US Secretary of State John Kerry congratulates Randy Berry as the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons at a welcome reception in the Special Envoy Berry's honor at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, on February 27, 2015. 
Credit: US State Department

RIGA, Latvia — Randy Berry is the US State Department Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. Berry, who is openly gay, is the first to occupy this newly created position, which he began in April. Berry began his Foreign Service career in 1993. He has held positions in several countries where public opinion is unfavorable toward homosexuality, including Egypt, Bangladesh and Uganda. 

He spoke with The GroundTruth Project on June 19, 2015 during the Freedom Conference at the 2015 EuroPride in Riga, Latvia. It was the first time this annual Pan-European event was held on formerly Soviet soil. Berry marched with a group from the US Embassy in Riga during the LGBT March the following day, and spoke at the rally afterward. A slightly edited transcript of the interview follows.

MICHAEL LUONGO: Mr. Berry, you have this diverse background that Secretary John Kerry had highlighted when you were introduced to the public. In particular, among the things that struck me are the rather tough areas of the developing world that you’ve worked in, many of which are quite anti-gay, including Uganda and Egypt. You’ve also worked in the Congo and in South Africa. How has this experience in such difficult environments shaped the diplomat you’ve become today?

SPECIAL ENVOY RANDY BERRY: Well, that’s a great question, and more nuanced than I’m used to. I think a couple of important things. One, I think that Secretary Kerry sent me into this position because much of my career in various ways has been looking at the issue of minimizing differences, or of supporting either initiatives or covering issues that were designed to sort of heal divisions, to find the common cause or common point of discussion. Whether that was in Nepal talking about political reconciliation after the civil war there, whether it was doing refugee work where we’re literally, physically integrating people back into their homes and communities oftentimes. I think what that has taught me is that I believe people have a tendency to look for common ground and a common point of reference. 

I’m very, very interested because I think there are some seemingly irreconcilable, or at least on the surface people believe things to be, certain irreconcilable differences with a greater appreciation for the human rights of our community, which I think is unfortunate, because I don’t see them opposed. I don’t think there’s a necessity for them to be opposing values at all. I mean one that frequently gets raised, for example, is a lot of times a march like the one we’re going to participate in tomorrow [here in Latvia at EuroPride], often is either condemned or inundated by events that are either religiously motivated by conservative’s orders as somehow an assault on religion, which I don’t think that these are opposing values at all. Communities of faith have a tremendous role to play in the work that we do in a positive sense. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of friends who are persons of faith and they’re also gay. And they don’t see any sort of dichotomy or any inherent conflict in it. It all has to do with how you choose to interpret your faith. I’m really interesting in engaging with communities of faith, that I think there is a lot of, I think there are some very respectable voices, for example, that are doing interesting reconciliation work. I want to see them project and engage and be more prominent.

The other issue is this notion somehow that gay pride or observing the human rights of our community is somehow anti-family. Because I happened to be in Buenos Aires, for example, where there was a counter-march that preceded the pride march that it was a march for family. And I realize that exists in other places. But I find that sort of amusing, because it again floats the concept somehow that you can’t be gay and a member of a family. Families come in many, many forms. And I keep saying that I wear a lot of labels in my life, being gay is one of them. Being a diplomat is another one. Also being a father. And those are all small little pieces that make up who I am, just like any person that’s a member of the community. Being gay is not the only thing you are. There’s a much more complex reality there. But to suggest somehow that that single part of our character is somewhat inconsistent with other fundamental parts, I just don’t agree. 

But I also think my experience, you asked a question specifically about sort of the more difficult places to be, as you know this is the first time in my career that I’ve worked on a single issue. So I have covered LGBT issues at times. This is my first direct engagement, although obviously I’m gay, I’ve lived in a number of these places. Whether on this or other issues, the work we’re doing showed me the great need for a role like this. Because I’ve had the ability to first hand see some of the issues that affect members of our community in some of the most difficult places. And in fact, I’d say in some of the places where I’ve lived, the conditions have deteriorated rather than gotten better in the 10, 12, 15 years since I’ve lived there.

ML: What does it mean on a philosophical level when the US has decided that LGBT issues will be such an important part of the diplomatic mission that we’ve chosen to create your position?

