Randy Berry, America’s first ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, recently made an official visit to Southern Africa, meeting with officials, civil society activists and journalists in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa.
Appointed to the historic position early last year by the Obama administration, Berry has already visited dozens of countries around the world in a bid to spread the American government’s LGBTI equality message. These nations have included notoriously homophobic states such as Uganda and regions like the Middle East.
In an interview with Mambaonline.com Editor Luiz De Barros, Berry, a veteran of the US Foreign Service, spoke about the state of LGBTI equality on the continent and what the future may bring for our commonly beleaguered communities.
You previously served as a diplomat in South Africa, but I believe you have another more personal connection to the country.
I do. When I was posted in Cape Town in 2003… Shortly after I arrived there, I met my husband, who’s from Durban. So we have family connections here. It’s a pleasure to be back to revisit some of those.
What do you hope to achieve as the LGBTI envoy? Do you believe you can effect change?
I wouldn’t step into this space unless I thought there was some opportunity for pragmatic progress. But we have to understand what progress looks like, that small victories can sometimes be very significant ones. And that this is all taking place in the context of a fairly long-term investment.
So what would you consider successes?
In some of the jurisdictions that I’ve travelled – places on the African continent, in South Eastern Europe and the Middle East – there’s never been much of a public discussion about this before. So just planting the seed of a discussion that breaks the taboo, talking in a very rational way about the core issue, is a very tiny step forward. But I think there’s another aspect to this and that’s the issue of hope. If we can be present in a way that enables civil society workers to do their work openly – for example, them providing a point of contact for a young LGBTI person to turn to and to have an example that their life can actually be a happy and fulfilled one – I believe that can be a success.
And what about decriminalisation?
We still have 75 countries that have some form of criminalisation and 40 of those are Commonwealth countries, and they’re united by a fairly similar set of legislation, so I believe we will see movement really begin within the Commonwealth. But that doesn’t happen overnight. I believe you have to respect the political process that has to occur. Would I like to see it happen tomorrow? Absolutely.
What kind of reception from officials have you had in your visits to African countries where homosexuality is criminalised?
It has consistently been a constructive one. To be perfectly honest some of these countries would prefer not to engage in the conversation because it’s a difficult one and one where vocabulary becomes a problem or there are basic misunderstandings. But I think we can go into some of these places to really bring that conversation back to the pragmatic, simple concept of equality. I would say that some of my best meetings, the most constructive engagements and among the warmest meetings I’ve had have been in some of the most challenging environments.
What are those misunderstandings you mentioned?
Well, there is a presumption that we are coming to force people or to threaten when really it’s about the conversation. Frequently there is an expectation that we are coming to link development aid to same-sex marriage policies or something like that, when we have a conversation that is a much more modest one. And also I think representatives of some religious organisations presume that we are attempting to challenge their religious beliefs, and that’s not the case. I want to talk about legal structures and about civil protection for people. If a person of faith wants to reflect on whether or not their religion demands violence and discrimination… I think each person needs to look at that on their own.
There seems to be a lot of confusion around identity and sexuality in Africa. What do you feel are some of the biggest misconceptions?
I don’t think this is entirely Africa specific but there’s a presumption that we are talking about a behavioural issue as opposed to an issue of identity. I think that’s often where the conversation goes off the tracks because our perspective that this is a core human rights issue is seated very much in the understanding that it is an identity issue. It’s not something that a person chooses to do. So folks sometime use the language of “promoting homosexuality” or somehow growing the number of homosexuals or transgendered people in the society and that is completely silly. The conversation should be about how society deals with this human reality.
To what extent are American evangelical groups still influencing the debate on sexual minorities on the continent?
Some conservative American religious denominations do engage in the promotion of legislation that we find problematic, not only in Africa but in other places as well. We have a lot of protections and fundamental beliefs in America – and freedom of religious beliefs is one of them. So I think there is very little that the government can and should do. Now I think where that crosses the line is when you have hate being promoted. That is something that is clearly illegal and when you have an incitement to violence that is clearly illegal. When that occurs that changes the equation significantly.
With the USA still struggling with a number of issues around LGBT equality at home, why should other countries take heed of what you have to say on this issue?
The charge of hypocrisy is sometimes laid at our feet but I think the fact that we’ve had our own very difficult struggle and self-examination and discussion about what it means to be equal makes us the perfect partner to talk to these issues. I think we understand the very complicated nature of progress. There’s not an element of what I’ve talked to you about that hasn’t been present in my own country. All these challenges, we have walked that path. As long as we are mindful of the approach, are mindful that other countries have been ahead of us, and we engage in a manner that is constructive, we can find a lot of common ground. I think this is actually one of our strengths
What are your thoughts about the use of culture and tradition to justify discrimination against LGBT people?
You know, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the word “universal” for a reason. I certainly contest the notion that any aspect of human rights can be culturally defined or be situational. Human rights are human rights and if we have that common acceptance then the conversation really becomes about how we realise it. But traditional culture doesn’t mean unchanging. All of our cultures evolve through time and always have. I think that, yes, in traditional societies these are difficult conversations, but that’s not an excuse not to talk about it. You have to break the taboo to talk about it.
Are you hopeful about achieving LGBT equality in Africa?
Yes, I am ever more hopeful. I believe that ultimately this rests on the strength of civil society. And these trips always show me that even in the toughest circumstances there are people who are very bravely standing up and advancing the goal to greater equality. I’m not naive, though. I know the challenges that people face on a daily basis. I know that the idea that this going to take time is not very much a consolation if you happen to be struggling with this inequality day in and day out. But yes, on the broader issues I am hopeful.