A Conversation With U.S. Special Envoy Jessica Stern

Thursday, July 21, 2022
/ Erik McGregor / Contributor / Getty Images

U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex (LGBTQI+) Persons, U.S. Department of State


Chief Correspondent and Primary Substitute Anchor, PBS NewsHour; CFR Member

U.S. Special Envoy Jessica Stern discusses the global state of LGBTQI+ rights, findings from the release of the first annual Interagency Report on the Implementation of the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World, and the importance of U.S. leadership in advancing these rights.

NAWAZ: Thank you so much. Good morning, everyone. I’m Amna Nawaz of the PBS NewsHour.

I am delighted to be here in conversation with Jessica Stern, the U.S. special envoy to advance the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons at the U.S. Department of State. Special Envoy Stern was appointed to this role by President Biden in September of 2021. Prior to joining the State Department, Special Envoy Stern led Outright Action International, it was a leading LGBTQI+ human rights organization, as its executive director for ten years. She’s previously worked at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Special Envoy Jessica Stern, welcome. Thank you for being here.

STERN: Thank you so much, Amna. And thank you to CFR for organizing today’s conversation.

NAWAZ: Just a reminder to our members, I’ll be putting my own questions to the special envoy for about thirty minutes or so. We will then open up the conversation to field member questions. And as a reminder, the meeting is on the record and will be posted to the CFR website and to the YouTube channel.

So, Special Envoy Stern, let’s just start with your role, which has a very broad mandate, I think it’s fair to say. It was a position created by President Obama in 2015. It was really the only position like it in the world at the time. But it’s also a position that’s been vacant since 2017 until you stepped in. So let’s just start with your roles. How are you measuring success? How are you defining it now that you’re in this role?

STERN: I’m very happy that this role exists. Let me start out by saying that. I’m one of just four special envoys for LGBTQI+ rights in the world. So this position represents a growing trend in foreign policy to recognize that good foreign policy is inclusive foreign policy. And that means having senior experts on LGBTQI rights.

My role is very big. I think the biggest challenge that I have is not having enough hours in the day. I lead on LGBTQI+ related policy for the Department of State, which means I have a direct line to the secretary of state as an advisor on these issues, and I lead on these policy issues for all 77,000 employees of the Department of State worldwide. On a given day, what does that look like? Well, I come into work and I read all of the cables that came in overnight with LGBTQI-related content. I might get in touch with ambassadors to respond to some of the breaking news to make sure they have support and they have, you know, an understanding of how to respond most effectively.

I develop policies and rules where applicable. I provide technical assistance across the Department of State. And I’m also looking to mainstream this agenda, because while it’s very important to have a special envoy for LGBTQI rights, with so many employees LGBTQI inclusion really has to be everyone’s responsibility. So depending upon the day I can work with any number of our regions or countries, but it’s always busy.

NAWAZ: I’m really curious about the transition into government for you. I mean, you spent so long in advocacy, right? Leading and pushing the system, so to speak, from the outside. And then you moved inside the system, and lead in that capacity. So what has that transition been like for you? What did you learn that surprised you?

STERN: It’s a hard transition. I’m not going to lie. It’s exciting and thrilling. I think I’m a really good government official because I spent so long as a human rights defender. So, you know, I spent more than twenty years with some of the world’s leading human rights organizations. In fact, I don’t know how I would do my job if I didn’t have that training from human rights movements. I can’t think of a week that goes by where I’m not reaching out to the world’s leading human rights activists, whether it’s at the country level, the regional level, or the global level, to get an inside story, the information that’s not really in the media, to get the community perspective, and to do something I think is incredibly hard, which is to not only be briefed on the problems, of which there are many, but to speak with the experts on the front lines about what the solutions are.

And so I think my training set me up well for that. But I will say, moving into government I think my biggest surprise when I first got here was how extensive the clearance process is. For anyone who’s worked in government, you’ll know that, you know, before a government official says anything publicly there is a long list of people that have to clear your remarks. And as a former executive director, I was used to being the last word. (Laughter.) So I could pretty much say whatever I wanted. Not quite, I had a board that I was accountable to. But it is very different working in such a large system. But I think the rewards are enormous.

NAWAZ: Have you found that you have had to change the way you communicate because of that kind of clearance system?

STERN: I think I probably have a little bit. Not the substance or the values, but you have to bring a technical precision to every word choice when you’re in government, because when you speak you are literally delivering U.S. government policy. You’re either summarizing existing policy and reminding people of what’s on the books, or in some cases you may be breaking new policy and informing people about new government commitments. So there is a precision that I seek to uphold in my voice now, but the values haven’t changed. And the values are, as ever, LGBTQI rights are human rights, and everyone should support that fundamental concept.

NAWAZ: So let’s talk about sort of the global landscape that you’re working in, some of the problems you mentioned you’ve worked to identify in your years of advocacy, and that you’re now in a position from a government role to be able to change policy on. There’s still, what, some seventy-odd countries around the world that criminalize homosexual identity or status or conduct. We’ve seen, I think it’s fair to say, a rise in authoritarian leaders and tendencies around the world that often coincides on a crackdown on that behavior and on human rights in general. When you look at the landscape you’re working in, is it getting better or is it getting worse?

