The Biden Administration Can Use Trade to Defend LGBTQI+ Lives. But Will They?

Public Citizen
4 min readJun 27, 2023

Sarah Stevens & Ariana Zwern

Earlier this month, the Biden Administration hosted the largest White House pride event in history. Yet as Pride month concludes in the United States, queer Kenyans live in fear of criminalization across the Atlantic.

Regressive anti-LGBTQI+ policies are gaining traction around the world. Just last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023, which imposes severe penalties for identifying as LGBTQI+. This includes the death penalty in some cases. Under the bill, Ugandans who fail to report their queer friends, colleagues, or family members to authorities are also sentenced to jail time.

The south side of the White House illuminated in rainbow to celebrate the enactment of the Respect for Marriage Act.

The Biden administration condemned this law as an abuse of human rights. And at his historic White House pride event, President Biden committed to “making human rights for LGBTQ people around the world — not just here” a “top priority” of his foreign policy.

With other countries in East Africa now proposing similar laws, Public Citizen recently partnered with Health GAP, Human Rights Campaign, the Communications Workers of America, SEIU, Pride at Work, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and others in a letter calling for the Biden Administration to follow through on its commitments. Just last week, the Congressional Equality Caucus released a similar letter urging the U.S. to cease trade negotiations with Kenya over a comparable bill.

What’s Happening in Kenya?

The extremist bill that passed in Uganda — fueled by the same far-right groups that lobby for invasive “bathroom bills” in the U.S. — is being touted as a model for similar legislation in other East African countries.

A copycat bill in Kenya criminalizes LGBTQI+ identity, and includes lengthy prison sentences for certain homosexual activities, according to draft text provided to the public. It also threatens to expel queer refugees from Kenya, which is the second largest refugee-hosting country in Africa.

The bill has not yet been signed into law, and it’s received considerable backlash. Already, clinics are being shut down across the region for serving LGBTQI+ communities. And in recent years, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights has registered over 400 violations against people perceived as queer as they face rising violence from an increasingly hostile environment.

All of these factors raise serious concerns about the humanitarian implications of the proposed bill, which could advance through parliament quickly.

Implications for US-Kenya Trade Negotiations

It is against this background that the United States is negotiating a trade agreement with Kenya called the Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP). In February, Public Citizen submitted comments to the Biden Administration urging a more participatory, transparent negotiation process and voicing concerns about the lack of input from regular people.

Now, Kenyan civil society groups and queer activists are calling on the Biden Administration to pause negotiations until the Kenyan President commits to vetoing any legislation that threatens the lives and human rights of LGBTQI+ people.

While Biden still has a lot of work to do to combat hate within U.S. borders, this is the perfect opportunity for the administration to follow through on its commitments to both a people-first trade agenda and the advancement of human rights for queer people.

Because Kenya’s anti-LGBTQI+ bill hasn’t been signed yet, the Biden administration has the leverage to use the STIP negotiations as a bargaining chip to ensure this law never sees the light of day. Yet trade negotiations are currently ongoing.And because Kenya is the only country in the region currently negotiating a trade deal with the U.S., civil society and elected officials are using this opportunity to broadly mobilize in support of the LGBTQI+ community in East Africa.

The pressure will continue to escalate until the Biden administration commits to taking action.

Where do we go from here?

There is precedent to use trade agreements as leverage to address human rights concerns.

The Biden Administration released a memorandum in 2021 directing U.S. diplomats, foreign assistance programs, and agencies to advance the rights of LGBTQI+ people everywhere — a sign of hope for civil society and legislators who are calling for actionable steps from the White House. The U.S.-Kenya STIP is the perfect opportunity for the U.S to follow through on this commitment by prioritizing LGBTQI+ rights in trade negotiations with Kenya.

Regionally, LGBTQI+ rights violations resulted in the Gambia’s removal from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Senator Ron Wyden, among other U.S. legislators, has called Uganda’s AGOA benefits into question over its harmful new law, and civil society organizations — including Public Citizen — called on the World Bank to pause funding to Uganda.

How can you help?

Without assurances that this anti-LGBTQI+ law will be vetoed, continuing to negotiate a U.S-Kenya trade deal sends the message that egregious human rights violations against LGBTQI+ people are no cause for concern for countries seeking to deepen economic ties with the U.S.

During Pride Month, the Kenyan LGBTQI+ community is asking for the U.S. to take actionable steps to protect their basic civil rights.

Please click here to send a message urging the Biden Administration to keep their commitments to prioritizing LGBTQI+ rights by halting negotiations until President Ruto agrees to veto this hateful, violent legislation.

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