3 Questions With America's First Diplomat for Global LGBT Rights

06/29/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) congratulates Randy Berry (L) 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 US Department of State in Washington, DC, on February 27, 2015. (Courtesy/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 selection of questions and answers from the complete interview, first published on GlobalPost, 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: 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.