STERN: I always struggle with this question and it’s probably the question I’ve answered the most times over the past twenty years. The truth is, I think it’s getting—what do I really think? I think that the trend is positive, but the setbacks are enormous. And that’s just sort of the practical reality. So I just marched in pride parades in Lithuania and the United States. And they were so uplifting and so energizing. And there were so many people who turned out in solidarity with LGBTQI people that were not personally LGBTQI. They came because they wanted to express their commitment to a full universal human rights agenda. They came because someone that they love is LGBTQI. Or they came because it was fun.

I saw a lot of kids at pride parades. They didn’t really know what it was about. They knew that somebody gave them a flag and there were a lot of people playing music and they got to dance along the street wearing stickers. And I see that as an incredibly positive thing, because when we’re teaching children a message of acceptance from a very early age, it changes their lives. It changes who they become as adults and how comfortable they feel with themselves and the world that they build. On the other hand, LGBTQI+ rights movements are increasingly seen as formidable. And the consequence of that growth in LGBTQI rights movements’ political power is that there’s backlash. And the backlash against LGBTQI people, I think, is often moving faster than we are accumulating laws, policies, and social acceptance to fully recognize our humanity.

And probably over the course of this conversation we’ll go into some examples, but I will say the backlash is swift. It is violent. And it is far-reaching. And it is very much tied to what you said, Amna, in your setup, which is that the rise of authoritarianism and the decrease in democratic institutions worldwide really impacts those who were vulnerable previously, and now are at even greater risk.

NAWAZ: Is that backlash mostly being driven, from what you’ve seen, sort of from a groundswell? Is it cultural and social or is it official governmental policy and laws, that kind of thing?

STERN: I find that the backlash comes in many different forms. But there’s no question that governments and political parties are weaponizing LGBTQI issues. So some of us may have followed the recent national elections in Hungary. And, you know, there was—there were five questions put up for a referendum on the same day as the national election. Now, they could have been any five questions. They could have been about clean drinking water, or access to education. They could have been about whether you believe that all crosswalks should be painted blue. But all five of the questions were, in one way or another, related to whether or not you see LGBTQI people as deserving of equal rights under the law.

So you sit back and you ask yourself: What was the strategy? What was the political strategy of putting those five questions up for a vote? It wasn’t really about LGBTQI Hungarians. They’re a relatively small population. They’re fighting for equal rights. They’re neighbors and colleagues and coworkers. But the five questions were designed because there is a perception that having LGBTQI issues on the ballot would drive conservative voters to the election polls, which would have an outsized impact in the national election. And so I think it’s really important to say that in many countries it’s actually political parties and government officials that are drivers of homophobia, transphobia, interphobia, and biphobia. It’s not coming from people’s parents or necessarily their religious groups or their neighbors. It’s coming from those who have power and want to hold onto it.

NAWAZ: So let me ask you specifically about Lithuania, which you mentioned, because it’s one of the few countries you’ve visited in the few months that you’ve been on the job already. And they just hosted, I think I remember reading, it was one of the biggest pride marches ever in any of the Baltic nations. And there’s a very strict law on the books there banning sharing of any information that they say, quote, “expressed contempt for family values.” I think something like ten thousand people, though, came to Lithuania to march in a pride parade. And I think the last time I read that they hosted a similar parade back in 2020, it was only a few hundred. So clearly there’s progress. There’s mainstreaming. There’s acceptance, as you noted in your remarks that you saw. And when you talk about progress that has been made, how did they get there? I mean, is what you saw in Lithuania replicable in other nations?

STERN: That’s a really interesting question. How did Lithuania achieve the progress for LGBTQI rights that they have today? I think there’s a few strategies that have been fundamental not only to Lithuania but, we could argue, are crucial in many contexts. So one strategy they’ve deployed that I see as a crucial ingredient to success in any country is they have strong LGBTQI rights organizations. That is essential. So I met with the organizers of pride, I met with the LGBTQI advocates, I met with the arts and culture people. They have diverse LGBTQI civil society that are asserting their presence and changing how Lithuania understands itself. And that’s crucial.

They also have at least one openly gay member of parliament, which I think is a really important sign of forward momentum, because when LGBTQI can serve openly in government, government is better. Government is better when government is made up of people who represent the country, in all of its diversity. There are also mainstream allies and political parties that have increasingly recognized that LGBTQI+ rights are part of a broader progressive and human rights agenda. In fact, I met with a minister of justice who told me that she got her start as a lawyer helping transgender people change their name legally on identity documents. I mean, what an incredible thing to have a minister of justice who has firsthand experience providing direct legal services to trans people and others who’ve been so historically marginalized.

