Keynote Remarks at LGBTI Pacific Youth Forum Dinner

Randy W. Berry
Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons 
Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Sydney, Australia
October 13, 2016

We recognize the traditional owners of this land. We pay our respects to elders past and present. To echo Geena, you are a good looking crowd this evening! And thank you Geena for that warm introduction. Geena, you are a true and remarkable leader in advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons, and of course transgender individuals in particular. Your public and visible leadership is an inspiration to all of us. Your experience demonstrates the power of personal strength, and the power of community as well.

What I’d like to do is outline the foundation of the U.S. government’s policy on global LGBTI rights issues, highlight a few pressing human rights concerns and offer suggestions about how we – governments and civil society – can move forward together.

For the United States, advancing an inclusive foreign policy that empowers and protects all people is fundamental to who we are as a nation. The United States was founded on fundamental principles of equality and freedom for all. These principles are aspirational, and of course we still have not achieved fully this promise of equality – but the founding principles have served as important guides as the United States defines itself and continues to define itself. At the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington last month, President Obama reminded us: “The very fact of this day does not prove that America is perfect, but it does validate the ideas of our founding, that this country born of change…can get better,” and he encouraged us to “draw strength from the changes that have taken place.” Collectively we have sought to build a stronger and more inclusive democracy, a process that has come with great struggle. Countless people have lost their lives and endured much hardship because of official barriers put in their way. We are inspired by those who have fought and are still fighting to remove these barriers.

We have learned that political and social change requires leadership. Susan B. Anthony, one of the many civil rights pioneers who led the women’s suffrage movement in the United States in the late 19th Century famously said: “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” While LGBTI persons are involved in the lawmaking process here in Australia, and in the United States, we know the situation is far different in many parts of the world. We need to do more to promote leadership of LGBTI persons while recognizing that this takes time. Anthony’s journey certainly wasn’t quick. She was arrested for voting in 1872. It wasn’t until 1920 that the U.S. Congress passed an amendment that enabled women to vote, fourteen years after Anthony’s death.

From the movement to advance equality for women, to abolishing slavery, to civil rights for African-Americans and others, we have learned painfully that social change is a long-term and evolving process that continues to this day. We all wish the movement for full equality would move faster – that change would happen more quickly, but in reality we know that true and lasting social change comes from within and must be nurtured through dialogue and debate with the goal of reaching eventual consensus.

This experience defines the foreign policy of the United States. We believe and know that when governments identify those at the margins of society and actually support their inclusion, they become stronger, more representative, more viable and more secure. Secretary Kerry affirmed this idea when he said: “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.”

We’ve spent the day discussing the human rights challenges many of you face to live freely, openly and without discrimination or fears of violence. I am especially concerned about the violence that occurs globally and in the Pacific Islands region. Before arriving here I read about the tragic loss of Jeanine Tuivaiki (TU-VA-KIKI), who reportedly committed suicide in Samoa in June of this year. Her death is tragic, and we know an investigation is ongoing, but equally upsetting is the way the story was captured in the press. Many media outlets used incorrect pronouns to describe Ms. Tuivaiki (TU-VA-KIKI), and we condemn the publication of a graphic picture of the manner of her death. I know government officials in Samoa have spoken out and also expressed alarm at this incident, which is a positive step. In addition to this great loss, I have also seen reports of other incidents in the regional as well.

These incidents – the cases that are reported and we know about – are part of a larger global trend. LGBTI persons and transgender persons are facing rising levels of violence, including in my own country. Through my travels, I have learned that LGBTI persons subjected to violence are often re-victimized through abuse or harassment by law enforcement authorities as they seek redress and safety. As a consequence, violent crimes against LGBTI persons frequently go unreported. The Trans Murder Monitoring Project, which collects reports of homicides of transgender persons in all regions, lists 2,115 murders in 65 countries. This is equivalent globally to a murder every two days. In responding to these incidents, we are up against long-term challenges. And we are up to confronting them. The United Nations and other multilateral bodies, including the Council of Europe and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, have condemned violence targeting LGBTI persons and urged governments to do more to provide protection.