RB: Well, I think that that means, to me at least, an appreciation of the innate humanness of the issue, and the centrality of this as a core human rights issue globally. I believe that we’ve crossed a tipping point of sorts where, this is seen as an essential rights issue and not as a political issue necessarily. I think that there is a clear progression, I think from 2011 when Secretary Hillary Clinton brought the issue of LGBT rights into our foreign policy context.

ML: Tell me about the role of the Global Equality Fund and how it serves today in the US diplomatic mission and how it coordinates with your work.

RB: The Global Equality Fund is an extraordinarily important tool. That’s the fund that was established by Secretary Clinton. We now have 11 national partners. There’s a great misconception that this is just an American fund. It in fact isn’t. It was created as a multinational public/private partnership that is managed by the State Department, but in fact the US isn’t even the largest donor to the fund. The thing is, we have very robust engagement from national governments, from the business community, and then from the foundation and civil society space as well. So we have a significant number of partners in that fund. I want to see that grow. 

But let me tell you first what it does. We tap that fund in three principal ways. One, there is a rapid response mechanism that we can use to provide assistance to civil society activists, to attorneys, to others who are under threat because of their sexual orientation or because of their work. We have tapped this fund too many times in the first four years of its existence, which shows me the great need. And what this allows us to do is if someone is evicted from their home, someone loses their job, if an activist is kicked out of their office space, we can provide basic sustenance so that they are at least able to continue living and doing their work. We have two other funding streams. 

One is a small grants program that provides grants of $25,000 or less, non-renewable, single, they’re all one-offs. And those come in via nominations and applications through our global network of embassies and consulates. We have activities operating in about sixty countries now stemming from that fund. And then we have one last stream that basically looks at larger scale projects that can be multi-year. And generally these are with organizations who are looking at regional work or they have a more sophisticated sort of setup that need a particular targeted help to get over a certain hump or to be able to restructure. So I think in all three of these ways, one, this is all intended to support civil societies so that it runs in parallel with our policy sense and our policy interactions. But at the core of everything that we do is the well-being of the civil society actors, always. 

That fund has been, I believe, a little bit under-resourced. So I’m working to get a more significant number of national partners in, and also on this particular trip I’m going to be in London and Amsterdam, principally to talk to business associations that are very good in terms of internal workplace policies for members of the community. And that’s extraordinarily important, and I think equally important that they project that same appropriate culture wherever they’re doing business. And then also I want to talk to them about how they can partner with the fund also to really make some contributions at the civil society level.

ML: There are so many areas of the world experiencing LGBT discrimination, including violence and murder of gays. We have seen attacks in Jamaica, terrible anti-gay laws in Africa which you touched on, assassinations of gay activists in Africa and other places. I myself have gone and covered the brutal killings of gay men in Baghdad. We’re seeing possible executions by ISIS of men accused of sodomy. I know that it’s unclear with some of that. In such a world, where do you think the most work needs to be done? And then how do you allocate your own resources, whether it’s money or time for doing so?

RB: Well, that’s a great question, and it’s one of the reasons why I take the responsibility that I’ve got in an extremely sober fashion. Because there is a tremendous amount going on in this world. I’m still at the stage of learning and forming my ideas about how we can be most effective. But I believe that there is an absolute need to engage in a global way to the extent possible. I’m one person, but I have a team at the State Department working and watching every region of the world, looking at our programming and looking at our policy to see where we can tweak it. The good thing is that we have what I think is a really pleasantly surprising degree of support from senior leadership. 

I mean, it hasn’t just been the Secretary of State. I’d say the vast majority of the senior cadre at the State Department are very, very supportive. So the fact that I’m not the only one talking about these issues, that we’ve seen, or the US government, that we’ve seen some very strong statements come out. For example, on the issue of Gambia, and the statements that President Jammeh has made there from National Security Advisor Susan Rice. We have seen extraordinary leadership coming from Samantha Power at the UN. I don’t think we’re going to see the change that we need by one guy working for one government, talking about the issue and visiting. It takes a broad range of actors speaking out about these things. I think we’re involved in a long-term effort here.

