LGBTI Rights Diplomat Discusses Global Movement

Hours before participating in a groundbreaking meeting at the United Nations on sexual orientation and gender identity issues across the globe, Randy W. Berry shared with Columbia Law School students the successes and challenges he has encountered as the first U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.

The U.N. meeting featuring Vice President Joe Biden and a coalition of like-minded nations represented a “high-water mark of engagement” on LGBTI issues, Berry told students on Sept. 21. The diplomat also highlighted the global Equal Rights Commission convening in New York later in the week as another major step forward.

“There is truly at this moment in time a movement that is taking place that is global in nature,” Berry told a packed room of students during his lunchtime talk. He underscored that this progress is collaborative, and cannot be solely attributed to any single government, business, or civil society group.

Berry, a career senior Foreign Services officer, assumed his current position with the U.S. State Department in April 2015, and has since visited almost 50 nations on diplomatic missions. Berry’s appearance was co-sponsored by the Law School’s Human Rights Institute and Center for Gender and Sexuality. Professor Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality, provided introductory remarks.

Convincing skeptical nations to protect the fundamental equality of LGBTI persons under the law requires information and patience, Berry said. He often employs his personal story, as an openly gay man raising two children with his husband, to persuade government officials to reevaluate their country’s legal positions concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. He cites Jamaica as one such success.

Other nations remain resistant, claiming LGBTI rights aren’t consistent with their culture, religion, or tradition. Russia’s anti-propaganda law, in particular, is problematic, Berry said.

“There’s still a lot of work to do in a global context to take back the language of family and children,” the diplomat stated. “It is used like a hammer against members of our community in so many places, where people say, ‘We need to defend the family, defend children.’ Well, we are also families and we also have children.”

Substantive conversations on LGBTI issues remain elusive in the Middle East and North Africa due to cultural mores and the threat of violence against the community.

“One of the most heartbreaking meetings that I’ve had was to sit down in Istanbul with LGBTI refugees coming from Iraq and Syria,” Berry recalled, in response to a student question about the region. “As vulnerable as many members of this community are in North Africa and the Middle East, to be a refugee on top of that, to be displaced from your home, that’s really doubling down on that vulnerability.”

Nations that openly discriminate against the LGBTI community are beginning to experience financial consequences from the global business community, as a result. In increasing numbers, multinational corporations view LGBTI rights as “core to business identity, retention of talent, satisfaction of employees, and expectation of customers,” Berry said.

Note: A video of remarks by  Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken’88 at a reception to commemorate the announcement of Berry’s new post can be viewed here.

Posted September 23, 2016