Global State of the Movement

Randy W. Berry
Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons 
Out & Equal Executive Forum
San Francisco, CA
March 23, 2016

Good morning. Thank you for the invitation. It is a pleasure to be with all of you at Out & Equal’s Executive Forum. Out & Equal has been a leader in promoting LGBT inclusion and visibility in the workplace and in cultivating LGBT senior executives and emerging leaders and entrepreneurs. Through forums such as this one, Out & Equal works to ensure that LGBT workplace inclusion remains a priority for Fortune 500 companies.

It has been just over a year since President Obama and Secretary Kerry appointed me as the first-ever U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. It has been a remarkable year. I have logged in a few frequent flyer miles, traveling to 42 countries from every region of the world. I’ve been deeply inspired on these visits, mainly in my meetings with members of civil society who courageously work every day to improve the human rights of the LGBTI community in some of the most repressive environments. I’ve had some pretty challenging conversations with foreign government officials on discriminatory legislation targeting the community and the stigma and violence members of our communities endure. As the Special Envoy, I have worked to bring increased attention and visibility to global LGBTI issues at the highest possible level. It has been challenging and exhilarating and above all, an honor to represent the United States in this capacity and to demonstrate our country’s unwavering commitment to advance LGBTI equality not just here at home but abroad as well.

At the State Department, the promotion and protection of the human rights of LGBTI persons is a core piece of our foreign policy. Our efforts are guided by President Obama’s December 2011 Presidential Memorandum on International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, which directs federal departments and agencies to combat the criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad; protect vulnerable LGBT refugees or asylum seekers; enhance assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination policies for LGBT persons; and help ensure swift and meaningful responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad.

It was also in that same month that Secretary Clinton gave her landmark speech in Geneva, underscoring that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

And this message continues with Secretary Kerry, who has worked on the equality agenda for decades, underscoring the importance of advancing LGBT equality, stating “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 and inclusivity.” So, the stakes could not be higher and we have to seize this moment. And this is why I’m honored and excited to be here with you today. Today I’d like to tell you about our work at the Department, as well as identify some areas of joint action. From my time as Special Envoy, it is clear that visibility matters, leadership matters and that we need to expand the circle of allies (including governments and the private sector) – and use every opportunity we have to talk about universal values, human rights, inclusion and diversity. These ideals may sound lofty, but we know that they in the end yield better business outcomes and advance our national security as well.

The Challenge

At the outset, it is important to note that the equality challenge is truly global. Nearly 80 countries criminalize consensual adult same-sex activity, or use other laws to persecute LGBTI persons. In some cases, same-sex acts can be punished with the death penalty. In the last few years, several countries have enacted or are considering new laws targeting the LGBTI community that attack their dignity, undermine their safety, and fundamentally violate their human rights.

Many world political leaders use homophobia to score political points and to distract from significant issues related to poverty, corruption, violence and service delivery that impact the daily lives of their citizens. Many of those same leaders contribute to a broader trend of using regressive new laws to restrict space for civil society actors and dissenting views for the LGBTI community and beyond.

Now, when I talk about the human rights of LGBTI persons, the U.S. government is not promoting “special rights.” It is about equality. If it is a violation of human rights when a person is beaten or killed or denied access to justice and services due to their gender, race or religious belief; it is violation of human rights when this occurs because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a June 2015 report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Office detailed the widespread abuses faced by LGBT persons worldwide and found that thousands of people have been killed or brutally injured worldwide because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s happening now.

We have a responsibility to push back against the rising tide of violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. We have to acknowledge the fundamental truth that LGBTI violence anywhere is a threat to peace and stability and prosperity everywhere.

What We Are Doing

The work of our embassies and consulates in this environment is absolutely vital in connecting different stakeholders, using our convening power to bring different constituency groups together and providing a safe space often for activists and allies to meet, in many cases when they have no where else to meet. Our embassies around the world regularly engage with civil society and with host governments on human rights concerns that specifically affect LGBTI persons. We work to support law reform efforts and to ensure greater legal protections for LGBTI persons. Some of our embassies raise the Rainbow Flag, our Ambassadors march in Pride Parades, we host roundtables with media, with faith and community leaders, and undertake a broad variety of other activities as well. We have enhanced our reporting in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which shines a light on the human rights abuses the LGBTI community endures in a particular country. We’ve also adjusted our travel guidance, to ensure it accounts for the needs of American LGBTI travelers as they visit different corners of the world. We’re taking a hard look at hate crime targeting LGBTI persons - leveraging our security relationships to make sure police support does not undermine LGBTI rights.

