Human Rights for LGBT Persons: Aiming for Sustainable Progress

Protecting the existence and rights of the LGBT community has become a core issue in the U.S. human rights mission worldwide.


Consul General Randy Berry hands over Consulate General Amsterdam’s first L2 visa issued to a same-sex spouse, Mr. Johannes Conradie, in August 2013.
Kara Hall / Consulate General Amsterdam

     Shawn Dorman: What will you do as the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons? What’s the job?
     Randy Berry: I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work hard to protect, preserve and advance the human rights of the global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. I think it’s important to highlight that my new role isn’t “Special Envoy for LGBT Rights”—it’s “Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons.” It’s a meaningful distinction, since the concept underscores our very approach to these issues—as a core human rights issue, not as a special or boutique issue. In that role, I’ll be engaging in an exciting new public-private type of approach.
     There are key elements of the job that are inward facing, and those that are more outwardly focused. For the former, I’ll be playing a coordination role, not only within State, but across federal agencies to ensure, as much as possible, that our approach to the global protection of the rights of LGBT persons is uniform, consistent and focused on tangible results. On the latter, in addition to the usual diplomacy we do with governments, an essential part of my job will be to engage robustly with civil society organizations, foundations and businesses, both in the United States and overseas, on promoting greater respect for the essential human rights of these people.

     SD: Will you have a home bureau? DRL?
     RB: Yes. One of the most important aspects of the role—to me, and I think to many others who care deeply about the sustainability of our efforts—is that the work of the special envoy is entirely coordinated with the other vital work of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. That’s important because we are not working on an issue of special rights—we’re working on an issue of human rights with a particular focus on a global community at risk.
     Embedded within DRL, I’ll be working to ensure that respect for the human rights of LGBT persons is a key priority integrated into strategies across bureaus at State, and within the government as a whole. I mentioned in my remarks with Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of February that though this position is new, the core work is not—there’s an exceptionally talented group within DRL and the department as a whole who have been working hard on these issues since President Barack Obama and then-Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton identified them as a foreign policy priority in 2011. I’m honored to now be working with that team.

We are not working on an issue of special rights—we’re working on an issue of human rights with a particular focus on a global community at risk.

     SD: Who will you work with inside State and among other U.S. government, nongovernmental and international entities?
     RB: Our network and range of partners will be broad and inclusive. Inside State, that means coordination and effective communication with both the regional and functional bureaus to ensure that the Secretary’s priority on this issue is being approached in a consistent and meaningful manner. More broadly in government, it means close coordination with our USAID colleagues and with the other agencies working in international policy and programming. It also will require an open and robust dialogue with leaders in U.S. civil society and international organizations, like the United Nations, European Union and Organization of American States, among others.

     SD: Who will be your counterparts overseas?
     RB: In addition to our government-to-government contacts, I will be placing a key priority on engagement with foreign civil society organizations and with leading business interests. We must be attentive to the needs and opinions of local civil society organizations, since they are doing the most difficult work, under some of the most difficult circumstances. They are also the organizations, not unlike those here in the United States, that have the capacity to work for change in constructive and meaningful ways. Our first rule will be to do no harm. But do no harm doesn’t mean do nothing. It means we must engage in creative ways within the context of broad partnerships and coalitions.
     One key way we are currently partnering with like-minded governments, private foundations and business leaders is through the Global Equality Fund, which was launched in 2011 as a public-private partnership to support programs to advance the human rights of LGBT persons around the world. Through the fund, we’re able to provide critically needed support to civil society organizations in the work that they are doing and also empower Foreign Service members at our embassies to engage more deeply on these issues. One of the GEF’s tools that promotes this engagement is the LGBT small grants program. Through small grants, our network of embassies and consulates is able to provide targeted support to grassroots organizations working to promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons. I look forward to working to build additional partnerships through the GEF, and beyond.

I will be placing a key priority on engagement with foreign civil society organizations and with leading business interests.
Edgar Van de Burgt / Consulate General Amsterdam

     SD: As a gay FSO, have you faced difficulties working in and with countries where homosexuality is still illegal?
     RB: Complications, yes; but difficulties, not really. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with positive, supportive mission teams throughout my career, and under the leadership of some truly impressive chiefs of mission, who have effectively set the tone in terms of acceptance and equality within our embassies and consulates overseas. I’ve worked in several countries that criminalize same-sex relationships, including Bangladesh, Egypt and Uganda; but I can honestly say that I never encountered a serious level of difficulty in any of those places. However, I’m also well aware that this is not the norm, and that at least part of that lack of difficulty also stemmed from being a U.S. diplomat, which somewhat shielded me from the types of harassment and inequality that nationals face in those countries.

