The interview of the Special Envoy of the U.S. Department of State for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, Randy Berry, given to “Zëri” daily newspaper,

Special Envoy Randy Berry Interview to Zëri Newspaper

Zëri: Thank you very much for coming to Kosovo and for giving a voice and a heart to a community here. Today, we also had a chance to meet with a part of the community and it was nice that we actually heard this narrative from you. This shouldn’t be a very serious conversation, but if you could just start by telling me about your meetings with the people and with the stakeholders and politicians. As you saw today, it’s basically that the community here doesn’t speak a lot with politicians, and basically we don’t know their opinions.

Berry: Sure. I’ve been extremely lucky to be here in, I think, an interesting time in Kosovo’s approach to these issues. This is my first visit to Kosovo, so after 24 hours here, I can’t really speak with a great authority about that, but I’ve had the benefit of I really think extraordinary access to talk with senior leadership, with civil society, and with young people as well about issues that are currently facing Kosovo. One thing I would say is that a uniform response has been that there is a genuine appreciation for the scope of the challenge, for the need for greater acceptance across the board. I think they have an understanding about the challenges that are being faced. We had a good discussion about the legal framework that exists already and about the challenge that now lie ahead in terms of making sure that laws are implemented and regulations are followed, for example, under the hate crimes legislation, and prosecutions are reached. And that’s the more complicated, difficult part because that includes a number of pieces. It’s one thing to pass, to adopt legislation and draft regulation, which is incredibly important. The second part, on making sure it’s real, training police, training educators, making sure that people understand the content of laws, making sure that there is a culture of accountability in terms of prosecutions. That’s the more complicated and the more difficult thing to do. It’s equally critical that you do that, but I think you get those two pieces together, I think that marks a nice progression, not only towards an environment that is more embracing of the community here, I think it also falls very much within Kosovo’s national aspirations.  You have a path that’s leading you towards the European Union, these are elements in that equation that will not only help achieve that, but also it creates an environment that’s best for all Kosovo citizens. One constant theme that we talked a little bit, maybe less of that during that lunch with the activists, I think Kosovo has a really extraordinary opportunity here — if you understand that these are issues of identity and not behavior – and I think we have to educate people on that – and you understand that, if you accept that premise, I think Kosovars of all people have the ability to understand what discrimination based on identity means because of your history. So, here’s a great lesson, I think is to not turn that around against someone else.

Zëri: Yet, today, what I really liked and I think that other people in the lunch liked, is that your narrative is very optimistic. And probably from what you have been talking with the politicians is that you see some hope basically for the community here and basically there’s probably, let’s say not a movement, but there is a group of people who are really trying to lighten up the whole issue. And from your CV, I was just very impressed what you’ve done during your entire life for the community, but I would like to know because probably there’s even more – and I’m not willing to compare the American society with the European one – but, how can a society – we had a war 20 years ago and basically, we’re just trying to find ourselves and our identity – but, in your opinion, how can we overcome the problems that we have regarding the LGBT issues. Should we start, we talked today about religion, about media, so according to you, how can we start it? The community has started something, but still it’s not the main issue going out in the street having a rainbow flag.

Berry: Indeed. You know, I think that positive affirmation of identity through a Pride March and through IDAHO celebration is positive anyway you cut it. But that’s also one day a year. What we need is a more systematic, regular ability to be open about who we are. I think, you know, whether it’s in the U.S., whether it’s in any society where we have seen progress or change, the role of visibility is critically important. Until you put a human face on this issue, until you understand that what’s attached to a greater appreciation for human rights is not a theoretical construct, that what you are dealing with is all the other aspects of a person’s, of a human being’s life, and this is why I think activists have an extraordinary role to play because they are the first in their communities, whether it’s here in Kosovo or anywhere, to stand up and say: “I am not ashamed of who I am, I am also a citizen of this country,” but I think tone matters exceptionally because there are many ways that you can do that. And I think, being a very matter of fact, very low … sort of … not with an excess of fanfare about this, I think it’s possible to engage on this in a constructive way that is a very matter of fact, that is about equality of citizenship and dignity under the law and it’s that simple. I think you got two pieces, and you know, I think it’s pretty impressive on one hand that Kosovo’s leaders and legislators have put in place a legal framework that will address this issue very much. The challenge remains the one of implementation. So, the work is not done, but there’s been a good first step that’s been taken. But, I think, you know, what is required, what follows on is the ability of people to provide that human face, often times at great risk to themselves.

Zëri: Let me just… you tackled upon the law, the legislation. As you may have seen today from the people during the lunch, everybody knows that we have adopted very good laws, very European laws and everything is good on paper and evidence, in soft face. But, still if you see the situation is not quite so promising. What would you suggest that the laws should do? I mean, we have good laws but implementing them is quite a different thing. What can we do, what should we do to implement these laws?

