TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Special U.S. Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry told the Washington Blade during an Oct. 2 interview in the Honduran capital that advocates have a responsibility to hold their respective governments responsible.
“It’s the role of activists everywhere to be a watchdog on the government, even when the relationship is a good one,” he said.
Berry spoke with the Blade during the first day of an LGBT rights conference that drew more than 300 people from across the Western Hemisphere to Tegucigalpa.
The career Foreign Service officer during the gathering’s opening plenary highlighted the White House’s efforts in support of LGBT rights around the world that has become a cornerstone of the administration’s foreign policy.
Berry noted that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry speaking publicly about LGBT-specific issues has been “enormously helpful.” The career Foreign Service officer also told the Blade that U.S. ambassadors have also shown “leadership” in supporting them.
“I’m able to speak to those issues with some authority,” said Berry. “It’s obvious that I have the backing of the most senior leadership in the administration to back that up.”
Berry during his remarks at the conference also made several references to the late gay activist Harvey Milk, who was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when former Supervisor Dan White killed him and then-Mayor George Moscone inside San Francisco City Hall in 1978.
“I’m deeply mindful as an openly gay man serving in a senior capacity with the United States government that if it were not for his contributions I would certainly not be sitting here,” said Berry. “Those issues of equality and opportunities wouldn’t have existed for me.”
Latin American activists showing ‘leadership’
Berry during his interview with the Blade repeatedly applauded Latin American advocates for the “leadership” on LGBT-specific issues that’s “coming out” of the region.
He specifically praised the LGBT Federation of Argentina for “its pragmatism” and the way it is able to work with other advocates in the South American country and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration. Berry also applauded the Uruguayan government’s “remarkable leadership” in advancing LGBT issues, which includes co-sponsoring a resolution against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination the U.N. Human Rights Council approved in September 2014.
“We tend to look at Sweden and Norway and the Nordics more broadly as the countries generally that are on the right side of this,” Berry told the Blade. “[There’s] this similar movement that’s been underway for years in Latin America.”
Berry also noted Chile’s LGBT-inclusive hate crimes and anti-discrimination law named in honor of Daniel Zamudio, a gay man killed by a group of self-described neo-Nazis, that then-President Sebastián Piñera signed in 2012.
Berry compared Zamudio to Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson robbed and beat to death outside Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998.
President Obama in 2011 signed a federal hate crimes law that bares Shepard’s name.
“It’s a sad reality there will be other young men and women losing their lives because of their identity,” Berry told the Blade. “That’s an unbelievable tragedy any way we look at it and doing what we can to prevent that is so important.”
Berry on stage during silent protest against Honduran officials
The conference — co-sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other advocacy groups and foundations — took place against the backdrop of anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that remains rampant in Honduras.
Ever Guillén of the Kukulkán Association, a Honduran advocacy group, pointed out during a separate conference that took place at a Tegucigalpa hotel on Oct. 1 that more than 150 LGBT people have been killed in the country in recent years. Two other LGBT rights advocates from the Central American nation turned their backs on Honduran Vice Minister of Human Rights and Justice Karla Cueva and Francisco Martínez of the Honduran Secretary of External Affairs as they spoke at the opening of the Victory Fund-sponsored gathering.
Berry was sitting next to Cueva on the stage during the silent protest.
“There has to be an honest and open conversation about the difficulties that lie ahead,” Berry told the Blade.
Berry noted that he and the Obama administration have “a superb relationship” with American LGBT advocacy groups. Berry nevertheless said their job “is also to make sure we’re doing our job.”
“That’s all about the accountability of government service,” he said.
‘We’ve been able to connect the dots’
Honduras is the 20th country to which Berry has traveled since he assumed his post within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in April.
The career Foreign Service officer who previously served in Amsterdam, New Zealand, Nepal, Bangladesh and a number of other countries is the first person to hold the post of special U.S. envoy to promote global LGBT rights since Kerry announced its creation earlier this year.
Berry on Sunday traveled from the Honduran capital to El Salvador. He is scheduled to return to D.C. from Mexico on Wednesday.
Berry later this month will attend ILGA-Europe’s annual conference in Athens before traveling to the Balkans.
He told the Blade that he plans to travel to Asia, the Pacific and Africa in the coming months. Berry is also scheduled to attend an LGBT rights conference in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo in April that the country’s government is organizing with the Netherlands.
The gathering will coincide with Berry’s first anniversary in his post.
“We’ve been able to connect the dots a little bit,” Berry told the Blade. “The more I travel the more I see the fundamentals of change. You’ve got differences in places, but the fundamentals are the same.”