Advancing the Human Rights of Transgender Persons

Randy W. Berry
Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons 
6th European Transgender Council Anniversary Gala Dinner
Bologna, Italy
June 4, 2016

It is an absolute pleasure and honor to be here with all of you this evening, in this beautiful city, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Transgender Europe and the 6th European Transgender Council. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Randy Berry, and I am the United States Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.

First, thank you to Transgender Europe, Council Members, and our host organization, Movimento Identità Transessuale (MIT), and all of your colleagues and partners here this evening for welcoming me and giving me time to speak. I know you have a busy program, with lots of business to accomplish, and of course lots to celebrate as well. As I know it is just me and a possibly a few others keeping you from dinner, I will keep my remarks brief. Tonight I’d like to introduce you to my role as Special Envoy and the work the United States Department of State is doing to advance the human rights of LGBTI persons, and then discuss a few key areas of focus. I hope my office will be able to partner with this community of leaders to achieve our shared goal – the full recognition of and respect for the human rights of transgender persons.

At the outset, I also want to state why I’ve traveled here to be with all of you. As you know, transgender persons face very particular and acute human rights challenges. This group is well aware of the high rates of violence affecting trans communities and individuals. We also know the difficulties and denials that transgender persons face in accessing basic services such as healthcare, housing, employment and education, as well as in securing identity documents that correspond with their gender. In my travels I’ve witnessed first-hand the struggle for respect for human rights, basic awareness, and the ability of all trans and gender non-conforming persons to live with dignity, free from fear and harm. My goal here at this conference is to learn from you, to listen, to discuss what steps we should and should not be taking, and to ensure that the work the United States Government is doing to promote human rights is fully inclusive and respectful of the needs of transgender persons, as defined by trans communities, themselves.

Role of Special Envoy

It has been just over a year since Secretary Kerry designated me as the first-ever U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. In that time, I have traveled to 42 countries in every region of the world. I’ve been deeply inspired on these visits, mainly in my meetings with civil society organizations who courageously work every day to advance the human rights of members of the LGBTI community in some of the most repressive environments. On these visits, wherever possible, I meet with transgender activists, and have learned that, even with acutely limited resources, transgender persons and their allies are achieving a lot, and in many places, leading the way for others.

Human Rights of Transgender Persons

As I mentioned at the outset, we are very aware of the fact that transgender persons face unique challenges – and part of my job is to make sure we are doing everything we can do to respond to these challenges. Building on what we’ve already achieved, my presence here with all of you is hopefully just a first step in a more comprehensive approach to promoting the human rights of transgender persons. You may ask, “why would the United States be interested in such a role?” After all, we all know the U.S. has considerable challenges at home on this issue. The answer is that we have learned painfully from our history that when a group of people are excluded or marginalized – simply for being who they are – broader society is negatively impacted. American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. famously said an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustices faced by transgender individuals set us all back. And we know that when we all are able to achieve our full human potential, free from fear, intimidation, and violence, we as nations become more just, and more prosperous. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed this theme in saying, and I quote, “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.”

One of my greatest concerns is the violence I see impacting the transgender persons on a daily basis – which comes in many forms, and is of course a serious problem in the United States as well. We as a government, together with other governments, need to resolve and prevent this problem from happening in the first instance. I was deeply saddened to learn about the recent death of leading transgender activist, Alisha, in Pakistan. As all of you know, this case was widely reported in the media, and reminded me of the many other cases that likely go unreported in all regions of the world. Transgender Europe’s own Transrespect vs. Transphobia monitoring project reports that between 2008 and 2014, killings of 1,612 transgender or gender-variant persons have been documented in 62 countries, including 90 killings in 13 European countries such as Italy, Russia, Hungary, Turkey and others. These reports make visible the broader global trend of widespread abuses faced by the LGBTI community. I am also aware of the high rates of suicide impacting trans communities. In the U.S., the National Trans Discrimination Survey found that 41% of transgender persons attempted suicide, compared to 1.4% of the general population. What a heart-wrenching difference. This again reminds us of the cumulative and unrelenting impact of stigma, marginalization, and violence on individuals, communities, and again, ultimately, on all people. We must do more, and we must do more now.

What We Are Doing

At the U.S. Department of State, we have taken steps to advance a human rights policy that is fully inclusive of LGBTI persons, including transgender persons. In 2010, the Department established new procedures for changing the sex listed on transgender Americans’ passports. The new procedures aim to streamline the process and simplify requirements to ensure greater dignity and privacy for transgender applicants. Gender-affirming surgery is no longer a prerequisite for changing the passport. The Department together with United States International Development Agency, USAID, also supported the Pan American Health Organization – PAHO – to complete in 2014 a comprehensive Blueprint for Access to Health Services for Transgender Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean. And on the occasion of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we issued guidance to our Embassies and Consulates on the advancing the human rights of transgender persons, asking our officers in all embassies to undertake specific outreach efforts to meet with transgender communities, to understand their needs, and to include their concerns, separately and explicitly, in our annual human rights reports.

Through the Global Equality Fund, which is a public-private partnership, we are privileged to support groups like Transgender Europe, to build a stronger network of organizations documenting and responding to human rights abuses faced by transgender individuals across Europe, and elsewhere. We recognize Transgender Europe’s leadership and vision, not only here in Europe but globally. We read your reports with great interest, and learn from you how to do our own work with greater understanding and humility.

Beyond support to groups such as Transgender Europe, through our embassies, we are also providing small amounts of funding to local, nascent and emerging groups in all corners of the world to advance the human rights of LGBTI persons. This type of small grant funding we believe is particularly important for the transgender community, as we know groups working on transgender issues are often underfunded and small in staff size, but large in terms of passion, vision, and ultimately, impact.

Our colleagues at the USAID are also supporting programs to advance the human rights of transgender persons, including a program in one Latin American country to help transgender women secure identification documents as well as participate in leadership initiatives.

We Want To Be Doing More

These are just a few steps we are taking – but we want to be doing more. When we look at the world – we see both great need and numerous opportunities to bring governments, the private sector, religious communities and others together around shared values of equal protection and dignity for all. I have found in my travels that while cultural and religious norms vary, responsible leaders around the world agree that violence and discrimination are never justified. We’ve seen leadership on transgender issues from a range of diverse governments in the world – including Argentina, Malta, Vietnam, Bolivia, Nepal, just to name a few. We want to capitalize upon this leadership, and bring more and new governments together to learn from examples of progress, and to hear directly from leaders like all of you gathered here, today. We also want to ensure that the issues you are confronting are taken up by a broader set of stakeholders with new resources to commit, including the business sector, development agencies and others. We know, for example, that a persistent problem for transgender persons is access to safe and secure livelihoods. I intend to discuss this problem with the business community and development agencies to explore what more we can do together to ensure that equal livelihood opportunities exist for transgender persons. Hopefully this will lead to more secure and safe employment opportunities, and help break the cycle of violence. This is just one of many ideas. But our underlying principle is that in any steps we or others take, we must take them together, with the community, with all of you and many others as well.

Thank you again for taking time at your celebration to hear me speak. Let me offer a final note of congratulations on all that you have already accomplished through your work, and gratitude for all you have taught and shared with me. I hope this is the first of many opportunities to speak together. I look forward to more.

Thank you.