Diplomat Randy Berry is a man on a mission, one that he approaches with passion and pragmatism. He knows his message will be warmly received in some places, but not in others. An openly gay, married father of two young children, Berry was recently appointed as U.S. special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) persons. He is the first person to hold the newly created position, which is unique to the U.S. Department of State.
A career foreign service officer, Berry took up his new duties in April and will be traveling far and wide to amplify the message that respect for LGBTI rights is an essential part of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. “LGBTI rights are human rights, and human rights are LGBTI rights,” he says. “That is the principle guiding our work. It’s simple and it’s sound.”
It’s also a message underscored by Secretary of State John Kerry, who issued a statement in honor of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, observed annually on May 17. The United States strongly opposes the “rising tide of violence and discrimination” against LGBTI people, Kerry said, “and we will keep moving forward toward our goal of justice and equality for all.”
As the special envoy, Berry will lead the State Department’s efforts to achieve these key objectives:
- Encourage governments to overturn laws that criminalize consensual same-sex conduct in countries around the globe.
- Work with partners in other countries to build their capacity to respond rapidly to violence against LGBTI persons.
- Work with governments, civil society and the private sector through the Global Equality Fund to support programs that advance the human rights of LGBTI persons worldwide.
- Help and encourage governments and other institutions to take steps to affirm the universal human rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Same-sex conduct is still a crime in nearly 80 countries, with penalties ranging from imprisonment to death, and LGBTI people are also vulnerable to harassment, threats, physical assault and discrimination. Vice President Biden recently remarked that anti-LGBTI discrimination “is actually getting worse” in many places, with individuals “facing violence with impunity, mistreatment by police, the denial of health care, or religious condemnation and social isolation.”
These discriminatory practices are clear violations of human rights, and that’s why supporting the human rights of LGBTI people is such a priority for the United States.
Berry, who speaks Spanish and Arabic, says he intends to take a country-by-country approach to his mission, and he realizes that change may come slowly in some parts of the world. But he rejects the argument that supporting the rights of LGBTI persons is a form of cultural imperialism or imposed values from the West. “The issue we’re dealing with is a fundamental one of human rights,” says Berry. “Fundamental human rights are not situationally defined; they are not culturally defined; they are not subject to interpretation.”
“Most countries around the world have signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — that’s a very clear statement that equal treatment is the principle that guides us all. That’s not a Western import; it’s not an idea that was imposed from the West.” “The idea is not that there’s a special category of rights for LGBTI persons; it’s just that they are entitled to the same rights as anyone else.”
Moving Forward, One Country at a Time
In June, Berry is traveling to Jamaica, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic in his official capacity as U.S. special envoy. He’ll meet with activists, advocates, government officials and private-sector representatives to hear their concerns and to develop strategies to advance LGBTI rights in their respective countries.
One subject he expects to discuss is legal protections for LGBTI people.
“First of all, we’re working with civil society and with advocates in many countries around the world to ensure that anti-discrimination legislation and hate-crimes legislation conforms to international best practices and provides adequate protections — not only for the LGBTI community, but for all minority communities that may face discrimination,” says Berry.
“We’re also working with pro bono attorneys and law firms in many countries to make sure that activists have adequate access to legal resources and guidance as they forward the discussion on these issues in their countries.”
“Many countries in Latin America have long been at work on the equality agenda. … I’m looking forward to some really robust discussions with some very like-minded friends” on LGBTI human rights.
While Latin America is more hospitable to LGBTI rights than many regions, Berry — whose previous postings include New Zealand, Nepal, Egypt, Uganda and the Netherlands — also recalls that he’s served in places “where there can be resistance to U.S. support for human rights for all people.”
But wherever he goes, he’ll reiterate that LGBTI persons are entitled to “the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as anyone, anywhere.” He’s cited fatherhood as a strong motivator to take on the challenges of his new job, believing that his 3-year-old daughter, 2-year-old son and children everywhere deserve to grow up in a world with fewer inequalities. After all, he says, “human rights belong to all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity.”