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Grenell makes first appearance at IPS debate with Milk

On Oct. 2, the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) hosted a discussion with Stuart Milk, the nephew of Harvey Milk and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation, and former Ambassador Richard Grenell, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy, concerning the work both speakers are doing for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. The event marked Grenell’s first public campus appearance following an appointment clouded in controversy.

Milk and Grenell's opening remarks focused on the work each had done for the issue, with Grenell focusing on decriminalization and Milk focusing on legalization and social acceptance, as well as high praise for each other for their respective efforts. Upon encouragement from Kiron Skinner, who stated she had “promised students a debate”, the discussion then shifted from their joint effort on the issues towards a debate about the 2020 election and the presidential candidates' approaches to LGBT rights.

Milk expressed his strong support for Joe Biden in the upcoming election, stating that besides Grenell’s work, the Trump administration has been “overall, antithetical to human rights.” He stressed his political views were separate from his foundation, which has 501(c)(3) status, but he made light of the Obama administration’s role in furthering LGBT rights.

Grenell countered Milk’s claims by stating that Biden opposed same-sex marriage during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, that Trump is the “first president in history to come into office supporting gay marriage,” and that the Republican party has changed their stance on the issues. Both Biden and Obama are on the record prior to the 2012 election supporting gay marriage. Trump is on the record in early 2016 discussing the appointment of a judge to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage. The Republican platform in 2016 condemns same-sex marriage, and there have not been any platform changes announced for the 2020 election. Grenell also briefly worked as a spokesman for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, who was against same-sex marriage and civil unions at the time. Despite their political differences, Milk and Grenell made consistent efforts to respect each other’s views and highlight their shared passion for LGBT rights.

Following the debate, questions were opened to the audience. The first question asked for clarification on the difference between decriminalization and legalization and whether the work focuses on transgender rights. Grenell stated he “[fights] for gay and lesbian rights” and is “not a trans activist”, though he is “a full supporter of trans rights”, and added that decriminalization is “the first step” when it comes to LGBT rights.

Milk stated that, in his view, trans rights are not separate and that “any type of criminalization against any element of the LGBT community is a criminalization of us all.” He also discussed that he views legalization not just from a legal standpoint, but a civil one too, and he believes societal acceptance and legal acceptance of LGBT rights should go hand in hand.

Grenell was also asked about his decision to defy the State Department’s decision to not allow the pride flag to fly on embassy flagpoles. He encouraged the audience to read more and “not listen to the media so much,” adding that the order was that only the American flag was meant to fly on the main flagpole, but he was allowed to fly the flag on any secondary flag poles, which the Berlin embassy had.

Comments from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus in June 2019 indicate that the order didn’t make an exception for secondary flagpoles. Accordingly, only the American flag was meant to fly on any embassy flagpole.

Grenell also discussed his efforts to make LGBT rights a bipartisan issue. He has “articulated over the years that I am a consistent conservative” by following the conservative philosophy of “personal responsibility” and “[minding] your own business.” He also stresses that the Republican party is no longer a party that it was “six years ago, or eight years ago” with an “anti-gay” agenda, and anyone who expresses those views will be “run out of the party.”

Milk countered Grenell’s comments by citing the Trump administration’s rollback of transgender rights, particularly in military service. In addition, the Republican platform endorses religious liberty legislation, which would allow for businesses, schools, and other entities to discriminate against LGBT people. Vice President Pence also spoke at a conference for the Family Research Council, a group designated as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2018.

Significant time was devoted to answering a question concerning the rise of right wing movements in Europe and the threat they pose to LGBT rights. Grenell argued that it is “not a black and white issue,” adding that both Angela Merkel and the far-left German party were “not good on gay rights.” Angela Merkel, the German chancellor associated with the conservative-leaning Christian Democratic Union (CDU), opposed same-sex marriage in 2017, but she called a vote to legalize after pressure from the left-wing opposition coalition, as well as a shift in support of the issue among her own base.

Grenell also emphasized a “difficult thing” for him was the fact that he had met with the far-left German party, who he reiterated were bad on LGBT issues, but he didn’t meet with an openly lesbian leader from Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), the far-right German party, as it was “an embassy policy that I would not meet [with AfD]." The leader, Alice Weidel, rallies AfD members around the single issue of immigration, and the AfD opposes LGBT rights.

Milk was quick to disagree with Grenell’s politicking about the lack of danger in the rise of the far-right in Europe, saying “it is something that should be on everyone’s table.” He gave an explicit example of the rollback of LGBT rights in Hungary under Viktor Orban’s regime, even giving the personal story of an LGBT activist he had worked with for years being killed in Hungary.

Under the leadership of Viktor Orban, Hungary has moved toward authoritarianism, and Orban’s government has fostered a hostile environment for the LGBT community. Grenell was paid for work he did with the Magyar Foundation, a non-profit mostly funded by the Hungarian government under Orban.

When asked about his statements empowering the European conservative movement, Grenell denied it, calling the question “silly,” and he said that he wanted to “empower people like me, which meant gays, and gay conservatives.” In an interview with Brietbart, he explicitly states he “absolutely [wants] to empower other conservatives throughout Europe”, further adding how it’s “an exciting time” for him while serving as ambassador to Germany. During that time, Grenell supported Sebastian Kurz, the far-right chancellor of Austria, and he implied that Germans were looking for leaders like him, even organizing a lunch for Kurz who he called a “rockstar.”

To close out the talk, both Grenell and Milk agreed that the next step in the future strategy of decriminalization is pushing the private sector to do more to engage in the decriminalization issue. Grenell says while he does not want companies to “stop doing business in all 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality”, he does think there is a way “to use your leverage and to use your power to try and make change.”

Milk goes further in his final comment: “it’s in the bottom line, self interest of those companies to support the decriminalization movement, to support the visibility movement, and to support LGBTQ rights.”

Emily Half, deputy director of IPS, announced at the beginning of the event that it was to be off the record, and that questions would be moderated by entry into the chat function on Zoom due to the event’s high attendance. An IPS spokesperson told The Tartan that they stated the event was off the record to allow the speakers to be “candid” and give the “best information possible.” However, the event was open to anyone affiliated with Carnegie Mellon with no written agreement to keep the details of the talk off the record.