So you see that government itself is changing. But now, I would say, there’s something particular to Lithuania that needs to be named. In the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries like Lithuania are saying: We actually don’t want to be aligned with the conservative and anti-LGBTQI values that Putin espouses and is increasingly imposing on his people and using as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine. So I think there are many in Lithuania that are leaning more towards the West, leaning more towards the EU, leaning more towards a universal human rights agenda as a way of not only saying what matters to them is Lithuanians, but also what matters to them as they seek to reinforce the value of their national sovereignty.

NAWAZ: Because you mentioned Russia, I feel compelled to ask—of course, there’s incredibly punitive anti-LGBTQI laws on the books there. And Brittney Griner, who is arguably an icon here in America for the community, is still in detention there. And LZ Granderson, I’m sure as you know, a columnist for the L.A. Times, wrote recently that because Griner is queer and imprisoned, that her detention should be the subject of intense focus. Really saying it’s not just about her detention, it’s the fact that she is subject the vulnerable to much harsher treatment and punishment because of her identity. How worries are you about her safety, being held prisoner in a nation that’s so hostile to homosexuality?

STERN: I’ll start by saying I’m concerned about all American citizens who are unlawfully detained abroad, full stop. And within that broader understanding of the vulnerabilities of Americans, I would note that Brittney’s identities as a lesbian, as an African America, as a woman, place her at heightened risk. That is true in Russia and that is true in most carceral situations around the world. One thing that I’m really happy about is I’ve been working behind the scenes with the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs, who’s leading the U.S. government’s response to Brittney Griner’s detention.

And he and his team have a very strong analysis of Brittney Griner’s specific vulnerabilities. He and his team are in regular communication with Brittney’s most trusted inner circle. I went to his office, and I saw a photo of him and his team, I think, in the living room with Brittney’s family. So I know that there’s, you know, regular communication. Of course, the family also has to, you know, advocate and hold the U.S. government accountable, as any family would. But what I’ve been really glad to see is the high level of attention that Brittney Griner’s case has gotten.

So I hope I’m getting this right, but I know that the secretary of state spoke with Brittney Griner’s wife personally. The national security advisor spoke with her wife two if not three times personally. And both the president and the vice president have spoken with Brittney Griner’s wife. It’s just to say, that is—that is a very high level of political commitment to acknowledging Brittney Griner’s vulnerability and the political commitment of the U.S. to bringing her home safely and quickly.

NAWAZ: Let me ask you too about some of the places around the world you work and you visited, where I think it’s fair to say the setbacks are enormous, as you characterized them. You went to Malaysia recently as well, right? There are very harsh state laws that punish same-sex relations and gender nonconformity there. When you land, for example, in Malaysia or anywhere else where there’s similar laws on the books, what is your message? What is your mission? What do you hope to accomplish in the time that you’re on the ground there?

STERN: It varies depending upon the country. You know, as it just so happened in the Malaysia visit I didn’t meet with any government officials, but I met with many LGBTQI activists and their organizations. I met with other governments that care about LGBTQI issues in Malaysia. I met with the Bar Association and the National Human Rights Commission. So I looked for places to engage. And my message is simple: The U.S. puts human rights at the center of four foreign policy. It’s not the only center, but it is of great importance to our president and to our secretary of state. And when we say human rights, we mean all people.

And I think sometimes that message is really essential to hear because, as you note, Malaysia criminalizes homosexuality, it criminalizes so-called cross-dressing. And the government in recent years has not been afraid of applying those laws. It is not an easy place to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex. In fact, if you are queer in Malaysia, more often than not you live with your family because if you’re not independently wealthy or you’re not married in a heterosexual marriage, the expectation is that you’re going to live with your family. So how do you, as an LGBTQI person, have the adult life that you want, when the expectation is that you’ll always live with your family? And how much harder is that for queer women and gender nonconforming people, who often don’t have the same pathways to economic independence because of the intersections of sexism with homophobia or transphobia? So it is a really hard place.

And I think one of the things that I just try to do is to make people feel seen, to let them know the U.S. government is listening, and, most important, to make sure that the U.S. government knows directly from community members where they think we can have a positive impact on the work they are trying to achieve. So one really important lesson I learned when I went to Malaysia is that the prime minister had responded to a question from parliament in late 2021. He was asked: Does conversion therapy exist in Malaysia? And he went on the record and he responded by saying, we perform conversion therapy. We perform conversion therapy in state-run hospitals. And we’ve documented over 1,733 cases where we’ve performed interventions for so-called conversation therapy.

This is quite shocking. And it actually means that Malaysia is perhaps the only or one of the only governments on the planet that has gone on the record to say they willingly uphold this practice and perform it on its citizens. So when I go to a country like Malaysia, part of what I’m trying to do is understand what are the most egregious human rights abuses and what can the U.S. do to help stop them.

NAWAZ: How effective do you think a U.S. official—you, or anyone else right now—can be in this space right now? And I ask because this idea of, you know, human rights being a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy has obviously come under a lot of scrutiny, particularly after the president’s recent trip to the Middle East. When President Biden goes to a place like Saudi Arabia, which is one of the most dangerous places to—for LGBTQI+ people, what does that do for you? Does that undermine your work? Does that make it harder for you to do your job?