Where I see some great promise is I believe we already have a core of nations around the world that have already assigned a significant interest in this issue. But then I think we also have an adjacent group that are friendly, tolerant, maybe need to engage in just a conversation to bring them a little bit closer to increase that network of people working on the, countries working on the right side of this. If you build the size of that coalition, and we make sure that it’s not just the US that’s addressing an issue in Iraq or in ISIS-held territories, that it’s ourselves, it’s the Germans, that it’s the French. And importantly, outside of that, that it’s the Argentines and the Chileans and the Brazilians, and the Australians and the Kiwis and the Vietnamese. And that we get at the national level a broader alliance working on these issues. 

But then I think you have a couple of other stages. I think you have the role that international civil society structures can play, because I think that’s incredibly important, both in making sure the governments have the information we need, and also as a watchdog to make sure that we act on it when we do have it. And then also I think this piece of the business community is important, because I think they can be a more forceful, a more positive force for good, American businesses and other businesses. I think if you look at what’s happened in the US, I mean in Indiana or Arkansas [with discrimination laws], that’s a power to me. When the business community realizes, in fact, that being inclusive and valuing diversity is actually the best business model there is. That’s tremendously powerful.

But I think then also you have to look at other prominent voices. You have to look at faith, leaders of communities of faith that are moderate and they’re saying the right things and they are out there. Sometimes they get drowned out in the din of everything else. But what I’m interested in doing is supporting, to the degree that I can, all of these independent voices that I think are already showing a great willingness to stand up and just use whatever authority I have in this position to just encourage those conversations, to kick start conversations and movements to help, particularly civil society actors, to know that we’re there in support in a policy sense. And then to discuss, frankly, with that vast range of countries that are in the middle somewhere.

ML: Which would be what countries?

RB: Well, I would say in that vast middle I think you could probably put half the countries in the world. That aren’t necessarily hostile, but aren’t necessarily moving the ball forward. I think there’s great potential there, because I think the more that we can move the center of the universe on this to the side of right, I think that creates a pull factor. I think it creates a positive that sometimes is a better motivator than punishment. Because I don’t think you actually change people’s minds through force. You change it through dialog, you can change it through providing positive example, and that’s the more enduring kind of change that I would work on.

ML: We touched a little bit on this already, and you also talked about moderate voices in religion, but among the issues coming out of Africa are the American evangelists. People are not, you hadn’t stated Americans specifically, but it really is American churches, evangelical churches which are behind some of these homophobic laws. If your role is to challenge homophobia in these places, what is being done to rein in Americans feeding those fires?

RB: Well, communities of faith, just like individuals, have a right to religious belief, whatever that is, certainly. And organizations are also free to enjoin associations in an international sense, there’s no sort of initiative given to interdicting that sort of phenomenon. But what I think needs to happen is I think we have seen a rise in the number of these more moderate voices to at least counter the issue. I don’t think it’s my role as a government official to tackle communities of faith, although I do think that out of more extreme mouths come some very, very harmful, damaging language, especially for young members of the LGBT community. They’re grappling with this incredibly complex issue of realizing that you’re gay or lesbian or transgender, figuring out what you do with that, how you put a life together that is honest and open, and then to be receiving a message that you are either sick, need healing, or evil, I think in some extreme examples. That’s enormously damaging. 

One of my primary motivations for taking this job sort of stems from the fact that I’m now a father, that I would be devastated to have my children, if one of them ends up being gay, grow up with that sort of messaging being delivered around their shoulders. Not just my children, it’s everyone’s children. And then this rash of suicides in the US, which is devastating to me, because it’s such a loss of hope and it’s so unnecessary. If we responsible adults can manage to find the compassion in our hearts to talk about what really matters, and that’s about allowing people to be who they are and to focus on that space. And the thing is, I believe there are a lot of moderate voices out of communities of faith that want to do that and are doing that. So I want to look at ways in which we partner with them to support their efforts. We make sure that their voice is just as loud as that very vocal, very motivated minority that is conveying a different message. But I think it’s clear that that is an element, and not just in the usual suspects. I think we’ve seen that kind of influence throughout the Caribbean and in many places in Africa and in Latin America. It’s an unfortunate trend.

ML: You brought up your children, which leads to my next question. Tell me about what it is like to walk into diplomatic settings in certain parts of the world where people really haven’t seen LGBT couples such as yourself and your husband, Pravesh, and two happy children, Aria and Xander? This might be normal in Denmark or Canada, but not in most places. 

