International Special Envoys for LGBTQ Rights Talk Pride Around the World: NPR

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks to emissaries assigned to LGBTQ issues — the US’s Jessica Stern, Italy’s Fabrizio Petri and Argentina’s Alba Rueda — about whether gay lives are improving worldwide.


At the Pride parade in New York City on Sunday, three diplomats marched alongside glittering floats and fluttering rainbow flags.


SHAPIRO: There are only four high-level diplomats in the world who are specifically assigned to LGBTQ issues. Sunday marked the first time three of them had ever marched together in a Pride parade.

JESSICA STERN: I am Jessica Stern, the US Special Envoy for the Promotion of the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Individuals.

SHAPIRO: I invited Stern and the diplomats she marched with to talk about the state of the world for LGBTQ people right now.

ALBA RUEDA: Hello, Fabrizio.


STERN: Hello everyone.

SHAPIRO: Alba Rueda is from Argentina and Fabrizio Petri is from Italy. I asked if things are generally getting better or worse for queer people worldwide, and they all agreed it’s a mixed verdict. Take Argentina – same-sex marriage has been legal there for 12 years, and Alba Rueda said the president recently instituted a quota for transgender people in the public sector.

RUEDA: There are of course ups and downs, because in Latin America, for example, the Catholic Church is very present. And of course they have a strong stance against equal marriage.

SHAPIRO: Italy’s Fabrizio Petri says that even in the most progressive parts of the world, LGBTQ rights are at risk, making their jobs as special envoys even more important.

PETRI: The whole point is to go ahead with this issue and really focus on it.

SHAPIRO: Jessica Stern of the State Department says there have been both wins and losses. In many countries, political candidates are weaponizing LGBTQ issues, even making it a crime to speak out for gay rights.

STERN: So I’d say we’re at a turning point for the LGBTQI community worldwide.

SHAPIRO: That inflection point doesn’t sound like a revival.

STERN: I’d say the inflection point has equal opportunity and crisis. Botswana decriminalized homosexuality just seven months ago. Increasingly, when we hear about cases of sodomy, it’s because the sodomy laws are being scrapped. In the past six years alone, nine countries have decriminalized homosexuality.

PETRI: It is very important that all like-minded countries work together. So we know that there are 70 countries that are still criminalizing.

SHAPIRO: Seventy countries are still criminalizing LGBTQ people. Wow.

PETRI: And 11 of them still have the death penalty. Some still use it. So the whole point – of course, our dream would be to influence those countries.

RUEDA: I think we need to have a total impact in multilateral spaces of human rights voices, such as in the United Nations, the Equal Rights Coalition and other spaces to talk about LGBT rights.

SHAPIRO: If the tactic is to work multilaterally to build coalitions…

RUEDA: It’s one of them.

SHAPIRO: One of them – in pursuit of what specific goal, Jessica? Because global equality may be a worthy goal, but that’s not a strategy — that’s not necessarily achievable within, you know, one person’s life.

STERN: So some goals are the decriminalization of homosexual status or behavior in every country on the planet, period; legal recognition of gender identity for every person – trans, non-binary, intersex and more; an end to the practices known as corrective rape, conversion therapy, and an end to the discourse that LGBTQ people are child abusers, are sinners, and are different by nature.

SHAPIRO: I have to intervene here because that discourse is getting wider in the United States. When you show up in another country and say this has to stop, how often do they point to people in Texas or Florida — powerful politicians who say just that?

STERN: The US doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, we have a lot of the problems – the same problems I see for LGBTQI+ people in every country on the planet. So instead of focusing on the places where the US still has work to do, we’re creating a shared space to say, okay, what’s the best practice? And overall, every time I lead with that strategy, I’m welcomed with open arms because humility is a very honest way to recognize that LGBTQI+ people in every country on the planet are under attack, and we all have work to do. .

SHAPIRO: I’m curious – if you go to other countries with this message, do you risk playing on the story, so common, that homosexuality and trans-identity are an invention of the West? I mean, historically that’s incorrect, but that’s been a point of discussion that’s been effective in many countries. So do you risk playing into that story if you show up from Italy, Argentina, the United States and try to achieve these goals?

PETRI: Not really. I was recently in Pretoria…

SHAPIRO: In South Africa?

PETRI: In South Africa. And in South Africa there are – this is very important – in the law school of the University of Pretoria, there are several black African openly gay researchers who are researching their past because in Africa there is this story. But in the 1000 tribes of Africa, there were several same-sex marriages. Sure, all this – what we said is true about these kinds of stories, but the only answer is culture too. The only answer is to get in touch with individuals who are really trying to deeply understand their own culture – and there are.

STERN: Most of the sodomy laws that exist in the world today come as a product of colonialism. So homophobia and anti-transvisions – they are a product of western and colonial imposition. By contrast, LGBTQI people have existed in every country on the planet. LGBTQI people can always be found in art and history if you only pay attention to your own national truth.

SHAPIRO: I want to end by asking you what was going through your mind when you all marched together in the New York Pride parade this weekend? Who were you thinking of? What were you thinking?

STERN: You know, I think of all the LGBTQI activists who have tried to organize Prides, and they are banned by law. They have been attacked with water cannons. They’ve been attacked with rotten eggs and rocks and worse. And I think of a friend of mine named Kasha Jacqueline, who organized the very first Pride festival in Uganda. And every year she organizes a festival, despite enormous opposition. So when I marched in New York City Pride, I thought of all the people who don’t have that luxury, and I tried to carry their energy with me.


RUEDA: Well, you know what? It’s winter in Argentina now, so we’ll be celebrating the Pride parade in November. So we have a march, but it’s against transfemicides in Argentina.

SHAPIRO: Transfemicide – killing trans women.

RUEDA: Yes. So our thinking is about our community, because visibility and pride is our right.

PETRI: Well, I think the first thing is New York. Everything started in New York. And let me also tell you that, when I was in my early twenties, the big difference for me was this famous movie, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

SHAPIRO: Oh, yes (laughter).

PETRI: Yes. There’s a famous song that says don’t dream of it. To be. So when I’m marching I always think – please, can we change this? Let’s do it. And only if you focus on certain things, you can bring about the change.

SHAPIRO: That’s Alba Rueda from Argentina, Fabrizio Petri from Italy and Jessica Stern from the United States, each a high-level diplomat representing their country on LGBTQI issues around the world. Thanks to all three of you, and happy Pride.

PETRI: Thank you.

STERN: Thank you, Ari.

RUEDA: Thank you.

PETRI: Thank you.

STERN: Happy pride.


TIM CURRY: (As Frank N. Furter, singing) Don’t dream it. Be it.

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