Berry: Well, I think the dialogue with the political leadership and with those who enforce those laws is critically important and that’ a role that the civil society can play, a role that the press can play. You know, you can look at the issues like the adoption of the hate crimes legislation, which is a nice step forward or the establishment of the Ombudsman’s Office is a great step forward, then the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation – a good step forward. Then to draw attention on how that process is going is critically important because I think if nobody is paying attention to that then we can lose the thread there, but I think, for example one thing that it is important is to watch – under the hate crimes’ legislation there are 13 cases that are currently pending – to see one of those or a number of those move through to resolution, where we see a prosecution or at least a dispensation of the case, it goes a tremendous distance towards saying “yes, here’s the law”, I mean if you’re speaking on behalf of the government, “here’s the outcome.” And I think all those pieces have to fall in place, but you know, those of us who are Kosovo’s international partners have a role to play in, I think, encouraging that as well, but ultimately the civil society and media attention is also very important. You know, I’ve always said that also in the United States, civil society is to act as a watchdog over the government. I have a relationship with literarily dozens of U.S. civil society groups looking over this issue because I’m accountable as a public official to the citizenry of my country; I have a responsibility to them to execute my job. That’s their role. Now, it happens to be a very positive, pleasant relationship, but still that’s their role. And you know, the role between the public officials and media is very similar. Media has the responsibility to be a watchdog. It’s the same in any country and I have that responsibility on my side as well. So, I think, you got to watch the implementation as we all do.

Zëri: You’ve been meeting politicians early in the morning. Probably it is a very direct question, but is there anybody willing to go in the media, to go on the record and say a few words about the community and basically not to say words far away from the community, but to say something more concrete? I mean, nobody is asking from them to go and say that they belong to the community, but we really haven’t had issues of politicians going in the media and having this narrative that would make people, the viewers take it as a granted thing. So, what’s the role of leaders in all of this in the society? We are all the time talking about the civil society, but civil society, yes it’s happening at some point, but what about leaders?

Berry: Let me draw on couple of examples, tangible examples where I think that has occurred. One in my own country, and one more regionally. In the U.S., I think that the equation changed significantly when our political leaders took on a more public role, talking about these issues openly reducing stigma and with applauding those who have worked for equality, whether that was in my own country or elsewhere. Secretary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, took a big step in terms of orienting us to work on these issues as a core human rights function. I think Secretary Kerry has been working on behalf of our community for decades, when he was in Senate and now as Secretary of State. But ultimately, imagine how helpful it is to me to be working for a President, who talks about the LGBT issues clearly, publicly and consistently. When I’m travelling, when I’m talking about these issues, people understand, both in my country and everywhere else, that I’m speaking with the full weight of the White House behind me. Because he has been very clear in that regard. That’s been wonderful for me, and I think that’s an example of leadership. One that’s more local, you know, I would say that in one of the meetings today we were talking a little bit about what bold leadership looks like, because I think that’s incredibly important, and the example that was raised was in Croatia where the Foreign Minister, you know, when Croatia crossed that Rubicon of holding a Pride March, the Foreign Minister went herself and led that. That’s bold leadership also. I think those are two great examples of how you do that. Now, I don’t want to speak… it’s not my area to speak on behalf of officials of the government, but I think you have to ask that question. I found consistently in all of my meetings with all of the political leaders a great sensitivity and awareness of the issues and commitment to take them on. That much is clear.

Zëri: Today somebody mentioned about this paradoxical mindset among the people here that basically, the international also have a bit of a fault because we have homosexuality here. To me that’s quite paradoxical and absurd, but in your perspective, even though it’s your first time there, but you know about the track, about what the internationals have been doing here, especially the United States Embassy, so according to you, how much has been done from the U.S. Embassy here in Kosovo, and what’s the goal? So, basically, what’s the goal and the plan to continue working here or to continue a more concentrated work on the topic? I would really love to know more about that.

