Making History for LGBT People Around the World

AJWS's Executive Vice President Robert Bank welcomed Randy Berry as the U.S.'s first Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People at the State Department on February 27th.
AJWS’s Executive Vice President Robert Bank welcomed Randy Berry as the U.S.’s first Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People at the State Department on February 27th.

The headlines from almost every corner of the globe in the past few weeks have been endlessly depressing. February may be New York’s coldest month since 1934. And yet, I’m feeling rather elated because something spectacular just happened.

On Friday, February 27th, AJWS President Ruth Messinger and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to represent AJWS at Secretary of State John Kerry’s Welcome Reception to commemorate the announcement of the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People, Randy Berry.

Thousands of AJWS supporters, activists and donors from around the country worked tirelessly to advocate for the appointment of this Special Envoy. And, together, we did it! We made history.

It is difficult to convey the excitement and emotion of Friday’s welcome reception for Randy Berry. Ruth and I were both deeply moved. Having spent so much of our careers fighting for the human rights of LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS, this day was truly momentous.

And as a Jewish gay South African who came to the United States fleeing apartheid, I have longed for a day when my newly adopted country would not only recognize my human rights as a gay person, but would recognize the need for foreign policy leadership against the brutal discrimination and subjugation of LGBT people in over a third of the countries in the world. And that day has come!

Here are a few soundbites from the ceremony. Secretary Kerry opened his remarks with this:

So this appointment really couldn’t happen at a more important time. And frankly, everybody being here today and my privilege of actually celebrating this appointment is really a way of sending a compelling message. We have a moral obligation to speak out against the persecution and the marginalization of LGBT persons. And we have a moral obligation to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant. It is the right thing to do. But make no mistake: It’s also a strategic necessity. Greater protection of human rights leads to greater stability, prosperity, tolerance, inclusivity, and it is not a question of occasionally – always this is what happens.

Special Envoy Randy Berry, who most recently served as U.S. Consul General in Amsterdam, spoke eloquently about the love that he shares with his husband and his two young children:

I think all of us in this room recognize just how unbelievably fortunate we are, for in far too many places around the world not only is this type of story impossible, but additionally, great and terrible injustices are visited on people like us. This love still stands ground for imprisonment, harassment, torture, and far worse in too many places around the world. That is a violation of human rights. It is a violation of human rights by the standards set forth by many of our allies and partners around the world, and it is a violation of human rights by the standard of the universal declaration. We can and we must do better. Lives, futures, hopes and dreams depend on that, and that is why we’re here today. That’s also why this type of role is needed.

Read and watch the full remarks from Secretary Kerry and Special Envoy Randy Berry.

This day was historic in and of itself, but there are many milestones that led up to it. And it’s important to take stock of past achievements. In 2011, President Obama released an executive memorandum laying out his administration’s commitment to advancing the rights of LGBT people. Later that year, on the weekend of International Human Rights Day, then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gave a historic speech in Geneva, in which she stated the following:

Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same… like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

That same year, the State Department launched the Global Equality Fund, a collaborative effort, bridging government, companies and NGOs with the objective of empowering LGBT people to live freely and without discrimination. Then in 2013, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) followed suit with the LGBT Global Development Partnership, bringing together USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and various civil society organizations, corporations and an academic institute, in an initiative for LGBT equality in developing and emerging market countries.

And just last summer, I was honored to represent AJWS at a USAID/AJWS joint event where USAID issued its own document: USAID LGBT Vision for Action, calling for a world in which the basic and universal human rights of LGBT persons are respected and LGBT people are able to live with dignity, free from discrimination, persecution and violence.

I’m proud that this movement toward greater global LGBT equality has moved at a quick pace. Activists and leaders who attended AJWS’s Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. last May remember advocating for members of Congress to support the International Human Rights Defense Act–a bill introduced by Senator Edward Markey (D-MA). If signed into law, this piece of legislation will build on the Obama administration’s progress and would place as a high priority the appointment of a Special Envoy for Global LGBT Rights.

Our partners both here in the U.S. and around the world, as well as our government partners in the Department of State, have been persistent in pushing for this appointment. And less than two months ago, Senator Markey and California Congressman Alan Lowenthal reintroduced the proposal after President Obama made LGBT-specific references during his annual State of the Union address.

And so, here we are. Our hard work has paid off.

I encourage you to write to the President and the Secretary of State to thank them for making history by appointing a Special Envoy for Global LGBT Rights. Let them know that you are grateful that they listened. Let them know that you are thankful for their attention to the human rights of LGBT people all over the world. Let them know that you are an engaged citizen and you feel that you’ve been heard on this issue. And tweet at them using our sample language below:

Thank you @BarackObama @JohnKerry for appointing Randy Berry as 1st Special Envoy for the #humanrights of #LGBT people worldwide! #WeBelieve

Finally, take a moment to acknowledge your power, your passion, and your commitment. This would not have happened without your voice and your support.

Check out our Storify page for Randy Berry’s welcome reception at the State Department.