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International special envoys for LGBTQ rights talk about pride around the world


At New York City's Pride parade on Sunday, three diplomats marched alongside glittery floats and fluttering rainbow flags.


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

JESSICA STERN: I'm Jessica Stern, the U.S. special envoy for the advancement of the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.

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: Hi, Fabrizio.


STERN: Hi, everyone.

SHAPIRO: Alba Rueda is from Argentina, and Fabrizio Petri is from Italy. I asked whether things on the whole are getting better or worse for queer people globally, 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 established a quota for trans people in the public sector.

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

SHAPIRO: Italy's Fabrizio Petri says, even in the most progressive parts of the world, LGBTQ rights are at risk, which makes their job as special envoys even more important.

PETRI: The whole point is to continue to sustain and really focus on this issue.

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 in favor of gay rights.

STERN: So I would say we're in an inflection point for the LGBTQI community worldwide.

SHAPIRO: That inflection point does not sound like an upswing.

STERN: I would say that the inflection point has equal measures of opportunity and crisis. Botswana, just seven months ago, decriminalized homosexuality. Increasingly, when we hear about sodomy cases, it's because sodomy laws are being struck down. In fact, nine countries have decriminalized homosexuality in the last six years alone.

PETRI: It's very, very important that all the like-minded countries act together. So we know that there are 70 countries that still criminalize.

SHAPIRO: Seventy countries still criminalize LGBTQ people. Wow.

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

RUEDA: I think we need to have an impact altogether in multilateral spaces of human right voices, like in United Nations, Equal Rights Coalition and other spaces for 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 might be a worthy goal, but that's not a strategy - that's not necessarily achievable within, you know, one person's lifetime.

STERN: So some of the goals are the decriminalization of homosexual status or conduct in every country on the planet, full stop; legal gender identity recognition for every person - trans, non-binary, intersex, and beyond; 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 inherently other.

SHAPIRO: I have to interject here because that discourse is becoming more and more widespread in the United States. When you show up in another country and say this has to end, how often do they point to people in Texas or Florida - powerful politicians who are saying exactly that?

STERN: The U.S. does not have all the answers. In fact, we have a lot of the problems - the same problems that I see for LGBTQI+ people in every country on the planet. So instead of focusing on the places where the U.S. still has work to do, we create a shared space to say, OK, what are the best practices? And by and large, every time I lead with that strategy, I'm met with actually open arms because humility is a very honest way of recognizing that LGBTQI+ people are attacked in every country on the planet, and we all have work to do.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious - when you go to other countries bearing this message, do you risk playing into the narrative, which is so common, that homosexuality and trans identity are an invention of the West? I mean, historically, that is false, but that has been a talking point that has been effective in many countries. So do you risk playing into that narrative when you show up from Italy, Argentina, the United States and try to advance these goals?

PETRI: Not really. I was in Pretoria recently...

SHAPIRO: In South Africa?

PETRI: In South Africa. And in South Africa, there is - this is very important - in the University of Pretoria faculty of law, there are several Black African openly gay researchers who do research on their past because in Africa there is this narrative. But in the 1,000 tribes of Africa, there were several same-sex marriages. Of course, all this - what we were saying is true about this kind of narrative, but also the only answer is culture. The only answer is to engage with persons that really try to understand deeply their own culture - and there are.

STERN: Most sodomy laws that exist in the world today come as a product of colonialism. So homophobia and anti-trans views - they are a product of Western and colonial imposition. By contrast, LGBTQI people have existed in every country on the planet. You will always find LGBTQI people in art and history if you just pay attention to your own national truth.

SHAPIRO: I want to end by asking you what was going through your head as you all marched together over the weekend in the New York Pride parade? Who were you thinking about? What was on your mind?

STERN: You know, I think about all of the LGBTQI activists who have tried to organize Prides, and they've been legally banned. They've been attacked with water cannons. They've been attacked with rotten eggs and stones and worse. And I think about a friend of mine named Kasha Jacqueline, who organized the first-ever Pride festival in Uganda. And every year, she puts on a festival in the face of enormous opposition. So when I was marching in New York City Pride, I was thinking about all the people who don't have that luxury, and I was trying to carry their energy with me.


RUEDA: Well, you know what? In Argentina, now it's winter, so we celebrate the Pride parade in November. So we have a march, but it's against transfemicides in Argentina.

SHAPIRO: Transfemicide - the killing of trans women.

RUEDA: Yeah. So our thinking is about our community because visibility and pride is for our right.

PETRI: Well, I think that the first thing is New York. Everything started in New York. And also, let me tell you, just as a private note, when I was in my early 20s, the big difference for me was this famous movie, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah (laughter).

PETRI: Yes. There is a famous song that says, don't dream it. Be. So when I am marching, I always think - please, we want to change this? Let's do it. And only if you focus on certain issues, you can bring about the change.

SHAPIRO: That is Alba Rueda of Argentina, Fabrizio Petri of Italy and Jessica Stern of 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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