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US Envoy Sees 'Seeds of Hope' for Gay Rights in Africa

FILE - Randy Berry
FILE - Randy Berry

Southern Africa is moving toward 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 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 conference call 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," he said.

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."

Willingness to talk

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 decriminalizing homosexuality would be akin to promoting it and that it goes against their traditions and culture.

Being gay "is not a learned behavior. 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 co-workers, your teachers, your doctors. Do we have the capacity as human beings to embrace them and let them live freely?"