STERN: Well, if I thought that I could only be effective being in an institution that’s solely focused on LGBTQI rights, I would have stayed the executive director of Outright International. So the answer to the question is, the power that the U.S. government has is unrivaled. We have more consulates and embassies around the world than any other country in the world. How we deploy that power really matters. You know, as I went around, I would meet with other likeminded governments. And often I would find out just the simple fact that the size of their embassies at the country level was a tiny fraction of the size of the U.S. government’s embassy. So our capacity to monitor human rights abuses, identify egregious patterns of violence, and potentially do something, is not only crucially important but it has a ripple effect on other governments that profess to uphold human rights. So what we say and do matters.

What we say and do matters even when we’re imperfect. And I just want to emphasize this concept. There is a lot of work that we have to do in the United States. There’s work that we have to do for LGBTQI rights, for racial justice, for gender-based violence and discrimination—the list goes on and on. But I’ve often heard the secretary of state we strive to be a more perfect union. It doesn’t mean we think of ourselves as a perfect union. It means that is the goal we are working towards. And one of the things that I think makes me credible when I go around the world in this context in some ways is the fact that I don’t sugarcoat what’s happening in the United States. You know, I walk into meetings with the government of Vietnam, or the government of Thailand. And they know everything about us, just like we know everything about them, right?

NAWAZ: What is it you say to them? How do you characterize what’s going on in the U.S. to other nations?

STERN: Well, you know, they know about LGBTQI issues here. So I just start by acknowledging them, right? I say—you know, I start by saying you know what happening on LGBTQI rights in the U.S. You know we’re not perfect and you know we don’t have all the answers. But you also know that we decriminalized homosexuality long ago. You know that we have equal marriage on the books. You know that we have third gender options on our passport. You know that we just came out with a huge packet of information at the release of the one-year report on the Presidential Memorandum on LGBTQI Rights, where you can read over 150 pages of examples of impact.

And so what I say is, we don’t—we are a work in progress. And I actually think that gives a kind of credibility, because there’s no country on the planet that doesn’t have anti-LGBTQI discrimination or violence. Not even the Netherlands, which has the world’s oldest LGBTQI organization. Homophobia and transphobia exist everywhere. And it’s idealistic to think that it doesn’t. So a way to be more effective is to start from the basic understanding that LGBTQI are dehumanized and we need to put an end to that. And the thing that we have to do is to work together to identify solutions. And actually, it’s been—I think it’s been really successful, because instead of U.S. coming in as an imperial nation saying we have all the answers, it actually establishes a more level footing.

NAWAZ: Since this role was created there have been other nations that have followed suite—a handful, right, who have a similar role in their countries. And I’m curious what you’ve learned from them. Like, are there other nations that are doing things or leading on this issue in ways you think the U.S. should be paying attention to and could be or should be doing as well.

STERN: Absolutely. I think the U.S. has a lot to learn from other countries. So, for example, this week—I think it might have been yesterday or the day before—Greece banned unnecessary surgeries on intersex persons at the federal level. This is incredibly important. They’re trying to make sure that people who have sex and chromosomal variations are not subjected to nonconsensual surgeries. We could learn a lot from Greece. The government of Malta, up until Greece maybe overtook them, had the world’s highest standard for treatment for intersex persons. The government of Argentina established the world’s golden standard for transgender rights, based on the principle of self-determination, years before the U.S. got there.

And then, of course, there are many countries in the world that have public funding for LGBTQI NGOs at levels that we can only begin to imagine. The governments of Sweden and the Netherlands, for instance, give roughly $30 million a year to specific LGBTQI organizations. I might not be getting that number exactly right, but the number is impressive and influences our understanding of what fully financing an LGBTQI-inclusive agenda looks like. So when I look around the world, I think the U.S. actually needs to catch up with a lot of other governments on LGBTQI rights. And I hope we’ll get there, potentially even over the next couple of years.

NAWAZ: Do you see that happening anytime soon? I’m curious of your sort of assessment of where we are, because we should note as you and I speak here, you know, the last year has seen an unprecedented number of anti-trans bills making their ways through state legislatures across the country. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are debating whether or not to codify same-sex marriage rights in America. And dozens and dozens of lawmakers actually voted against that in this week alone. So where are we? I mean, do we—I know you mentioned that you don’t feel, correct me if I’m wrong, the U.S. needs the moral authority necessary to lead on this. That we have to show we’re doing the work. But how are we doing ourselves?

STERN: Well, I’m not an expert in domestic LGBTQI movements. And my mandate actually doesn’t cover domestic LGBTQI issues. I solely work in the State Department. So I look externally. But I wasn’t trying to say that we shouldn’t—we shouldn’t take the moral high ground when and where we’re doing a good job. I actually think that where we’re upholding the principles of LGBTQI rights we absolutely should invoke that as a moral issue. You know, when I look at the strategies that are used to dehumanize LGBTQI people around the world, LGBTQI people are often posited as anti-family, anti-nation, criminal, sinners. These are really effective ways of dehumanizing and othering LGBTQI+ people.