We have also spoken out consistently. In 2014, we announced measures, including redirected funding, that were in response to the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, a terrible law that was ultimately declared null and void by the High Court. In The Gambia, our decision to revoke the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) status was propelled by repugnant anti-LGBTI comments and policies implemented by President Jammeh. In Russia and Kyrgyzstan we have spoken against emerging anti-LGBTI legislation.

You may recall that President Obama traveled last summer to Africa – a region where we have seen widespread opposition to LGBTI rights. In fact, about half of the countries in the world that criminalize same-sex relationships are in Africa. Before he even left for the region, some were encouraging the President not to speak out on LGBTI issues, including some voices in the United States. Yet when he was asked to respond to a question on LGBTI rights during a joint press conference with Kenya’s President in Nairobi, President Obama said, “I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation …[W]hen you start treating people differently – not because of any harm they’re doing anybody, but because they’re different – that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen. And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. And as an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law.”

We have also actively engaged multilateral institutions to build further support with a diverse group of like-minded governments. Secretary Kerry participated in the first-ever UN LGBT Ministerial Event in September 2013 where he delivered remarks reaffirming the United States’ commitment to promoting and protecting the human rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and emphasizing that working towards freedom and dignity for all people is essential in fulfilling the UN’s original purpose “to promote social progress and better standards of life, in larger freedom.” The United States stood by South Africa in 2011 when it sponsored the first UN Human Rights Council resolution addressing the human rights of LGBTI persons, and supported the Latin American-led resolution introduced in September 2014 by Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and Brazil to combat violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons.

Why We Need Business Engagement

Now the part about why we need you. This is where we need your partnership. Governments that neglect or oppress sections of the population are both failing to use the full potential of their citizens and hampering their own prosperity. And as the data has shown, these discriminatory laws, along with continued harassment and violence against the LGBTI community, are detrimental to overall business and economic development, threatening the stability that businesses desire, risking the safety of their employees, and jeopardizing productive economic relationships that can advance corporate interests globally.

LGBTI people face societal and workplace discrimination that denies them equal access to education and health care and discourages them from pursuing, obtaining, or retaining good-paying jobs. Too often, LGBTI employees decline a promotion or a transfer overseas in a country that is intolerant and hostile to the LGBTI community due to fear of discrimination. For companies who wish to retain their talented employees, high turnover rates force companies to spend more money recruiting and training new employees.

A 2014 World Bank study closely examined the effects of LGBTI exclusion in India and found that the cost of stigma and discriminations – including health disparities and workplace discrimination – against LGBTI people in India, amounted to a lower output of India’s economy. These issues are not mutually exclusive and affect business, government and society at large.

There have been a number of recent studies which have shown the effects of LGBTI discrimination on a country’s GDP. For example, a Williams Institute and USAID study concluded that economies that protect more rights for LGBT people – including decriminalizing homosexuality, and implementing nondiscrimination laws – actually produce a higher GDP per capita. According to the study, each additional right is associated with a 3% increase in GDP per capita.

The business case for LGBTI inclusion is receiving more and more public attention. Just two months ago, for the first time, the human rights of LGBTI persons made the official agenda at the World Economic Forum. Vice President Biden spoke passionately stressing the importance business plays in combatting discrimination, stating “When you speak up, you change the terms of the debate. . . You actually put governments on notice.” Earlier this month, I participated at The Economist’s event, “Pride and Prejudice: The business case for LGBT diversity and inclusion”, a 24-hour global event with gatherings held in New York, London and Hong Kong that brought together government and business leaders to discuss this topic.

What You Can Do (Building on Current Efforts)

I firmly believe that business has a key role to play to ensure societal and cultural change. In the United States, we have seen the influence that business has had in supporting diversity and inclusion and pushing back against discrimination. It is a major part of the equation. The business case for LGBTI equality is clear and articulated, and it should be consistently echoed in numerous ways in all contexts, not just here in America. It is important for businesses to take this message global. The companies represented in this room are major multi-national corporations with operations all around the globe. Thus, I would like to offer three areas of engagement to advance our shared interest of equality for all.

1) Global Equality Fund: The first is the Global Equality Fund is a public-private partnership that brings together a strong alliance of governments, corporations and foundations dedicated with the shared vision of advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons around the world.

Since its launch, the Fund has provided more than $20 million in assistance to organizations in more than 50 countries. Our investments in civil society organizations have helped promote nondiscriminatory access to public services, including healthcare; prevent and respond to violence targeted against LGBTI persons; increase access to justice and supporting legal reform; and strengthen institutional capacity and development of civil society organizations. These groups are brave and dedicated and deserve all the help we can provide them.

