Interview: The US LGBT rights envoy on what’s next for the global LGBT community

PinkNews caught up with US Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, to discuss his new role, and the path countries like the US and the UK are going down to promote LGBT rights at home and abroad.

The first to fill the recently created role, Berry caught up with PinkNews whilst visiting London, just before the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage.

Discussing his role, he said: “This job is an important new tool for us because it allows us to engage in a globally consistent manner at a reasonably senior level with governments overseas to explain our views and our policy projection here, which is actually not very controversial.

“In a global sense, basically, what we’re looking at are the worst forms of violence and discrimination as our policy points. So, I think we’ve seen a lot of receptivity to that, but I think a good deal of that is also that this gives us the ability to basically just normalise our engagement, as we do with any other policy issue that allows us to just make sure that our global messaging is consistent and to take a look at the various tool kits that we have to sort of work for the kind of change that we want to see.”

Saying at the point where he is two-months into the job, having travelled to 14 countries in the past month, Berry told PinkNews that he thinks the is “extraordinary power” in the role.

“Just by being able to have those conversations, to very consistently have an ability to project those talking points and we’ve seen great receptivity,” he said.

On Malta’s recent implementation of laws to protect the rights of transgender people, Berry said: “I think that legislation is probably the most progressive single piece of legislation on gender identity that we’ve seen. And it passed unanimously, which I still don’t understand fully.”

Asked whether he thought the UK was wrong not to have an LGBT rights envoy, as the US does, Berry said: However Britain decides to engage on their policy issues is really a decision that needs to be made here.”

He went on to say the US has found the role to be “a useful tool”.

On whether his job as an LGBT rights envoy was made more difficult by the fact that the US had not always been the best on LGBT issues, he said: “I think it would only be problematic if we were somehow not honest and transparent about the fact that the march towards equality has been very mixed, as it has in every country.

“Really, I’m thrilled that we’re moving in the right direction and I think that we have passed tipping point in the US on these issues that I think people will become less political, maybe post political, very, very soon in our national dialogue.

He said he thinks the Republic of Ireland’s referendum approving same-sex marriage is an “extraordinary” achievement, and a “milestone of equality”.

Optimistic that he would be heard in his role in countries in the Commonwealth like Uganda, which have anti-gay laws, he said he was hopeful that “in a constructive way” he could make headway.

As well as being constructive, Berry said it was essential that his office was “approaching this angle in a consistent way.”

He said he hoped to make it “very, very clear where we stand on these issues. It’s not to dictate terms; it’s not to dangle carrots or threaten with sticks, but just to have a very clear conversation on the human rights act because I believe fundamentally- as I know you as well- that our country, my country thrives more fully when we expand that definition or understand what real equality means.”

Of a recent trip to Jamaica, where LGBT people are often treated with violence and hostility, Berry said: “I think there is a very complex story going on, even in those places, that there are. . . these are not monolithic places that are uniformly hostile, that there are bright lights within civil society, who are putting themselves at great risk to make sure we belong with our partners in giving them the kind of support and space that they need to do their work.”

One issue Berry said he thought was gaining a lot of traction in the US is the pratice of “gay cure” therapies, particularly on minors.

Mentioning President Obama’s recent damning words on the practice, Berry said they “are not scientific. The biggest proponents of these sorts of things are people who don’t have the speciality or written kind of training or special knowledge of these and we need to get issues of mental health and medicine and science back in the lane of doctors, psychiatrists and scientists.”

“I think, in the US context, we hold the issues of freedom of religion and freedom of speech are absolutely fundamental parts of our DNA in the US… To do whatever you want is something completely different.”

Berry went on to say that instances of trans suicides following attempts to “cure” gender identity or sexuality were “troubling”.

Speaking on the differences between British and American politics, and each country’s journey towards equality, Berry spoke of Republican politicians, and whether they would be able to speak in favour of LGBT rights in the way that Tories in the UK do.

He said: “I think that there are a wide array of Republican leaders who already espouse this agenda. I really do…. I think that we have seen some terrific leadership on this from Republican politicians, as well as Democrats. I think we are past the point of that being a deeply partisan divide.”

On President Obama’s leadership on LGBT issues, supported by Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Berry said: “President Obama is enormously popular and, when he floats an idea that may be even a little controversial but unexpected, we see some great considerations. I think his leadership has been substantial.”

As well as politicians such as Obama, Berry said “there is a lot to learn from business,” and that businesses often lead the charge in issues of equality.

“I think any trend in the US where we have seen this, it’s the backing of the business community, has been extraordinarily important. And I think it will only increase. Because, again, I think if you look at these companies who have, I think, been on the forefront, these are companies that are globally thriving and there’s a reason for that… once we get our head around the idea that equality means equality, period, full-stop, you know, we’re going to thrive.”

Berry said in terms of the Catholic church, it was not within his remit to try and challenge the beliefs and laws therein, but that he was optimistic they would change.

“I believe that we’re experiencing a global change that is truly unprecedented… I guess the point that I would leave with that is that this is not the purview of government solely…  The more of this that we can get working on multiple levels within communities of faith, within business, that’s where we see change. It’s because it’s going to be coming from a myriad, an array of sources, and I think it’s ultimately a rational and moral argument that we will win if we are consistent with our approach and we are very, very smart. But, I’m deeply optimistic; I think the path is very long in some places, but I believe that there is substantial change.”