RB: Our personal experience has been an extremely positive one. I’ll also tell you that we’ve only raised, our children are young, so they have really only been a part of our family life living in Amsterdam, which is not exactly representative either. But I think in general I have felt very much embraced, not only by the diplomatic community, but I think many times that the reaction, and I wouldn’t even characterize it as in any way hostile or negative, but one of curiosity, one of I think sometimes ignorance. Because if people have never really interacted with someone who’s openly gay, I mean it’s completely natural that they may not know either how to address the issue, how to have the conversation, and I think so you see a real mixture of people who are sort of supportive but curious, but don’t have the tools with which to have the discussion. So I think there’s an educational element to all of that. The visibility and the education part is important. For example, I went to Jamaica about three weeks ago. When I do public statements I almost always reference my family in some way, realizing that for some people that may be the first sort of experience they’ve had with somebody who’s openly gay. And I want to make sure that the message is passed that if I had to pick one label in my life, it’s “Dad.” That’s the responsibility I take most seriously in my life. And I’m not different from anybody else. 

ML: We’ve seen many countries say that homosexuality is an import from the west. And to some a mark of cultural imperialism. That’s been among the topics here in Latvia that some of the Eastern European activists are being told. Some people might argue that even having a role such as yours in the US government is an example of that imperialism. What is your response when told such things, if you have been told such things?

RB: I hear it all the time. Clearly, being gay is not situational, cultural or anything else. It’s a human reality. It exists in every society anywhere. So I mean the idea that that is somehow an imported life I think is completely silly. So can I leave it there?

ML: That’s fine. We’re also, we’re here in Latvia for EuroPride, and another major theme hanging over the events is the role of Russia, which was once America’s main enemy, in creating homophobia in its own territory, as well as other areas within the former Soviet sphere. We’ve heard from activists here that homophobia in their own countries is stirred by these pro-Russian sentiments. How do we challenge this as America when dealing with another superpower or former superpower?

RB: Well, I think that’s certainly a challenging situation. But I think the issues of gravest concern there are sort of these so-called propaganda laws that seems to be an export that Russia has shared with other countries, particularly in the former Soviet orbit. What I think we need to do is we need to be consistent with our conversations, because the projection of American values and American views here has to be consistent wherever we’re working. I think the tactics of engagement have to be different, because every place is a little bit different. One of the reasons I think it’s important to be here, the first EuroPride taking place in a former Soviet republic, is to just make sure that organizers, countries, the Latvians understand that we are here in support of an embrace of this kind of value and a rejection of any attempts to close down civil society space, whether that’s LGBT activists speaking for our own particular interests or whether that’s the broader issue of decreasing space for civil society in general. 

ML: We are running short of our allotted time, so I’m going to quickly throw these out. Can you comment on the progress that the US has made over the decades, especially with same sex marriage, the law in most of the land, maybe everywhere by the end of this month? [The Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage throughout the US on June 26, 2015, several days after this interview occurred.] And the visibility of transgender issues with Caitlyn Jenner? Also, do you think that there’s more work that needs to be done in the US in terms of even if we get marriage across the country, anti-discrimination in employment, for example? And then, your favorite band and musicians, Queen, which is on your Facebook page, along with gay athletes like Jason Collins, Greg Louganis who you also list as idols.

RB: I think we’ve seen extraordinary progress in the US. And I’m very, very appreciative of that. But what I would say is that has only been possible because we had decades of very slow, very brave activism. I’ve often said that we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us, like Harvey Milk and others who took great risk to make space for us. Caitlyn Jenner, I think has tremendous potential to change the conversation on transgender issues, because there is so much misunderstanding of the trans community in almost every society. And just the fact that she is out there, that she had such a huge Twitter response. And being completely honest, I think has the opportunity of completely reshaping the conversation we have, including out of members of our own community, which have not always been embracing of all parts of the LGBT spectrum. 

On the music, I wouldn’t read too much in here. I loved Queen when I was a kid way before I knew I was gay. But the other figures that you’re talking about. I’m a big fan of anyone who occupies public space and has the bravery to deal with it publicly. That’s why I think what Jason Collins has done, especially in the context of the environment where he had to do it, is really commendable. And I think he makes it easier for younger athletes like Tom Daly to take that space. And Tom Daly’s process will make it easier for the ones that come after. But I would say that really of almost anybody who’s in the public space and uses the power of that just to be honest. I think that’s tremendously powerful and I think it’s a motivator for a lot of people.

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