In the U.S., we are taking steps to try to reduce levels of violence, such as providing support for law enforcement sensitivity training, but we should all be doing more together.

The second pressing human rights concern I’d highlight this evening is the need for all of us to build allies in solidarity with LGBTI persons. LGBTI persons in this region and globally experience bullying, violence, and difficulties in accessing health care and responding to stigma and discrimination. Violence and discrimination are core human rights issues that not only impact LGBTI persons but also members of other vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, members of racial and ethnic minority groups and women at risk of gender-based violence. Hence the need for solidarity is even greater. As Special Envoy, I work to raise awareness of these problems, build coalitions including with business as a means of broadening the set of stakeholders engaged.

Discriminatory laws, along with continued harassment and violence against members of the LGBTI community, are detrimental to business and economic development. They deny businesses the talent they need, risk the safety of their employees, and jeopardize productive economic relationships that can advance corporate interests globally. A 2014 World Bank study closely examined the effects of LGBTI exclusion in India and found that the cost of stigma and discrimination – including health disparities and workplace discrimination – against LGBTI people in India, amounted to lower output in India’s economy.

And another study produced by UCLA’s Williams Institute and USAID concluded that economies that better protect rights for LGBT people – including decriminalizing same-sex consensual conduct, and implementing nondiscrimination laws – actually produce a higher GDP per capita. According to the study, each additional measure of protection is associated with a 3% increase in GDP per capita.

The business case for LGBTI inclusion is receiving more and more public attention. In February 2016, the human rights of LGBTI persons made the official agenda at the World Economic Forum. Vice President Biden spoke passionately about the important role the business community plays in combatting discrimination, stating “When you speak up, you change the terms of the debate. . . You actually put governments on notice.”

My staff and I are working closely within businesses to identify countries of concern where we think the private sector would have a particular added value in advancing the rights of LGBTI persons. Of course, this depends on the industry, context and political dynamics. In some instances, 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 feel safe but are welcomed. Tourism economies will simply fail to grow if there is targeted discrimination, harassment and violence against members of a particular community, including the LGBTI community. I would think that this line of thinking would appeal to leaders in this region and other regions as well. .

We see many opportunities ahead. As I said earlier today, our hope is that this Forum is a start of a process where we can all work together more regularly. I also mentioned that two of my colleagues from the Department of State who are here with us tonight will be continuing to travel in the region, and their next stop is Suva, where they will be meeting with community groups and other stakeholders directly.

I also hope we can continue our dialogue with like-minded governments, including Australia and New Zealand, who are both members of the Equal Rights Coalition, a newly formed coalition of like-minded governments committed to equal protection for LGBTI persons. The Coalition is made up of over 31 governments worldwide, with Australia being the most recent to join. Through this Coalition, we aim to continue to engage in this region and globally.

Australia is also the newest member to become a partner government of the Global Equality Fund, which is a growing family of over 20 governments and private sector partners determined to support positive change in countries across the globe. By 2015, the Fund supported more than 100 civil society organizations in over 80 countries in some of the most challenging environments. Through Australia’s contribution as well as the generosity of other Partners, including the U.S., the Fund will soon launch two new initiatives to support research on transgender persons and their rights in the Pacific Islands, and secondly to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations working to address violence and discrimination targeting LGBTI persons in the region. We expect these new initiatives will inspire and empower both policy makers and most importantly local communities.

In closing, I’d like to return to the lines I quoted earlier from Susan B. Anthony, who again said “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” We know the truth of this statement, and we also know the time required to make this truth a reality. President Obama echoed this sentiment recently by stating “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments. Sometimes two steps forward, one step back, compelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens.”

Let us keep moving towards the truth of protecting LGBTI persons on the basis of equality and with dignity, no matter how long it takes. And let’s move forward to together. Thank you.