For State Department's LGBTI Envoy, Every Country Is A Different Challenge

Apr 28, 2016
Originally published on April 28, 2016 6:45 pm

Randy Berry has seen dramatic changes during his more than 20 years at the State Department.

When he moved from a post in Nepal to New Zealand years ago, he had to pay for his husband's plane ticket because such spousal benefits were not covered for gay and lesbian couples.

"Those days are gone," Berry says in an interview at his State Department office.

Today, the State Department has eight openly gay ambassadors and Berry has become the first U.S. special envoy for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex persons, those whose sex is unclear at birth.

Still, a killing in Bangladesh this week drove home the challenges he faces in the post he's held for just a year.

Xulhaz Mannan, a gay rights activist who also worked at the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh, was hacked to death Monday by a group linked to al-Qaida.

Berry called Mannan's murder "a great tragedy."

"It is felt especially deeply because he was also a member of our family," says Berry. "Any day I learn about violence against members of this community based out of fear or ignorance or hate, I feel it deeply. But almost a day doesn't pass where that doesn't happen."

The Obama's administration's support for activists raises the question of whether the U.S. has an obligation to protect them. Berry says there is always an element of risk for any human rights activist.

"That's the nature of social change," he says, adding that his guiding principle is "do no harm."

Consulting With Local Activists

Berry has traveled to 42 countries over the past year and says he always consults with local activists to get a better sense of what they'd like him to do or to say and how hard to push their agenda with local government officials.

"Berry has done an extremely good job of working in a low-profile way," says Graeme Reid who runs the LGBT rights program for the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. He says the U.S. envoy has "avoided being a kind of finger-wagging moralist."

Reid says the killing in Bangladesh has to be seen in context. It's a country where many bloggers and secular activists are under threat by Islamist extremists and he argues the U.S. should not be intimidated by groups that are "intolerant of anyone who doesn't agree with their narrow vision of the world."

Meanwhile, Berry says the U.S. is one player among many trying to push social change. He says Malta has the most progressive gender identity laws. Argentina and Chile are among the countries that have been raising these issues at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Every country, he says, will have to take its own route.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The murder this week of a gay rights activist in Bangladesh sparked outrage here in Washington. The man had worked for the U.S. Embassy, and the State Department is now offering to help in the investigation. The murder is also raising difficult questions for an administration that has been encouraging gay activists to promote social change in conservative countries like Bangladesh. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: An al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for hacking to death USAID employee Xulhaz Mannan and one of his friends. The murder sent shockwaves through the State Department.

RANDY BERRY: It's a great tragedy. It's felt especially deeply because he was also a member of our family.

KELEMEN: That's Randy Berry, who's the first ever special envoy for the human rights of the LGBTI community. That is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals whose sex is unclear at birth.

BERRY: Any day I learn about violence against a member of this community based out of fear or ignorance or hate, I feel it deeply. But almost a day doesn't pass where that doesn't happen.

KELEMEN: We sit in his office at the State Department talking about Mannan's murder and whether the U.S. has any moral obligation to protect activists who feel emboldened by this administration's support for their cause. Ambassador Berry puts it this way.

BERRY: For any human rights activist, there is always an element of risk that's involved. That's the nature of social change, and I don't mean to short sell that at all. I feel the weight of that significantly.

KELEMEN: That's why he says his guiding principle is, do no harm. Berry says he's been to 42 countries over the past year and always consults with local activists to get a better sense of what they'd like him to do or to say and how hard to push their agenda with local government officials. That makes sense to Graeme Reid who runs the LGBT programs at Human Rights Watch.

GRAEME REID: Berry has done an extremely good job of working in a low-profile way and who has avoided being a kind of finger-wagging moralist on these kinds of issues. So I think that the approach that he's taken in very difficult circumstances has been a good one.

KELEMEN: Reid says the murder in Bangladesh has to be seen in context. It's a country where bloggers and secular activists are under threat by Islamist extremists. More than a dozen have been killed in the past two years alone.

REID: So the question is, is when intimidated by the tactics of these groupings who are basically intolerant of anyone who doesn't agree with their very narrow vision of the world...

KELEMEN: The Obama administration's LGBTI envoy Berry says the U.S. is one player among many trying to push for social change. And change comes slowly, even at home, he says. Berry joined the State Department just a few years after the U.S. government stopped revoking security clearances of gay Foreign Services officers. Same-sex partners didn't have basic benefits until recently.

BERRY: When my husband and I made our transfer from Kathmandu where we were living at the time to New Zealand, which was our next post, we had to pay for that one-way ticket all by ourselves (laughter) even though I was being transferred for work. You know, those days are gone.

KELEMEN: The State Department still can't get same-sex partners accredited in all countries around the world, but Berry says the U.S. now has eight openly gay ambassadors serving abroad and a human rights agenda that supports the LGBTI community. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.