     SD: Can you tell us about your experience in Uganda and elsewhere, any examples of times when you worked on promoting tolerance and reducing discrimination?
     RB: Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in a number of roles that have dealt with promoting tolerance and reducing discrimination, mostly between either religious or ethnic communities. But the principle of equality remains the same, regardless of the identity of the group.
     As a refugee coordinator in the African Great Lakes Region, which was one of my most meaningful tours in the Foreign Service, I spent a lot of time working in displacement camps and with some amazingly dedicated staff within U.N. agencies, the Red Cross and local organizations to care for those who had largely been the victims of tribal or ethnic strife.
     A key element there was reintegrating people into their communities and sending the message that diversity is a strength, not a point of division. That’s an essentially American viewpoint, isn’t it? E pluribus unum—out of many, one. In my work in South Africa on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief account, I worked with organizations seeking to stop discrimination against HIV-positive individuals.
     But I’d also note that it took my last tour in Amsterdam, a place renowned for its historical tolerance, to learn that while tolerance is a commendable step forward from division, conflict and persecution, it isn’t enough of a goal in and of itself. Tolerance is a point along our path to the embrace of diversity.

I will be placing a key priority on engagement with foreign civil society organizations and with leading business interests.

     SD: Can you share any particular successes and/or times when progress was not possible?
     RB: I’m proud of my work in South Africa with the organization Mothers2Mothers, which works with HIV-positive mothers to provide proper health information and to care for, educate and empower young women. While my experiences with the organization related to its first sites in the townships surrounding Cape Town, they’re now working extensively throughout Africa and elsewhere.
     On the flip side of success, I do recall writing and submitting, with mission support, the draft human rights report on Uganda in 1998 and 1999, which included a reference to hardships experienced by the LGBT community. Report editors in DRL at the time removed the material, indicating that this didn’t fall within our concept of human rights at that time. Now, DRL is the engine that drives our efforts. That’s a pretty positive change in my book.

     SD: What lessons did you learn from those experiences, and what lessons will you bring to the new position?
     RB: I learned to be persistent, consistent and not confuse progress with perfection. Progress and pragmatism will guide my efforts, and we’ll need to work to realize that in some places, our successes will be measured in small, but important, ways. It would be a mistake to think that just by applying greater political pressure the United States can effect a change of hearts and minds or of policy.
     Engagement to promote greater human rights observance across the board by speaking clearly and openly to governments is important, but it’s not going to achieve the results we’d like in every case—particularly in more difficult environments. That will take a broader, more nuanced and sometimes quieter approach to ensure we’re making sustainable progress, and doing so within a broad range of partnerships.

In commemoration of the victims of 9/11, Consulate General Amsterdam has an annual event to give back to those less fortunate. Here Randy Berry and staff member Heidi Westfa are frying hamburgers for an Amsterdam homeless shelter in October 2014.
Edgar Van de Burgt / Consulate General Amsterdam

     SD: In terms of LGBT issues, how has the culture of the State Department changed over time?
     RB: I think there has been tremendous evolution, but I have also always found leadership and colleagues within the department to be committed to fairness, open-mindedness and equality. I believe the department mirrors the much broader evolution on equality and treatment of the LGBT community that has occurred in the country during recent years.

     SD: What is different today compared to when you came into the Service in the early 1990s?
     RB: I entered the Foreign Service just after the policy under which FSOs could lose their security clearances due to sexual orientation effectively ended. That had meant basically losing your job if you came out. So much has changed since then. But I think it’s important to note that change came about due to a sense of fairness from department leadership, and also through FSOs engaging and working with allies to ensure change. I’m thinking of Ambassador Michael Guest, our first openly gay career FSO, who faced some formidable challenges; and of those who founded Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, including Ted Osius, now serving as ambassador to Vietnam. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining an event in Washington where all six sitting openly gay ambassadors were in attendance. That’s a fairly visible and tangible sign of progress, though there’s still room to go, of course.

     SD: What challenges remain? In this position, will you be getting involved in advocacy for LGBT rights at home?
     RB: The last few years have seen tremendous positive change in the rights and benefits for LGBT members of the Foreign Service. With the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision and subsequent steps taken by the Obama administration, even more substantial progress has been made on ensuring that LGBT FSOs receive equal benefits. Clearly, though, challenges remain—including the fact that there are a significant number of countries that fail to provide proper diplomatic accreditation to LGBT family members, which obviously reduces the number of countries in which LGBT families can serve. GLIFAA has done a commendable job of engaging with department leadership on these issues. While I clearly care about, and am personally and professionally affected by, this set of issues, in my role as special envoy I’ll be focusing my efforts on progress in the international sphere.

Randy Berry was appointed by the State Department as the first international envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons in February 2015. He joined the Foreign Service in 1993 and has served as consul general in Amsterdam from August 2012 through March 2015 and in Auckland from 2009 to 2012, and as deputy chief of mission at Embassy Nepal from 2007 to 2009. Earlier assignments include Bangladesh, Egypt, Uganda and South Africa, as well as Washington, D.C. He and his husband, Pravesh Singh, have a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.

Berry graciously agreed to be interviewed over email by Editor Shawn Dorman in April while he was in transit, leaving his post in Amsterdam and heading for Washington via a few days of leave.