Randy Berry will complete his first year as the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons on April 15.
During the past year he has traversed 42 countries taking the pulse of LGBT rights globally and beginning conversations with world leaders, LGBT activists, and business leaders around the world.
“This first year has been really amazing because I never would have imagined the outpouring of support,” Berry said about working with partners on the ambassadorial and ministerial levels who are working on human rights issues.
“It’s a rare opportunity,” said Berry, who described his position as a “mechanism” to “engage” world leaders at a “higher level” and more consistently “to make sure that we are doing what we can to encourage this global change that we see.”
Recently, the Bay Area Reporter had the opportunity to sit down with Berry in San Francisco to discuss his experience during this first year. During the discussion we talked about where he sees the LGBT movement currently, being a good advocate for LGBT rights globally, leveraging partnerships and U.S. programs for LGBT rights, and where the movement is heading in the future.
“My overall take away is hopefulness,” Berry said about the current state of and the future of LGBT rights around the world in spite of the challenges. “I believe that hope trumps those challenges that it is a stronger force ultimately.”
Berry might come off at first as Pollyanna wearing rose colored glasses, but don’t mistake his soft and pensive demeanor as not being aware of what is at stake. He is deeply aware of the effect and the consequences of the language used in the conversation and actions taken around LGBT rights.
In spite of troubles in some countries, such as Russia, Uganda, Myanmar and other countries, Berry is seeing progress in the conversation about LGBT rights around the world, he says. Those conversations are happening whether the U.S. is involved or not, he said.
The conversations are happening and progress doesn’t come in a one size fits all.
“There is a lot of discussion and a lot of different context on how you proceed upon the path to greater equality,” he said. One conversation is about referendums and “whether or not referendum in general on a person’s personal rights is the way to go.”
Ireland and Slovenia were two examples last year that used the political approach or putting the issue of same-sex marriage to popular vote with a referendum. Ireland made incredible progress with the vote last May, but Slovenia didn’t fare as well in December sending activists back to the strategy room.
“We had a great outcome in Ireland. We didn’t have such a great outcome in Slovenia,” Berry said.
Another example he pointed to was Malta, a very conservative country, which parliament unanimously legalized same sex marriages and adoptions in 2014. Members of Parliament followed that decision with a progressive gender recognition law the following year.
“Since 2011 they have seen a public policy revolution that has been remarkable,” said Berry, about the ease and unanimity the legislation has been passed. He believes that one of the key markers is the language used in the legislation is inclusive
“My sense is that they used the language of inclusion,” continued Berry. “They used the language of protection of family and children in a way that advocated for greater acceptance and diversity rather than the opposite which is used against us.”
He then turned to the changes happening in Asia.
“If you take a look at this emerging progressivism that is taking place in Asia,” said Berry, pointing to Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam as examples of countries that will “change the global equation,” in five years. “I think that it would be substantial.”
“These are processes that are underway,” Berry continued. “Countries are very different. They will progress in different ways that in some settings this will evolve in an inherently political way, which is beyond our control to shape. It’s not in our country. It’s going to be shaped more by the forces there. In some places it will progress and specifically in a nonpolitical way.”
“We are witnessing global movement, truly, there are going to be some places that lag or even move backwards, but I don’t think that should rob us from understanding what the overall picture is and that is one of global progress,” said Berry.
Meeting the challenge ahead
The obstacle is “honing” in on the challenges at where each country is in the LGBT conversation, allowing local activists to take the lead and not overstepping, and to be aware and sensitive to the language used and the conversation so that it doesn’t become politicized and get distorted.
“We all come at this from a different angle. Civil society actors are not government. Government is not business. Business is not civil society. We all have to act under our own set of imperatives.”
That is partially why Berry advocates supporting local activists and listening to them as they take the lead. The goal is to do no harm while moving progressively forward.
“We need to be strategic in our conversations. We always have to consult with civil society about the types of intervention that would ultimately help them do their own work,” said Berry. “That’s really the only way change comes if we are looking at the long term investment here of changing hearts and minds.”
Changing hearts and minds is one of the nonpolitical approaches the U.S. and Berry is taking and it’s about visibility, although he realizes the risk and dangers coming out can be in some countries.
One example is how LGBT activists in Uganda, a country Berry once was stationed, and he returned to last year.
“I was very, very impressed by the strength of the civil society groups in Uganda,” he said. “I think they’ve been very, very smart and dedicated in their work.”
“I’ve talked to enough people in Africa and Asia in Latin America who have changed their thinking on LGBTI issues. Almost always, it has to do with a fundamentally human experience that they had talking to someone who is a member of the community,” said Berry.
A segment of depoliticizing and humanizing LGBT rights is utilizing programs in the U.S. State Department, such as the Sports Diplomacy Program. Berry talked about how Jason Collins, the former first openly gay pro-basketball player, has been a great ambassador. Most recently Collins was in Brazil speaking about LGBT rights, professional athletics, but he also played a game of wheelchair basketball.
“At the end of the day it’s the issue of discrimination based on identity,” said Berry. “It makes a very beautiful point about the intersectionality of these issues.”
It is the conversations, the partnerships on all levels, and observing LGBT activists approaches to change that inspire him and give him hope that change is happening.
“The challenges are pretty significant globally, but they can be overcome. They are not impossible,” said Berry, who hopes as a new father that his two young children will grow up in a diverse world that is more accepting. It is his two children that he thinks about when he engages leaders in dialogue about LGBT rights.
Originally published by the Bay Area Reporter.