April 24, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT envoy backs ‘nuanced’ approach to promoting rights

Randy Berry, gay news, Washington Blade

Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People Randy Berry (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The new special U.S. envoy to promote global LGBT rights on Thursday said his position will allow the Obama administration to further expand its support of these efforts.

“We have the luxury of defining sort of how that role’s going to operate,” Randy Berry told the Washington Blade during an interview at his office in the State Department. “I’m lucky to be sort of picking up where a lot of people within the bureau, a lot of folks in the White House, a lot of folks in other branches of government who have already been working in the space.”

The Blade is the first media outlet with whom Berry spoke since formally assuming his post within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on April 13.

Berry was the consul general at the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam when the State Department in February announced his appointment. The career Foreign Service officer has previously been posted in New Zealand, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Uganda, South Africa and D.C.

U.S. views towards Egypt LGBT crackdown ‘known’

Berry told the Blade that he will work with the State Department and federal agencies to “make sure that our policies, that our activities are coordinated” in a way that ensures they have the most impact. He said the majority of work will be “outwardly focused.”

“I’m going to be partnering not only with like-minded governments,” he said.

Berry told the Blade that the State Department has made its views “known” to the Egyptian government over its LGBT rights crackdown that has garnered global headlines in recent months. He also acknowledged there have been “a lot of issues with our relationship” with Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East which is among the countries in which homosexuality remains punishable by death.

“When we look at the space overseas and think that in certain places that change will not be possible, I think there’s an argument to be made that we really don’t know until we make those engagements, until we push,” said Berry. “I’m not naive enough to think we’re going to see rapid change in some of those places.”

“This job is a new tool,” he added. “The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor has been working on these issues for quite some time.”

Berry told the Blade he feels U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi “masterfully handled” the administration’s response to the signing of the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act in February 2014, which included a travel ban on those responsible for human rights abuses in the African nation and the cutting of foreign aid. He also noted the Obama administration’s decision to drop Gambia from a duty-free trade program amid growing concerns over the country’s LGBT crackdown and other human rights issues.

“Our toolkit in each case is going to be slightly different,” said Berry.

Berry during the interview also discussed the White House’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba and the Communist country’s LGBT rights movement that has grown more visible in recent years.

“It’s a significant example of the phenomenon that I think exists across places in Latin America where we have a lot of countries in the region that have been very, very progressive on the issues,” he told the Blade. “Certainly on this particular issue, I think we’re reasonably close. And I think there’s a conversation to be had there just like in any other place.”

Chile last November became the 11th country to join the Global Equality Fund, an LGBT rights initiative the State Department manages with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Berry told the Blade he would like to expand the list of non-European countries that contribute to the fund.

“There is tremendous potential to make the g in the Global Equality Fund look a little more like g,” he said. “To expand the partnership, I think Latin America has the most promising sort of environment to do so.”

Berry added he also hopes to work with those countries he described as being in the “vast middle,” which may have unenforced laws that still criminalize homosexuality.

“There’s an argument to be made for some good engagement in that space as well,” he said. “Through some very smart approaches you can get countries out of that middle and on the side of right on this.”

Berry stressed the need for what he described as an “extraordinarily nuanced” approach.

“It could be very easy to adopt a purist approach here and maybe inflict harm in ways that we don’t intend,” he told the Blade. “One of the concepts that we’ve been talking about especially in these tougher environments is to make sure that our first principle is do no harm, but do no harm doesn’t mean do nothing.”

“It means that you have to take great stock of what the situation is, what the local community I think wants as well,” added Berry. “I want to be very, very sensitive to that.”

Out ambassadors sign of progress

Berry, 50, joined the Foreign Service shortly after then-President Bill Clinton in 1995 signed an executive order banning the federal government from denying security clearances to gays and lesbians simply because of their sexual orientation.

His husband and two young children were among those who attended the State Department ceremony during which Secretary of State John Kerry formally introduced him. Selim Ariturk, president of GLIFAA, an association of LGBT employees of Foreign Service agencies, was among those who attended the ceremony.

Berry told the Blade his “interest in stepping into a job” like special LGBT envoy began when he became a parent for the first time at 47. He also described the rate of suicide among young LGBT people as “devastating.”

“Environments where young people are being delivered a message that they are evil or sinful or sick is deeply distressing,” said Berry. “If we can open up some space to whatever extent that’s going to be a success.”

Another success to which Berry pointed is the appointment of six openly gay ambassadors who currently represent the U.S. in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Denmark, Vietnam, Australia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Berry — who attended a panel last month at the Newseum in D.C. that featured the six men — conceded the ambassadors could be more diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation and gender. He nevertheless dismissed criticism over the fact that they are all gay white men.

“I’m always uncomfortable when progress goes towards perfection,” said Berry. “Any way you cut it that’s a big step forward, but it’s not the end of the game either. As long as we’re on the right trajectory I think we’re going to see very positive things.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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