Interview with Ipek Yezdani of Hürriyet and Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry

Man and woman smiling. (CG Image)
Randy Berry’s Interview by Hurriyet’s Ipek Yezdani

Discrimination based on identity is a violation of human rights

Hürriyet – İpek YEZDANİ

U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry, traveled to Turkey last week and discussed LGBTI rights in Turkey with high-level government officials, municipalities, LGBTI representatives and representatives from the business world. Berry and I talked about LGBTI rights becoming a part of U.S. foreign policy and the current situation in Turkey.

LGBTI Rights are a Core Human Rights Function

This is the first time that the U.S. Department of State appointed a Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. How did LGBTI rights become a part of American foreign policy?

The departure point for tackling this issue as a foreign policy issue came during Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State. Clinton identified LGBTI human rights issues as a core human rights function. Since 2011 we have been engaging as a foreign policy issue on the issue as part of our human rights portfolio. The decision to appoint a special envoy came around late 2014 and early 2015 and we wanted to send a positive signal that we are increasing our work on the human rights of LGBTI individuals. Ultimately, we are interested in LGBTI rights as a core human rights issue. We believe that it is an essential component of diversity in our democracy.  Part of being human is expressing your own identity freely.  And for LGBTI communities in any country this is based on having equal citizenship in the eyes of the law. We believe that discrimination based on one’s core identity is a violation of human rights.

We have not Worked so Ambitiously on any Other Issue

Besides your appointment as Special Envoy, gay marriage became legal in the U.S. this past June. Can we say that the Obama administration places emphasis on LGBTI rights?

These developments are not only a reflection of the leadership provided by the current administration, but also an indication of rapid change in American society. In recent years in the United States, we made considerable progress on this matter. In the U.S., there is significant and nonpartisan support for the issues we are working on within the context of this (LGBTI) movement and human rights. Our work is really about ending violence and discrimination against the LGBTI community. We honestly have not worked so ambitiously on any other issue.

In Some Countries I was the First Gay Person Interlocutors Ever Met

What was the reason for this visit to Turkey, whom did you meet with here?

Turkey is the 19th country that I visited to generate dialogue about this issue. Both in Ankara and in Istanbul, I have had the opportunity to hold extensive meetings about the factors that influence the situation in Turkey with high-level government officials, municipalities, civil society, and leaders of the business world. We’ve also had a very good conversation with representatives of the LGBTI community in Turkey, on some of the particular successes or challenges they have faced. We discussed this core identity issue in Turkey. Because in many places where people are not familiar with members of the LGBTI community or know a lot of gay people, there is difficulty understanding that this is not about behavior but identity. I believe in many other countries that I traveled to – not in Turkey – I was the first gay person that some of the interlocutors have ever met. One of the many factors that constitutes our identity is that we are defined completely by our sexual orientation and sexual identity. This is an important part of who we are. However, there are ultimately many more factors that affect who we are. Universally speaking, discrimination and mistreatment based on factors that constitute a person’s identity can never be the answer (to these issues).

Not Allowing the Pride March is a Civil Society Issue

How do you see the current situation of LGBTI rights in Turkey?

If we look at the global status of the LGBTI movement, in the past 10-12 years, there have been significant steps forward especially in Turkey. I understood the strength of civil society through my discussions with civil society organizations. There is a very gifted, insightful group of people who are working in this space. Of course, challenges still remain. But we cannot look at the issues as being completely separated from the global movement. This is a matter of education and fluidity, so at times you take one step forward and sometimes you take a step back. Clearly, we were concerned earlier this summer when the Istanbul Pride March was not allowed to proceed, as we would be with any instance in which a peaceful march or protest was not allowed to exercise the right of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. I don’t know if this is an LGBTI issue, but I think this is a civil society issue. We have spoken about this issue with government officials, the LGBTI community, and the business world.

How important is it to hold a Pride March in a Muslim society like Turkey?

I think it is important in all countries, but especially in a vibrant and diverse society like Turkey, when we think of the fact that in recent years there has been remarkable progress and wonderful expressions of pride, this year’s events marked a situation that is clearly different.