We have some of these tropes in the United States too. You know, when I was growing up in New York in the ’80s the traditional values debate was alive and well. And I wondered, is there room for me, like, a budding lesbian? You know, can I have a place in this world? I think where we are as a country is in a moment of enormous transition and transformation. And I think the brutal attacks on transgender youth and transgender adults, the questioning of the validity of equal marriage for all Americans, and even the debates about whether LGBTQI issues have any place in a curriculum or in a school is a reflection of the desire of most Americans for change.

Most Americans know someone who’s LGBTQI or other. They care about them and they want to see them protected. And the ways that LGBTQI people are being targeted is ultimately akin to the ways that critical race theory is being targeted, the ways that mask mandates and vaccines have been politicized. And really, I think what we need to do is go back to the core concept that human rights belong to all people. And if we want to see a better country, right now the thing to do is to not despair. It’s to double down on the fight.

NAWAZ: I think that’s a message we could all use right now across a number of issues. (Laughs.) We have reached the halfway point in this discission. So at this point, I would love to invite members to join our conversation with your own questions. Just a reminder, the meeting is on the record. It’s going to be posted to the CFR website and YouTube channel. Laura, if you are still there, if you can just remind folks how to ask a question, please.

OPERATOR: (Gives operating instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Fred Hochberg.

Q: Hi, there. Nice to meet you, Jessica.

I was an early supporter of Igelhurk (ph), the previous name, and actually went to Russia with Julie Dorf and Barney Frank to advocate when they decriminalized homosexuality initially in their constitution. I served as Ex-Im chair under President Obama for eight years, and I’m curious whether you’ve had success recruiting other agencies because it was easy for me, as an openly gay man, to do that advocacy when I would go abroad. But have you had success with people at Commerce, State, and other agencies to sort of also carry the water? Because that would actually amplify your message. I’m just curious how that’s been.

STERN: Hi, Fred. It’s really nice to hear your voice. I think we have met at least once, but that was in the pre-pandemic times. And that feels like it was basically centuries ago. (Laughter.) You know, this is CFR, so I know you all are wonky and so I can refer you to wonky resources. Fred has almost queued up the perfect question for me. President Biden in his early days in office issued a Presidential Memorandum on LGBTQI+ Inclusion in U.S. foreign Policy and Foreign Assistance. And I recommend everyone review it. It came out on February 4th of 2021. It establishes the framework not only for my work, but for all foreign assistance and foreign policy agencies. And it’s really important because it’s not just the job of the LGBTQI envoy to do this work. It’s actually the job of all of us to do the work.

And in honor of that memorandum, we issued a one-year report on progress under it. And we found examples from all the agencies. As Fred says, because if it’s just the Department of State doing this work, or just HHS doing this work, that’s not good enough. And there’s some really good examples that we learned from the reporting process, Fred. And I’ll just give you a couple of them right now. For one, we learned that the Department of Health and Human Services now ensures that its notice of funding award guidance includes guidance to support nondiscrimination. USAID reinstated a reporting mechanism to track overall foreign assistance, which advances LGBTQI inclusion. And the Department of Treasury is now looking at the safeguards framework at various international financial institutions, including the African and Asian Development Banks, to ensure that there are safeguard policies that create access for LGBTQI persons.

That being said, I think of the 130-page report, maybe half of it came from the Department of State. So that makes sense, because we’re lead foreign policy agency. But, you know, I hope that when we release the report in the coming year there’s more progress across all of the agencies.

NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Special Envoy. Thank you for the question, Fred.

Operator, I think we’re ready for the next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Ani Zonneveld.

Q: Hi. Good morning, Jessica. It’s nice to see you, and congratulations. My name is—for everyone else—my name is Ani Zonneveld. I’m the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values.

We’ve been advocating for LGBT rights in the context of Islam for fifteen years. And would it be helpful for you to have some of the human rights affirming religious and cultural language to use in discussing LGBT issues in Muslim countries, and their governments, given that we do have a history of being inclusive and we do have the theological language for you to utilize. And I’m wondering if that’s any help for you and your department. Thanks.

STERN: Ani, it’s so nice to hear your voice. And I love seeing that glamorous headshot of yours that pops up when you speak. I would love to see the language you have. That would be tremendously useful. We know that there are strong LGBTQI organizations and advocates in all countries, including Muslim majority countries. And we also know that they’re—that we need to be better in figuring out how to partner with Muslim organizations and Muslim leaders that believe in affirming the humanity of LGBTQI people. So maybe we can connect off this call and have a follow-up conversation.

NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Special Envoy. Ani, thank you for your question as well. Laura, we can move onto the next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Robert Kushen.

Q: Hi. I was also involved in supporting Igelhurk (ph) in the early days through the Open Society Foundation. (Laughs.) So shoutout to Igelhurk (ph).