The Fund serves a force multiplier and is able to use the unparalleled U.S. diplomatic network to operate on-the-ground around the world, including in some of the most repressive environments. The Fund’s Partners meet regularly – in Washington, in New York, Stockholm, Sweden – and soon in Helsinki, Finland. We engage with frontline activists on how we can continue to support their work, identify areas of engagement, and network. We’ve found that we can do more together, and hence I encourage your business to take a look at partnering with us through the Global Equality Fund. And not only to demonstrate your commitment to LGBTI communities around the world but also to help make a real, tangible difference in the lives of many. The global movement is growing and it is strengthening despite the challenges – and the critical needs and demands outweigh the current funding available. We need to be behind them, supporting them. Just like here in the U.S., we know that the work of advocates will eventually lead to the social l change that we all want to see,- more tolerance, openness, and competition, and hence better business outcomes, and the Fund is one way in helping us to get there.

2) Beyond financial support, we also need your voice. A number of countries are considering anti-discrimination laws – in contexts such as the Philippines, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Other countries are taking positive steps as well – and they need to know that the corporate sector is behind them.

In addition, we need more voices to stand against draconian legislation – including voices that are making the business case as to why such steps are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, Kyrgyzstan is poised to pass a new law that would dramatically undercut the human rights of LGBTI persons. We can work with you to connect to activists and to advise on the right message and the right time to engage. And by your voice – we don’t always mean using the megaphone – we mean smart, strategic messaging – which is often delivered behind closed doors. We know that when the business sector lends its weight, governments listen. We stand ready to be a resource in this regard, and in fact are considering various models for consistent engagement, including a possible Equality Business Advisory Council.

In my travels, where possible, I make a point to meet with the private sector – to encourage the business and economic case for LGBTI inclusion as well as the importance of business to engage with government leaders and supporting civil society. Because in some cases, the business case is the most compelling argument with government leaders. Let’s use tourism as an example. With estimates that the LGBTI global tourism market is over $200 billion – both governments and businesses have a vested interest to create a safe environment for LGBTI travelers and the community at large. LGBTI travelers have the means to choose a destination where they not only safe but feel welcomed. Tourism economies will simply fail to grow if there is targeted discrimination, harassment and violence against a particular community, including the LGBTI community.

This is certainly a focus for countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica – in which the LGBTI community faces stigma, discrimination and harassment – and in my travels, I have seen nascent initiatives with the tourism and hospitality sectors, government officials and civil society to use the lure of the tourism market as an opportunity to push for LGBTI equality.

We hope to build on the efforts today, and other such efforts, to provide consistent and strategic engagement with the private sector – our goal is to provide a platform for exchanging ideas, to be a resource, to open up our network of activists and diplomats to all of you. Our thinking is still evolving in this area – and I look forward to having a conversation with you on this.

3) Creating an inclusive global work environment: And finally, our third area of proposed engagement is action within your companies to ensure that policies are truly reflective of the inclusivity the companies purport and how LGBTI inclusion in the workplace is influential in creating societal and cultural change. The more corporations integrate LGBTI persons within their leadership, the quicker these societal transformations will be encouraged. We have seen the impact of business leaders coming out, bringing increased visibility and awareness to the issues affecting the LGBTI community. Organizations such as Out & Equal have helped encourage this progress and provide the tools and guidance for senior and emerging LGBTI leaders to succeed.

It is also important for businesses to understand the local cultures and legal frameworks of the countries where your employees work and live and how this could potentially affect them and your business. Are there specific laws that employees and staff should be aware of, especially during relocations or international assignments? Does your organization have an established policy for managing international assignments for employees who would be relocating with same-sex partners? If local laws are inconsistent with your company’s culture, how can you ensure inclusivity abroad? These are some of the questions on the minds of your fellow employees and should be on the minds of senior leaders. It is essential that companies provide equal treatment and protections for their LGBTI employees.

This isn’t a just matter of “it is the right thing to do.” From a pure business standpoint, it is smart business, it is smart economics and it is smart development. Countering LGBTI discrimination makes a corporation competitive by attracting and retaining top talent that helps drive market innovation and win the business and loyalty of discerning consumers. Simply, multinational corporations have a bottom-line incentive to create a workplace where LGBTI workers feel accepted, valued and free to be who they are.


As you can see, LGBTI equality is not, and should not be, merely a political or diplomatic issue – the promotion of the dignity and human rights of LGBTI persons affects all of us. While I certainly recognize the important responsibility governments have in fostering change and equal protection for all, it is clear that in our interconnected and interdependent world, it is the responsibility of all of us – governments, civil society and business – working together to take a strong stand against discrimination and injustice. It is critical that we see this multi-sectoral partnership develop. Though meaningful change will take time, I am confident that our collective efforts will help communities around the world move beyond the stereotypes, stigma and ignorance that is holding them back and create an environment in which everyone is afforded the dignity, the freedom and the equality they rightfully deserve.

Thank you all for your attention this morning.