Berry: The Embassy here has been very engaged right from the very beginning from when we began working on these issues as human rights concerns in 2011 and frankly before that, because, you know, although that was when our formal policy was adopted, this was still rather informally and increasingly included in our work because it goes to equality of citizenship. So, that commitment is going to continue. You know, one really interesting thing that I think we need to do now is to sort of look at the experiences here and see. You know, my job really is a tool, to see how we can use that effectively in terms of supporting progress. You know we’re not going to use this tool as a leverage to criticize or to call people out, but we can use it as a tool to encourage forward movement. Our engagement from the Embassy here, I know ambassador Delawie would say exactly the same thing, is going to be consistent because we believe it goes right to the heart of equality and dignity under the rule of law. We, in the U.S., believe that embracing that kind of diversity it gives you great strength and I think that is a model, that is a context that is absolutely applicable here in Kosovo. A country is going to get stronger when it embraces the diversity of its citizens and allows them to be who they have to be. I don’t think that’s such an intangible sort of thing. The U.S. experience has been that that we have grappled with the meaning of equality since the founding of our nation. Our founding documents, in the late 1700s, included an explicit reference to the fact that the pretext, the foundation of everything that we were working towards in the establishment of our country and when we were young was that we believe all people, all men are created equal. Now, when that was written it really meant ‘men’. It didn’t mean women; it didn’t mean men of color, certainly not women of color. But if you look at the march of our history, and this has not been easy nor a direct line, but if you draw that line from the independence to the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the Movement at Seneca Falls, which is important for the gender equality movement, to Stonewall, these are milestones along our journey that we can look back now, thankfully in a historical sense and say: This is when something changed. And we’re not done. I think, until you completely embrace the concept that citizenship means this package of rights and if you’re denying those to anyone based on any form of identity, then that’s a violation. That is not really equality. So, you know, things are not perfect in the United States, we have a long way to go until we realize that true potential, but I think things are trending really in a positive way, as I do they are here, by the way. You mentioned the lunch with activists, and I think very clearly one thing that I picked out of that is that that is a pretty energetic, innovative group and ultimately they are going to know the context, certainly better than I do after parachuting in and 24 hours later. Even my colleagues who live and are invested here have a deep insight into this community, but ultimately that group is going to have to decide the route forward. But I find that as long the civil society is engaged, is creative, has the ability to operate then I have great hope because I think that along with the partnership with the government can yield great benefits even if it takes some time.

Zëri: You had a lecture at the National Library in Kosovo today. I really would like to hear about your impressions from the people because probably this is one of the first times that somebody of your background is addressing an audience in the middle of Pristina.

Berry: My takeaway of that is… Look, I thought it was an extraordinarily positive experience for me. It certainly was for me, but you have to talk to the students, because I don’t know, maybe it was a complete… It was slightly less formal; it wasn’t a press conference or a formal meeting, but I talked a little bit about some of the innovations that have occurred in the U.S., some of our work in engaging on rights, and then we engaged in a lot of back and forth questions that the students wanted to talk about. With students, as I often do, I took a little bit of a more personal approach because I think that in that context it’s important to ‘walk the walk’ in a sense. I mean, I talked about some of my own experiences as a gay man either growing up in the U.S. or about some of the legal innovations that have occurred through either the two high court rulings that we’ve had in the Supreme Court, the first one that basically put the Defense of Marriage Act out of commission and then the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality in the U.S. to help them understand that you can talk about this in a dispassionate, legal form sort of way, but also to understand that those have direct personal and immediate consequences for people, as they did for me personally, as well. So, I shared some of those insights as well. And then we got a range of questions that had to do with the issue of adoption, constitution and family code issue here in Kosovo, intersex… a really good question about what it meant to be a part of the intersex community, which is a good question because a lot of us, including myself are still learning on what intersex issues means. Anytime you have questions that are posed in search for knowledge, perfectly ok.

Zëri: Let’s stop for a moment at the family part. Today at the lunch it was talked about the family law that we have here and needless to say, this society is still quite patriarchal and we still see these family traditional values. This community here is basically still living with their families, so we have people who are 25 or 30 years old or even when they are 80, everybody still lives with their family. So, being with a parent means that you are going to have much more pressure even if you’re not because it’s a lifestyle and at one everybody will probably understand, even your family members that you belong to the community. You are a parent yourself. How would you address the parents of the LGBT people here? These imaginary parents that are somewhere.

Berry: In fact, I got this question in the roundtable as well. The answer to me is a pretty simple one. Ultimately, how the parent reacts is not going to affect the sexual orientation of their child. You can either embrace or reject them; you’re not going to change the fact that they are member of the community. Because that’s who they are. What you can do is whether or not they feel supported, loved, embraced and have the opportunity to use that and to build their own life or you can contribute to their marginalization, to their alienation and sometimes to very terrible outcomes. So, love your children. Because as a parent, what more can we want from our children than to be fulfilled, to be happy and to realize their potential and to be who they are. I cannot imagine that you can have any greater wish for your kid than that.

Zëri: One more question about the plans of the U.S. Embassy here? What will the Embassy continue doing?

Berry: I don’t think you’ll see any U-turns here. Our engagement has been very clearly a very frank conversation with the government about where we think things are and can be headed. I can that’s a very similar conversation that’s been had by the EU member states, who really want to see Kosovo succeed also. Ultimately, our engagement will be driven by the wellbeing of the civil society. I have great respect for these people. They are taking risks upon themselves and demonstrating bravery that I would only hope to have in the same circumstances. So, I think you won’t see a substantial change. We will continue engaging robustly because we think that this is right at the core of the human rights issue. Respect for this and adoption and implementation of these laws has everything to do with Kosovo’s future. It has everything to do with Kosovo’s future domestically for members of its citizenry and everything to do with Kosovo’s future as a member of the European Union. So, we will continue to work in that regard that we really want to see movement in this direction because we think it is good for everyone involved.

Zëri: Thank you very much.

Berry: You’re welcome.