I wanted to ask whether the U.S.—you see any role for the U.S. government in trying to counter the effects of private actors in the U.S. trying to influence anti-LGBTQI policy and law in other countries. And I did have in mind chiefly, although not exclusively, the very harmful impact of certain Evangelical churches in the U.S. that are actively pursuing a discriminatory agenda overseas. And, you know, I don’t know what the tools that are available are, but one that comes to mind, for example, is probing whether their activity might constitute lobbying, inconsistent with their tax-exempt status in the United States. Thanks.

STERN: Robert, it’s really nice to meet you. It seems like this is a meeting of a circle of old friends, whether we’ve directly met or not. I think that this is a tricky issue because, of course, the U.S. government supports free speech and assembly and association for all NGOs and religious leaders. And so there are some very careful lines that we have to respect. In my experience—first of all, I think the example that Robert cites about questioning whether there’s been a violation of the lobbying regulations, I think that is something that, in some cases, needs to be considered when there’s been incitement to violence and incitement to hatred that’s risen to an extreme level.

But there’s another point that Robert, I think, is alluding to, that’s really important. In many cases where we see anti-LGBTQI campaigns or legislation in other countries, they’re positioned as indigenous, anti-Western, homegrown, when in fact they’re utilizing talking points that come from right-wing American actors that are using the same talking points whether it’s in Eastern Europe or East Africa. And one of the strategies that I’ve found since I joined the U.S. government that is most effective is making obvious the ways that anti-LGBTQI rhetoric is often the product of Western imposition.

And that comes in twofold. Of course, there’s the history that most colonial laws in the world come as a result of—sorry—most sodomy laws in the world come as the result of colonialism. But then there’s the modern incarnation of this, where the talking points, the legal strategies, and often the funding for anti-LGBTQI initiatives is coming from U.S.-based and other Western conservative actors. So I think we need to expose those where they exist.

NAWAZ: Thank you for that. Robert, thank you for your question. Laura, let’s move to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Nichole Renee Phillips.

Q: Hello. Thank you for having this conversation. I’m Nichole Phillips, and I’m a professor at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

I have a question about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Of course, I have friends and—in relationships with those who identify as LGBTQIA. And with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I have listened to their concerns about the challenges to the rights that have been secured here in the United States for LGBTQIA persons. So I’m wondering if their concerns are valid. As well as, where you are situated now, how does the overturning of Roe v. Wade impact your conversations in other countries and nations around these rights?

STERN: Nichole, it’s nice to meet you. And thank you very much for your question. You know, as I mentioned, LGBTQIA issues in the United States—in fact, any human rights issue in the U.S.—is not within my mandate. It’s just the way our very large federal government is structured. So I focus on foreign policy. So the question of how valid are your friends’ concerns is beyond what I am mandated to talk about. But what I would say is, on your second question, how does Roe impact your conversations around LGBTQI rights internationally, on that I can tell you I have been questioned in almost every one of my conversations with colleagues around the world about the impact of Roe on my work.

And I think it’s because people understand that fundamentally when we’re talking about LGBTQI rights, we’re talking about addressing many of the root causes of discrimination and violence that make assumptions about who a woman or man should be, assuming that there’s a binary, and what level of decision-making authority we have over our own bodies. Whether it’s our ability to decide our own health outcomes, our own sexuality outcomes, our own gender expression. And what I would say is that the State Department is finding its way forward in this. That this is not—this is not where we were a month ago, but there is a commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all people—women, nonbinary people, LGBTQI people—and that continues.

And I think at its core, what I’m still able to emphasize is that—is that for us to have strong democracies, thriving economies, and safe world from a national security perspective, we’re all better off when we have the right to control what happens to our bodies.

NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Special Envoy. Nichole, thank you for your question as well. Laura, let’s move to the next one, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jody McBrien.

Q: Hi, Jessica. Thank you so very much for your presentation.

I am currently a fellow with CFR at the OECD in Paris. And I’m really proud to say that last month I published the first-ever educational policy working paper on LGBTQIA+ education policy for the OECD. However, my research for the past twenty years has been with refugees. And in the past two years, I’ve become particularly engaged with working on LGBTQIA refugee and asylum seeker issues. Been working with a man who is the president of an NGO who has worked around the world with LGBTQIA refugees and asylum seekers. And he’s been going to Poland frequently over the past couple months because of the unfortunate situation for LGBTQIA refugees and asylum seekers in a lot of Eastern European countries, where they are—they are coming from the Ukraine. And I’m just curious about your thoughts on helping LGBTQIA refugees and asylum seekers.

STERN: Jody, it’s really good to meet you. And congratulations on the publication of an education policy paper. I’ll have to check it out. Can I—may I ask you, were you speaking about working with a particular organization or a lone individual?

Q: Yeah. Actually, I’m working with Safe Place International.

STERN: Oh, OK. Great.

Q: I don’t know if you know it. And Justin Hilton is its founder.

