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Does Biden actually care about gay rights?

Joseph Robinette Biden, a practising Catholic, has travelled a long way when it comes to gay rights. In 1996, as Senator for Delaware, he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked the federal recognition of same-sex unions. Two years earlier he voted to cut funding to schools that taught the acceptance of homosexuality. In the 1970s, when asked about homosexuals in the US military, he replied: ‘My gut reaction is that they are a security risk but I must admit I have not given this much thought… I’ll be darned!’

But it’s 2023 and, I’ll be darned, the now President Joe Biden’s moral outlook has changed dramatically. It just so happens that his values have moved with those of his ever-more progressive political party, the Democrats. The polite thing is to say he’s ‘evolved’.

Biden’s White House has been arguably the most pro-gay administration in American history. It’s increasingly assertive in telling other countries off for failing to live up to 21st-century progressive morality on matters sexual. Take Team Biden’s reaction to a new law in Uganda, which includes the death penalty for perpetrators ‘aggravated homosexuality’ – such as sex with a minor, or having sex while HIV positive, and incest.

The bill criminalises gay sex education and calls for ‘rehabilitation’ therapy for homosexuals. Joe Biden has called it ‘a tragic violation’ of human rights and suggested ‘all aspects of US engagement with Uganda’ could now be withdrawn. ‘We are considering additional steps, including the application of sanctions and restriction of entry into the United States against anyone involved in serious human rights abuses or corruption,’ he said.

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has described the international outcry over his country’s new law as ‘imperialist.’ Most westerners, if they thought about him at all, would consider Museveni a nasty dictator. His views on homosexuality – ‘a deviation from normal’ – sound archaic to our hyper-tolerant minds. But it’s worth considering that the Ugandan government’s position today is merely a harsher version of Joe Biden’s not so long ago. Perhaps he isn’t best placed to lecture Africans about sexual equality from the Oval Office.

What we probably can all agree on is the hypocrisy of an American government in threatening Uganda with sanctions and more over gay rights – at the same time as the White House still treats Saudi Arabia as a vital strategic ally. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Saudi, punishable by public lashings and the death penalty. But Saudi Arabia is the world’s second-biggest oil producer and so it gets a pass. Uganda has little to offer the global markets in comparison.

Biden likes to talk tough. He has spoken grandly about making the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ on the world stage following its notorious execution of Jamal Khashoggi. But his administration has done no such thing. In July, last year he greeted the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with a fist bump. In October, after Saudi decided to cut oil production, a grumpy Biden changed his tune and announced his intention to re-evaluate the US-Saud relationship. But he hasn’t.

Biden likes to tell a story – some might call it a yarn – from his teenage years, when, standing with his father, he saw two men kiss. ‘Joey it’s simple,’ said Biden pere. ‘They love each other.’ The details of the anecdote tend to change with each telling. Biden’s recollections do vary.

But his sentimentality doesn’t go very far in international relations. In brutal soft-power terms, it’s self-defeating. American grandstanding on gay rights will only annoy a lot of conservative Africans across a continent where Christianity still thrives and many Islamists regard America as ‘the Great Satan’. Everyone can see that America’s moralism on such matters is not universal but selective and performative. And the message is clear: if you have enough oil, you get to persecute homosexuals. If you don’t, you don’t. Meanwhile, more powerful despotic regimes, such as China, Turkey and Russia continue to expand their influence from central Asia down to Sub-Saharan Africa. Xi, Erdogan and Putin deal in hard, often brutal realpolitik, not sanctimony, so we shouldn’t be too surprised.

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