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.