STERN: OK, great. Well, I have—I have twofold responses. First, I just want to empathize that no one ever wants to become a refugee or asylum seeker. That is a pathway of last resort. And so I think it’s enormously important that we invest in supporting stable economies, stable democracies, stable governments, and safety for people in every country of the world, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, so that they’re not forced to flee their home. And I start from that point because I think the dehumanizing rhetoric that we often hear around refugees and asylum seekers assumes that—you know, casts some very negative stereotypes about them. And in my experience, LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers, they often have no other choice.

So what are the solutions? Well, one of the solutions is ensuring that no one ever has to leave their home because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. And I think a lot of my work is focused on trying to ensure that people don’t have to flee. So what does that look like? It means supporting the decriminalization of sodomy, it means supporting legal gender identity recognition laws, fighting for the rights of LGBTQI organizations to safely and legally operate. Fighting for the rights of LGBTQI to be represented in the media, so on and so forth.

But the second part of my answer is one about compassion. And I just want to say that I think our refugee and asylum policy is at its best when it is compassionate. And I’m very happy to say that since I joined the State Department, some of the people that I’ve worked with most closely are in the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration. And they have a very explicit focus on the vulnerabilities of LGBTQI people. And they work with a great deal of compassion.

And so I’ve been pleased to see that they have taken quite a number of steps—everything from convening roundtables with members of the LGBTQI community, to issuing grants specifically to create pathways for LGBTQI organizations to provide direct referrals to PRM for LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees, and really other creative funding initiatives, because this is a heightened priority. I don’t think it’s an easy area to fix. I think our refugee and asylum policy and system has issues that are bigger than just the LGBTQI community to grapple with. But I am happy to say that those that I’m working with are doing the work.

And, actually, going back to the one-year report, I saw that the Department of Homeland Services issued revised guidance to recognize informal equal marriages for the purposes of obtaining refugee or asylee status, even if they are not recognized in their countries of origin. So it’s a work in progress, but I’m happy to say the work is underway. Oh, I’m sorry. If I didn’t say Department of Homeland Security, that is what I meant.

NAWAZ: Thank you for that question, Jody. Special Envoy, thank you for your answer as well. Laura, let’s move onto the next one, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Dan Clanton.

Q: Hi. Good morning. Special Envoy Stern, thank you so much for talking with us. Amna, thank you so much for your dog.

NAWAZ: He’s enjoying this very much, you should know.

Q: I’m sure he is. I’d like to piggyback on your comment on the bases for LGBTQI+ discrimination. As a Bible scholar, I’m particularly interested in the claim that was made in one of the articles that CFR sent us to prepare for today. Paul Angelo and Dominic Bocci write that in some Catholic and Muslim-majority states with a history of authoritarianism, conservative interpretations of religious texts are often used to ostracize sexual minorities and justify discrimination against them. What I’m wondering is if you can comment on some of the ways that those of us committed to LGBTQI+ rights can address those scriptural interpretations. And as a liberal arts educator, I’m wondering if this could be a role that both domestic and foreign undergraduate institutions can play.

STERN: Dan, thanks so much for your question. And I’m so glad someone commented on Amna’s dog. I was wondering if we were boring your dog, Amna. But I’m glad to hear you think your dog is happy.

NAWAZ: I’m saving his questions for the end, don’t worry.

STERN: (Laughs.) OK, great. Dan, first of all, thank you so much for reading—doing the background readings. I can imagine that our authors might be on the call. I know at least one of them is. So it’s really nice to know that people took this seriously. I think that one of the most important ways to support LGBTQI people worldwide is to speak out with a religious voice to say, whether it’s Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever it is, that there are LGBTQI people of faith and LGBTQI scholars who recognize the duality of these experiences and believe that there is room for all people within these spiritualities and religions.

And I think it takes a lot of courage to speak out as a person of faith and affirm LGBTQI people have value and are welcomed. I wish we had more people of faith that were doing that work, but of course we know the ways that it can be very hard across all denominations to do so. But that is one of the biggest challenges. So whether it’s in the teaching that you’re doing, Dan. Whether it’s in your ability to provide lectures publicly, to sign joint letters, to initiate joint letters, but to get a progressive religious voice out there that sees and honors LGBTQI people is essential. And I would take it a step further.

And I would say, when you see anti-LGBTQI legislation moving and religion is cited as the justification for it, there is a way that you can respond with a religious voice that is very different than what someone like me can do. I respond with a secular voice. That is my lane. But I really depend on religious leaders and religious scholars to speak out and say: All people matter. So I guess I just want to say thank you very much for the work that you’re doing. And I hope you can just find ways to redouble your efforts and elevate your voice, because we need you.

NAWAZ: Thank you, Dan, for that question. Laura, I think we have time for a few more—maybe two more questions.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Chloe Schwenke.

Q: Hi, Jessica. Wonderful to see you here. Thank you for your service. You’re doing an amazing job and I’m proud of you. I can say that, I guess.

I’m worried about you, though, in the sense that you’re doing this as an individual in an institution full of diplomats. And I wanted to see if you could speak a little bit to the degree to which your capabilities, awareness, understanding, et cetera, is being transmitted to your colleagues who are diplomats across the institution. What is their cultural competency? Are they growing in understanding? Are they able to stand as an ally for the work that you’re doing and be effective in this space? Because you should not be doing this alone. (Laughs.) Thank you so much.

