Days coming off of a Pride month that was one of the most involved and engaged in modern history, there remains uncertainty about what challenges remain.
But the rainbow feels brighter than it has in a long time.
Jessica Stern, soon to become the State Department’s special diplomatic envoy for LGBTQI rights, told the Associated Press they see a mix of promising news and worrisome developments almost everywhere she looks, both at home and abroad.
(They/their is a pronoun used by people who do not subscribe to gender-specific pronouns.)
In the United States, Stern’s admiration for President Joe Biden’s moves supporting LGBTQI rights is offset by a dismay at other developments. These include persisting violence against transgender women of color and a wave of legislation in Republican-governed states seeking to limit sports participation and medical options for trans youth.
That is a real concern.
You do not need to look far to see it. Seven Days has had several articles in the last year that outlined the struggle of the trans community. And at recent protests in Montpelier, supporting various causes — many of them not Pride related during June — the challenges have been articulated in sound and resounding ways.
For Stern to step up is a sign that the messages are not being lost.
“I don’t think there’s a country or region that’s all good or all bad,” she told The Associated Press. “When you look around the world, you see progress and danger simultaneously.”
Stern, whose new post was announced by Biden during Pride month, has served since 2012 as executive director of New York-based OutRight Action International, which works globally to prevent abuses of LGBTQI people and strengthen their civil rights. Stern expects to start the State Department job in September.
From the vantage point at OutRight, Stern has monitored far-flung threats to LGBTQI people: recent mass arrests in African countries such as Ghana and Uganda, three killings within a week in Guatemala, and legislation in Hungary that has been assailed by many European leaders and human rights activists as denigrating LGBTQI people.
Stern is also worried that LGBTQI people in Myanmar are suffering disproportionately amid the military’s violent suppression of demonstrators and opposition groups.
Regarding the United States, Stern said, LGBTQI developments this year have reflected deep-seated contradictions.
Stern hailed this president for moving to bolster transgender rights, including lifting a Trump administration ban that blocked trans people from joining the military. And Stern welcomed the ground-breaking appointments of LGBTQI people to important administration posts — including Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, as transportation secretary, and Dr. Rachel Levine, who is transgender, as assistant secretary of health.
“At the same time, the work in the U.S. for the safety and security of transgender Americans is far from complete,” said Stern, while urging Congress to pass the Equality Act, a bill that would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQI people.
Unsurprisingly, the bill is stalled in the Senate for lack of Republican support.
“There’s no country that has gotten this right,” Stern told the AP. “We all have work to do to ensure we are free from discrimination and violence. ... We’re all in this together.”
Stern said there are reasons for optimism, even in Africa, where South Africa is the only one of 54 nations to have legalized same-sex marriage.
In Nigeria, for example, she said a recent poll showed 25% of the public opposes discrimination against LGBTQI people — a substantial increase from a few years ago,
“There’s no doubt it’s a slower journey for LGBTQI rights in any place where conservative religions play a dominant role, but progress is happening,” Stern said in the interview.
“Every day I get an email from a new organization — maybe starting a film festival or an arts festival,” Stern said. “As long as LGBTQI civil society is strong, it’s only a matter of time before we see a change in attitudes and even in law and policy.”
All nations need that kind of advocacy. It is about time the United States had an envoy who can advocate at an international — as well as a national level.
Here at home, we know what needs to be done. It is nice to see everyone else coming around.
This editorial first appeared in The Rutland Herald on July 10, 2021.