“Seeds of hope” for gay rights in Africa, says special U.S. envoy

Southern Africa is moving towards greater acceptance of sexual and gender minorities though there is still a long way to go, the United States’ first special envoy for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people said on Wednesday.

Randy Berry, an openly gay senior U.S. diplomat, was speaking at the end of a 10-day visit to Malawi, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, one year after his appointment.

“I believe in all of these countries, there are seeds of hope,” Berry said, speaking from South Africa in a phone-in with journalists.

“With government representatives, I found them to be sensitive to the issues, wanting to engage very clearly… After these consultations, I am quite hopeful.”

Homosexuality or acts of gay sex are outlawed in most of Africa’s 54 states and persecution of gay people is rife across the continent.

U.S. policy is to combat violence and discrimination against LGBT people through dialogue and support for rights groups via the State Department’s Global Equality Fund, created in 2011.

“Change is not going to occur because the U.S. wants it to,” said Berry. “Change comes through those people working indigenously within those societies to produce a more equitable framework.”

Berry said he was encouraged by governments’ willingness to discuss the issue and to give LGBT groups space to operate.

“The fact that we can actually have a rational, coherent, quiet conversation is really important,” he said. “The problem we face in a global sense is one of ignorance and non exposure.”

Many Africans, particularly religious leaders, argue that decriminalising homosexuality would be akin to promoting it and that it goes against their traditions and culture.

Being gay “is not a learned behaviour. It is not somehow produced by external forces. This is how people are born,” Berry said.

“We are simply talking about your brothers and sisters, your aunts and uncles, your coworkers, your teachers, your doctors, and do we have the capacity as human beings to embrace them and let them live freely?” (Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org for more stories)

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