STERN: Thank you, Chloe. It’s so nice to hear your voice. And it was such a pleasure to speak with you on a panel at CSIS. I think it was our last official panel of pride month. It’s been a really interesting experience. First of all, there are a lot of people in the State Department, including my amazing colleague Steve Stark, who’s sitting just outside the camera’s view, who are longtime Foreign Service officers or civil servants who have been doing LGBTQI-inclusive work all along, since before President Obama established this mandate. And to them, I think we owe a great debt of gratitude.

But we can’t depend on individuals’ preferences, or skills, or passions to create inclusive foreign policy. That’s not good enough. That’s not safe enough. It has to be institutionalized and it has to be structural, which I think is what you’re pointing out, Chloe. I think the cultural competency varies. You know, more often than not when I speak with ambassadors, they—I ask them as a first question, what is your experience with LGBTQI issues? Because I like to level set. You know, how do I need to support them? Thankfully, most of them have some kind of experience, but it’s varied.

Ambassadors and Foreign Service officers and civil servants are usually generalists on human rights issues. And so we are asking a great deal of generalists when we ask them to engage with and often lead on LGBTQI issues. And I would say this in any context. I sometimes think this creates a very significant challenge, because those who are paying attention know enough to know that working on LGBTQI issues means working with issues where people are in danger. And so the most engaged and the most compassionate colleagues at State and across the foreign assistance and foreign policy agency is—I think sometimes they struggle to find the solutions. I think they’re very worried about backlash.

And I think the solution, as Chloe says, is to ensure that there’s institutional support for cultural competency. And I think some of that happens at the Foreign Service Institute. Some of that happens by ensuring that the senior officials at state and other foreign policy agencies speak out regularly, so that people hear the talking points and the messages that they have to learn these issues. And frankly, we need to have a special envoy for LGBTQI rights with a team that’s large enough, that’s resourced enough, and doesn’t go away when administrations change. If we want to take these issues seriously, then we have to resource them.

NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Special Envoy. Chloe, thank you for your question. Laura, I think we have time for one last question, if you can please queue.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the last question from Giancarlo Bruno.

Q: Hi. And thanks for doing this. I’m Giancarlo Bruno from Deutsche Bank.

In the corporate world, there is a lot of attention to how diversity is integrated in human resources and talent policies, but at also at the leadership level, how boards are populated and what type of affirmative action that is already in place to some extent for other types of diversity can be applied to LGBTIQ. Unfortunately, there is very little out there because often corporates mean well but they lack the metrics and the data and the type of information that makes those initiatives easier, in the case of other types of diversity. Do you have a view? Do you have some hope for us to look forward to that type of diversity also to be taken into consideration in terms of creating a more diverse and inclusive leadership? Thank you.

STERN: Thanks for your question, Giancarlo. It’s good to meet you. Well, first, I’ll just say you have to have hope. Please hold onto the hope. It’s because of people like you asking these questions of their employers and of the private sector writ large that we’ve seen so much progress in recent years. Not only in terms of the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQI employees, but increasingly in the philanthropic priorities of the private sector. So we need more of that engagement.

Over my career, I have spoken to a lot of Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 companies. I’ve spoken at the C-suite and with a lot of LGBTQI employee resource groups. And I would say we’re not where we need to be. You know, not in the private sector, not in government, not in NGOs, not anywhere. And I think sometimes the fault lines are actually around our lack of intersectional analysis. So when I talk about intersectionality, I’m talking about the ability to recognize gender and race and sexuality and gender identity and religion, and all of these other categories of potential marginalization at the same time.

So it’s—you know, when I have spoken with LGBT employee resource groups, I find they’re overwhelmingly White and overwhelmingly male. And I always ask the question, where are the queer people of color? Where are the queer women? And so the work is definitely happening. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the tremendous pride events that the private sector is organizing. But I think we need to ask more. When we say, to your point, that we care about diversity, we need to track it. We need to ensure that it impacts who is hired, our retention, who is promoted, compensation. And we also need to make sure there are support structures so that people don’t feel marginalized.

So it’s a much longer conversation than I think we have time for with one minute left. But I would just say please keep doing the work you’re doing because it is through your efforts that every—that your company and all others can change.

NAWAZ: Giancarlo, thank you very much for that. As I mentioned, that was our last question, everyone. That is our time together today. I want to thank everyone out there for joining us. I also want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this conversation. And of course, most of all, I want to say thank you to U.S. Special Envoy Jessica Stern for your time and your insights today. Many thanks to you.

STERN: Thank you so much for facilitating this conversation, Amna. And I understand this is the second-ever LGBTQI panel or conversation hosted by CFR in its one hundred years of existence. So I think this is a really important milestone. And it’s great to see how many people joined in. And I hope there will be many more such events in the future.

NAWAZ: Thank you very much, Special Envoy. Thanks to everyone out there. Have a wonderful rest of your day.


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