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Blinken Will Allow U.S. Embassies to Fly Pride Flag

The blanket authorization overturns a Trump-era policy.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Chloe Hadavas
A U.S. flag and pride flag are raised at the U.S. embassy in Mexico.
A U.S. Marine raises the U.S. flag and Pride flag to half-mast, following a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City on June 13, 2016. Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has issued a blanket authorization for U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world to fly the Pride flag on the same flagpole as the U.S. flag at their embassy or consulate showcasing support for LGBTQ rights. The directive marks a departure from how the Trump administration handled the matter while the State Department was run by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In a confidential cable reviewed by Foreign Policy and sent to diplomatic posts around the world, Blinken gave authority for diplomats to fly the Pride flag before May 17, which marks the international day against homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, as well as June, which in the United States and many other countries is Pride month.

The cable contained a hedge, though, saying the authorization is not a requirement and chiefs of mission who run each embassy or consulate can choose whether to fly the Pride flag or showcase other symbols connoting support for LGBTQ rights based on what is “appropriate in light of local conditions.”

Flying the Pride flag at U.S. embassies became a point of contention during the Trump era, when, under Pompeo, the State Department blocked embassies’ requests to fly the flag on the same flagpole as the U.S. banner. Diplomats were told they could display Pride symbols elsewhere in embassies.

In 2019, then-Vice President Mike Pence defended the move, telling NBC News in an interview that “when it comes to the American flagpole and American embassies and capitals around the world, one American flag flies.”

Some U.S. embassies worked around the Trump-era directive. The U.S. Embassy in South Korea, for instance, displayed a large Pride flag on its facade, rather than on a flagpole. It later removed the flag at the same time as the State Department ordered it to remove a Black Lives Matter banner.

All U.S. diplomatic missions require prior written approval from senior State Department leadership in Washington to fly any flag from the same halyard as the U.S. flag, with the exception of a foreign service flag or a prisoner of war/missing in action flag. In accordance with U.S. law, such flags are to be flown under the U.S. flag.

When asked for comment on the matter, a State Department spokesperson said: “Chiefs of Mission are the president’s direct representatives overseas. The Department supports their prerogative to manage mission operations to maximize their effectiveness in that role, within the confines of U.S. law and regulation.”

During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Blinken vowed to stand up for LGBTQ rights, including allowing embassies to fly the Pride flag and swiftly appointing a special envoy once confirmed as President Joe Biden’s secretary of state.

“I think the United States playing the role that it should be playing in standing up for and defending the rights of LGBTQI people is something that the department is going to take on and take on immediately,” Blinken said in January.

Three months into his job, Blinken has yet to name a State Department special envoy for LGBTQ rights, a post that was left vacant for much of the Trump administration.

U.S. embassies in countries with broad protections for LGBTQ communities—such as those in Western Europe, Latin America, South Africa, and Australia—are likely to fly the Pride flag. The presence—or absence—of one above a U.S. embassy could have greater significance in countries where LGBTQ communities face wider discrimination or even the threat of criminal prosecution or the death penalty, such as in Russia or countries in the Middle East and North Africa. At least 69 countries around the world have laws criminalizing same-sex relations, according to Human Rights Watch.

The internal State Department cable also noted that in some countries, a U.S. embassy flying the Pride flag, or discussing legalizing or decriminalizing same-sex relationships, could do more harm than good. Such measures could fuel a backlash against local LGBTQ communities themselves.

“Posts should support efforts to repeal [criminalization] legislation, while ensuring that ‘do no harm’ remains our overarching principle so U.S. efforts do not inadvertently result in backlash or further marginalization of the LGBTQI+ community,” the cable read.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Chloe Hadavas is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas