On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee regarding the State Department’s 2024 budget. In one particularly revealing interaction, Blinken was asked about a State Department grant that was approved for an LGBT project in Ecuador and a grant offer in Botswana.
In September 2022, the State Department awarded a $20,600 grant to the Centro Ecuatoriano Norteamericano Abraham Lincoln in Cuenca, Ecuador to “promote diversity and inclusion” in the region via drag theater performance and LGBT-themed media. A 2022 State Department grant opportunity by the U.S. Mission in Botswana offered $300,000 to “carry out a program to promote greater social acceptance of LGBTQI+ persons, including among influential religious groups and traditional groups” among other things.
At Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Jerry Carl (R-Ala.) asked: “The mission of the State Department is to ‘protect and promote U.S. security, prosperity, and democra[tic] values and shape an international environment … in which all Americans can thrive.’… Tell me how $20,600 sent to the State Department to fund drag performances at a culture event in Ecuador or $300,000 grant opportunity at the U.S. embassy in Botswana to support the LGBTQIA+ groups … I’m curious how we can spend money on these issues outside this country and it fits within the prelude of the definition of your department?”
“We are engaging around the world in cultural diplomacy. We’re engaging in also making sure that we’re doing what we can to help protect the rights of marginalized groups, including notably the LGBTQI+ community which in so many countries around the world is under threat, and in many cases under growing threat. So, and I believe, it’s fundamental to our democracy to demonstrate that we are looking out for marginalized populations whatever they might be. We do the same thing with persecuted religious minorities around the world, something also of concern to me and to the Department.
“On the cultural programing, look, in this particular instance, the particular program you mentioned in Ecuador, that actually didn’t go forward. The grantee in this case decided to put a halt to it. You or I may not have chosen to fund this particular program. I think picking one program out of the many that we do for particular scrutiny I don’t think is an accurate reflection of what we’re doing, but in this particular case it didn’t go forward. Now, I have to tell you, maybe it’s just me, I remember a time when I think the most popular movie in the United States was ‘Tootsie,’ and then a little while later it was ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ and then we had ‘The Birdcage’ — all movies that I loved. So, on one level I gotta say I’m just not sure I get what the concern is about, but I also acknowledge that again, you or I might not have chosen to fund this particular program.”
There are several problems with Blinken’s defense of funding drag shows in Ecuador. First, Secretary Blinken tries to make the connection between LGBT issues and pro-democracy efforts. But it would be a stretch for anyone to assert that facilitating a drag performance in the conservative, religious culture in Ecuador would do anything to strengthen its democracy. Furthermore, this is a country with a high poverty rate and serious needs that might benefit from U.S. assistance. Is this really the most effective way to invest in Ecuador’s development?
Second, Blinken points to famous American movies in which men pretend to be women in the plot, like “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” to question why Americans would have a problem funding drag shows in foreign countries. While this may have been intended to offer a moment of levity in the hearing, the logic is laughable. When the men in these movies dressed as women, the audience did not question their gender identity, nor was it celebrated as serving a progressive political agenda. Furthermore, these movies were not funded by the U.S. government to export to foreign countries under the pretense of spreading democracy. Drag shows are bizarre, sexually charged displays that do not serve the U.S. national interest — or the national interest of any country, for that matter. American taxpayers must not be forced to fund this.
Lastly, Blinken’s comments also point to another problem that is pervasive when dealing with bureaucracies the size of the State Deparmtent or U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). So much money is being spent that transparency or accountability are obstructed. The grants in Ecuador and Botswana provide two examples as to why intense congressional oversight and hearings are highly desirable.
Although this specific drag program did not take place, Secretary Blinken still defended it. We do not know what other progressive social programs are being funded by the U.S. government. There are many legitimate foreign assistances needs in the world, and it is simply indefensible to use American taxpayer money this way.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of “Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution.”
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