exchange of best practices.

LGBTQ issues will also return to the West Wing (White House), with Biden restoring a special human rights department set up by Barack Obama and ditched by Donald Trump. The White House will be actively involved in human rights issues on international platforms (including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the OSCE, etc.). We can expect that equal rights for the LGBTQ community will be on the agenda of many international events where America will seek to regain its lost leadership (such as the Davos Economic Forum).

In particular, the key program priorities for the Biden administration are the following:

  • Protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination
  • Supporting LGBTQ young people
  • Protecting LGBTQ from violence and discrimination in the workplace
  • Work internationally to promote human rights for LGBTQ people in the world, etc.

Even if Biden’s team succeeds in carrying out just a modest portion of these initiatives, the 46th president will go down in world history as one of the most progressive and liberal advocates for the LGBTQ community.

Ukraine and LGBTQ community: It’s not getting any better, come at once.

One can safely expect that the human rights issues and the rights of the LGBTQ community will emerge in the discourse of Ukrainian - American relations. There is no doubt that Ukraine is a key partner of the Democratic Party and the US in the region. In particular, the Democratic Party and Joe Biden will advocate for Ukraine’s advancement towards NATO by providing financial assistance for reforms in the Ukrainian military, and cooperation at the NATO-Ukraine level. Marcy Kaptur, Illinois Senator and co-chair of the Ukrainian caucus in the US Congress will play a key role in this dialogue. In particular, Marcy Kaptur has successfully advocated for several programs in cooperation with Ukraine to provide various assistance and support.

But unlike the Obama administration, Biden’s will be even more pragmatic and more prudent in helping Ukraine. It is possible to predict that the future Ukraine-American relations will be based on the principle - “more for more”, and the current Ukrainian government won’t be able to continue on its usual trajectory of “walking between the raindrops”, on different issues.

In particular, Ukraine will have to show significant progress in reforming and adopting democratic human rights norms and standards. One can expect that a key issue with Ukrainian-United States cooperation will be effective legislation to combat hate crimes (including protection of the LGBTQ community and other minorities), equality for same-sex partnerships, fair justice, a support program for LGBTQ military and veterans, and other reforms that ensure democratic standards.

Chance for Ukraine.

The next Senate election will take place in two years and Democrats have an optimistic plan to get a majority in both chambers of Congress, which will allow the current administration to carry out a number of important reforms and have a chance for a second term. Ukraine can become one of Biden’s key success stories in the international arena. On the one hand, Ukraine has a number of problems with human rights abuses. On the other hand, after Euromaidan and the revolution of dignity, Ukrainian society is much more open, inclusive, and pro-Western. For example, Ukraine is almost the only country among the post-Soviet republics to have an annual LGBTQ Pride, both in the capital and in smaller cities.

With the help of the United States and European partners, Ukraine has an opportunity to demonstrate significant progress on human rights and quickly become a regional leader in Eastern Europe. There is no doubt that the new US administration desires to make Ukraine a success story for democracy. We’ll see if Ukraine can show determination, and make the final decisive step towards the European dream.

Bogdan Globa is the President and co-founder of QUA – LGBTQ Ukrainians in America, the first association of LGBTQ Ukrainians and their allies in the United States.

We seek to assist Ukrainian LGBTQ + individuals living in the US and Canada to integrate, adapt, and productively contribute to American society.