July 23, 2015 at 7:51 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT envoy makes first public appearance on Capitol Hill

Randy Berry, gay news, Washington Blade

Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People Randy Berry took part in a congressional briefing on July 22, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The special U.S. envoy to promote global LGBT rights on Wednesday made his first public appearance on Capitol Hill since assuming his post earlier this year.

Randy Berry joined Nikilas Mawanda of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Urooj Arshad of Advocates for Youth and Jean Freedberg of the Human Rights Campaign during the event that took place at the Rayburn House Office Building. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.); Freedom House President Mark Lagon and Anatoly Kazakov, a gay Russian who sought asylum in the U.S. after experiencing anti-LGBT violence in his homeland, also took part.

The U.S. last October granted asylum to Mawanda after he fled persecution in Uganda.

Nikilas Mawanda, gay news, Washington Blade

Nikilas Mawanda in April 2014 (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

“The one thing that has been very much an inspiration in keeping me going is the chance to interact with leaders in civil society,” said Berry during the briefing. “This is the most important single engagement that I have is to…talk to civil society leaders, to get their impressions not only about how things are progressing in their countries but to get an honest assessment of how they believe the United States can be most helpful.”

Berry said it is important for him as a representative of the Obama administration and of Secretary of State John Kerry to have “an honest and open conversation” with other governments about these issues. He acknowledged that some countries have better LGBT rights records than the U.S.

“It would be a grave mistake to enter this space not acknowledging that there are societies and countries around the world that have been well ahead of the U.S,” said Berry. “I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re in that space now, but I think we need to be mindful of that and to engage again as an equal partner rather than stepping in to commandeer a process that I believe is already underway.”

Berry is the first person to hold the post of special U.S. envoy to promote global LGBT rights issues since Kerry announced its creation earlier this year.

The career Foreign Service officer has traveled to Jamaica, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, the Netherlands, Malta, the U.K., Switzerland and Uganda since assuming his post within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in April.

Berry said during the briefing that he has also traveled to one additional country that he did not identify.

“This is out of respect for local civil society organizations that deeply work for the engagement,” he said. “They’re looking for resources and assistance, but understand…being too out front on this would be counter to their interests. That is a standard that I want to respect as we move forward.”

Berry reiterated his previous comments to the Blade that he is “pragmatic” when he approaches his work overseas.

He traveled to Jamaica in May with Todd Larson, senior LGBT coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The two men met with local LGBT rights advocates, politicians and religious leaders amid protests from those who opposed their trip to the island.

Jamaica is among the more than 70 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual acts remain criminalized. Berry during the hearing noted that a leading Jamaica newspaper recently opined against the country’s colonial-era sodomy law.

“We have to know what success looks like in 190 countries around the world,” he said. “There’s no one size fits all. There’s no one common approach that I think is going to be applicable.”

Randy Berry, Dane Lewis, Todd Larson, gay news, Washington Blade

From left; Special U.S. Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People Randy Berry, J-FLAG Executive Director Dane Lewis and Todd Larson of the U.S. Agency for International Development attend a reception at the home of U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Luis Moreno in Kingston, Jamaica, on May 21, 2015. (Photo courtesy of J-FLAG)

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

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