White House Announces New Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons

June 25, 2021 – The Council for Global Equality congratulates Jessica Stern, tapped by the White House to serve as the State Department’s next Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons. The Special Envoy is a key leadership position at the State Department and Jessica Stern is a respected leader in the global movement for LGBTQI equality. We could not imagine a better choice to lead President Biden’s vision for equality and human rights abroad.   

Created in the Obama Administration, the position went vacant throughout the Trump Administration – despite promises to Congress by former Secretary Mike Pompeo to fill it. In its announcement, the White House noted that this is “a role critical to ensuring that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.”

President Biden’s first foreign policy speech back in February embedded LGBTQI rights clearly within our human rights policy. A parallel  Presidential Memorandum, released by the White House on the same day, commits U.S. foreign affairs agencies to advance a genuinely LGBTQI-affirming human rights policy in ways rejected by the Trump Administration. The Presidential Memorandum sets out five key diplomatic objectives, and here is how the Special Envoy can help advance each of them. 

Combating Criminalization of LGBTQI Status or Conduct Abroad. Having labored in the equality movement for decades, the Special envoy understands the complex web of criminal penalties deployed against LGBTQI individuals and organizations as they pursue their democratic rights. A comprehensive decriminalization agenda requires more than simply overturning colonial-era sodomy statutes, although that is always a crucial first step. It also requires a long-term vision to build genuine, substantive equality by dismantling the web of harmful laws and social norms that limit the rights and opportunities afforded LGBTQI populations. We look to her to shape and guide that strategy.  

Protecting Vulnerable LGBTQI Refugees and Asylum Seekers. The Special Envoy will have the unique opportunity to support the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) at the State Department in rebuilding our country’s longstanding refugee resettlement program from the ground up, after it was gutted under the Trump Administration. With her sophisticated understanding of the “daunting challenges” LGBTQI refugees face, we look to the Special Envoy to help deliver on the President’s promise “to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.” 

Leveraging Foreign Assistance to Protect Human Rights and Advance Nondiscrimination. As the Executive Director of OutRight Action International, Jessica Stern took decisive action to launch the first COVID-19 emergency fund to support some of the hardest-hit LGBTQI communities around the world. She and her organization raised more than $4 million and distributed more than 125 grants to organizations in 63 countries. While that is perhaps a drop in the bucket compared to the $38 million in emergency requests received and the far greater need that still exists, it shows that Stern knows how fragile the global LGBTQI movement is and how stressed it has been during the pandemic. We are counting on her to leverage U.S. foreign assistance to meet these dire humanitarian needs and ensure equitable vaccine access – but also to develop a comprehensive strategy for ensuring that the needs of LGBTQI populations are more integrated into broader economic development assistance plans. 

Swift and Meaningful United States Responses to Human Rights Abuses of LGBTQI Persons Abroad. In the aftermath of the Trump Administration’s abdication of global leadership, mass arrests and murders of LGBTQI individuals and activists have accelerated, often under the guise of pandemic restrictions. In recent weeks, we have witnessed mass detentions and criminal sentences in Cameroon, Ghana, and Uganda, along with multiple homicides in Guatemala and across the Northern Triangle. We look to the Special Envoy to coordinate with our embassies to ensure the “swift and meaningful” responses President Biden has promised – with equal emphasis on both swift (time matters) and meaningful (to ensure our responses do not make the situation worse). We are counting on Stern to deliver:  to leverage swift government action, while working in close collaboration with local leaders to drive an effective diplomatic response.  

Building Coalitions of Like-Minded Nations and Engaging International Organizations in the Fight Against LGBTQI Discrimination. Stern long has been a leading civil society voice on LGBTQI issues at the United Nations. We will depend on her to cloak her passion as a lifelong activist in the temperament of diplomacy to deliver results in complex diplomatic spaces.  Multilateralism will be key to the success of President Biden’s vision for equality. She knows that.  

Our next Special Envoy brings unique skill and perspective. She is a highly effective human rights advocate who is both passionate and diplomatic. We congratulate her on the job and look forward to working with her in support of global equality.   

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, together.  

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