“A year ago I appreciated it more as an academic or intellectual reality,” he said during an interview at the State Department on April 20. “But over the last year the number of transgender individuals that I’ve met with who’ve simply shared their stories has really helped educate me on frankly what is different than the L (lesbian), G (gay) and B (bisexual) and I (intersex) parts of that.”
“We’re dealing with a sharply more problematic situation,” he added.
Berry officially assumed his post within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on April 13, 2015. The career Foreign Service officer who had previously been posted in New Zealand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Uganda, Egypt, South Africa and D.C. is the first person appointed by the Obama administration to specifically promote LGBT rights abroad.Berry told reporters during the State Department’s daily press briefing on April 20 that one of his priorities over the next year is to combat anti-LGBT violence around the world. He said the State Department “will work” with the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and “other agencies to leverage opportunities to reduce and prevent violence, share best practices and challenges and provide technical resources where we can.”
A report the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released in 2014 notes the average life expectancy of trans people in the Western Hemisphere is between 30-35 years. Berry spoke to reporters at the State Department four days after police found Keyonna Blakeney, a 22-year-old trans woman from D.C., murdered inside a Maryland hotel room.
“We’re going to redouble our efforts to combat violence against LGBTI persons,” said Berry.
Goal to ‘shine a spotlight on’ LGBT rights
“From day one, one of my primary goals was to build bridges and to continue to strengthen partnerships, to engage with our detractors and to shine a spotlight on this key set of issues,” he told reporters during the State Department press briefing.
Berry noted to the Blade that he spoke with a group of evangelical leaders in Jamaica at a “very, very fundamental level” when he traveled to the country last May. He said the highest-level meeting he has had in his post was with Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda when he traveled to the African nation in July 2015.
“That tells me that they’re paying attention and they care about what we have to say,” Berry told the Blade.
“But still she was persevering,” he said. “She was still continuing to do her work, her activism and she still managed to walk into the room with a smile on her face.”
“That’s the characterization of real bravery,” added Berry.
LGBT rights not ‘single stand alone issue’
Promoting LGBT rights overseas has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her landmark “gay rights are human rights” speech in 2011.
The Blade’s attempts to interview Secretary of State John Kerry have thus far proven unsuccessful.
Berry noted to reporters during the State Department press briefing that a number of countries have extended rights to their LGBT citizens over the last year.
Nepalese lawmakers in September 2015 approved a new constitution that specifically protects “sexual minorities.” Members of the Vietnamese National Assembly two months later approved a measure that legalizes sex-reassignment surgery and allows trans people who have undergone the procedure to change their gender on official documents.
Botswana’s highest court ruled last month that an LGBT advocacy group can register with the country’s government. Argentina this year became the third Latin American country to join the Global Equality Fund, a U.S. initiative that seeks to promote LGBT rights around the world the State Department manages with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Mozambique decriminalized homosexuality last June, but Berry noted that consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in more than 70 other countries. Saudi Arabia — which President Obama and Kerry visited last week — is among the handful of nations in which homosexuality remains punishable by death.
“We need to approach that in a holistic way,” said Berry in response to the Blade’s question about Saudi Arabia’s LGBT rights record. “Again [we are] not breaking this out as a single stand alone issue, but simply as part of our concern about any types of human rights abuses against any of the other marginalized groups.”
Berry highlighted the so-called Islamic State’s execution of men accused of sodomy in Syria and Iraq during the State Department press briefing. He also criticized Russia and Nigeria for passing “draconian laws to further undermine the human rights of people, including LGBTI persons.”
“We live in a world where many governments use LGBTI issues as a political wedge to bolster their own positions,” said Berry.Berry also defended gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster, who continues to face criticism from Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo and other anti-LGBT religious officials in the Caribbean country.
“Ambassador Brewster embodies the very best of American values,” Berry told the Blade.
N.C., Miss. laws will not undermine LGBT efforts abroad
Berry spoke with the Blade a day after the British Foreign Office warned travelers about anti-LGBT laws that recently took effect in North Carolina and Mississippi.
North Carolina’s House Bill prohibits trans people from using public restrooms consistent with their gender identity and bans municipalities from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances that include LGBT-specific protections. Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 is a sweeping religious freedom law that critics contend allows anti-LGBT discrimination.
Berry told the Blade that these laws will not undermine U.S. efforts to promote LGBT rights abroad.
“Others engage with us overseas much more readily because they understand that we are not simply saying, ‘The sun is out in the United States, let us bring sunshine to your country as well,’” he said. “There is a recognition that change has come to the U.S. as a result of a very long, a very painstaking set of engagements by a lot of actors.”
Berry acknowledged to the Blade that he “frequently” receives questions about the 2016 presidential election, “particularly as it pertains to the future of our policy.”
“This is the administration we’re working for,” he said, referring to the Obama White House. “This is important to this administration. We’re planning and putting all of our efforts into building this sustainable long engagement, but that’s exactly what it’s going to require.”
Berry said he does not “want to get into the political predictions” when asked about whether Clinton, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or their Republican challengers would continue the Obama administration’s efforts to promote LGBT rights abroad if they were elected president.
“I plan to come to work the day after the inauguration,” Berry told the Blade. “I serve the U.S. government. I serve the American people.”