‘Nepal has strong laws for LGBTQI+ groups but there’s gap in implementation’US special envoy to advance human rights of LGBTQI+ community opens up about her Nepal visit and key takeaways.
Jessica Stern, the United States special envoy to advance the human rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI+) persons, is in Nepal to take stock of the situation of the sexual and gender minorities in the country. During her visit, she met with government officials, human rights activists and members of the LGBTQI+ community and discussed the efforts being made towards protecting and strengthening the human rights of the community. Prior to joining the State Department, Stern led OutRight Action International, a leading global LGBTQI+ human rights organisation, as its executive director for 10 years. Before she wrapped up her five-day stay in Nepal, the Post’s Binod Ghimire spoke with Stern to learn about her reading of the status of the community and what message she is taking home from here.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Could you explain what role you have as President Joe Biden’s special envoy?
- Special envoys of the US government generally focus on particular thematic issues. We have special envoys working in racial equity and justice, disability rights, women’s freedom, religious freedom, climate change and there’s my role as a special envoy to advance the human rights of LGBTIQ+ people. I have many roles. I was appointed by President Biden in June 2021 and I serve as a lead on foreign relations policy as related to LGBTIQ+ issues in ways that influence everything from the issues we prioritise at the multilateral level like in the United Nations to human rights concerns we raise at a bilateral level with other governments. I set the policy direction in our main grant-making mechanism for LGBTIQ+ rights around the world. I consider it my obligation to listen to the LGBTIQ+ people around the world and also try to organise resources to help them because the LGBTIQ+ people everywhere deserve equal legal rights.
You had long been a rights activist with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Now that you take government responsibility, are there differences as regards the pursuit of human rights?
- I think I am better as a government official because I spent so much of my career as a human rights defender. The reason is I know community-based organisations. When something happens like a bad law is introduced in parliament somewhere in the world and the US government wants to know how to respond, I contact LGBTIQ+ organisations, human rights organisations and I ask for their advice. That matters because human rights orgnaisations and the LGBTIQ+ people know how hard to push, when to push and why to push. The governance is better when we listen to civil society organisations.
What is the purpose of your visit?
- One of the opportunities I have as a special envoy is to identify the best practices on the LGBTIQ+ rights. There is not a country on the planet where there is no discrimination against these people. With that in mind, the question is how can we accelerate the pace of change. What the policies and programmes the governments should invest in so the LGBTIQ+ community, for example, can enjoy citizenship rights. Nepal has been the vanguard in terms of recognition in the constitution and seminal Supreme Court decisions. In fact, the US government can learn a lot from some of the firm legal arrangements of the government of Nepal. However, there is always a gap between the promise of the law and their implementation.
I came here in part to learn how the US government can support LGBTIQ+ people in Nepal to make sure that they can live their best lives. Unfortunately, I heard from them that there is a long way to go. Also, the US has a very strong bilateral relationship with Nepal and we are always interested to support the LGBTIQ+ community here and the Nepali people in general.
What were the concerns raised by the LGBTIQ+ people in your meetings?
I have been here for a few days and I have met around 50 people from the community where I heard a broad range of issues. I heard that the transgender people still experience high level of discrimination and violence and it is very difficult to change the citizenship documents. Without access to legal documents it’s hard to get a job, housing and it’s hard to get respect. I heard the lesbian and bisexual women are so invisible that they deal with very severe discrimination and violence and I heard about victims of homophobia and sexism. Forced marriage, unfortunately, is a consequence for most of them.
I heard the people want the rape law to be expanded because any person of any gender and sexual orientation can be the victim of rape. I also heard that LGBTIQ+ people in Nepal want access to equal marriage, they want to be able to adopt children and be recognised as parents.
Did you raise the concerns of LGBTIQ+ people during your meetings with government officials?
I emphasised, during my meetings with the government officials, that we have respect for the government as we have learnt from the laws ensuring equality to LGBTIQ+ communities. The governments from two countries need to learn together about supporting the LGBTIQ+ people. I am also here to learn so that we can do better ourselves in the US where discrimination persists at different levels. The US is not perfect; we have many problems.
What the people from LGBTIQ+ community in many parts of the world say to me is they want to be more like Nepal. Nepal is a beacon of hope in this region in having equal laws. One of the reasons I came to Nepal is because it is a symbol of hope. Nepal is a leader in these issues.
What support is the US government providing to LGBTIQ+ community in Nepal?
The most important form of support we can give is by having relationship with the community, listening to their concerns and supporting to elevate their priorities. We have long been supporting LGBTIQ+ and youth programmes. The support is in different forms. Yesterday (Friday), the US embassy marched in the Gaijatra parade but I didn’t see other government delegations there. The Blue Diamond Society and organisations said it always matters in having recognition from the government. A part of support we are extending is listening to LGBTIQ+ community seriously and showing solidarity.
What message are you taking home as you wrap up your Nepal visit?
I am leaving with a lot of hope. Yesterday (Friday), when I was at Gaijatra, the minister for women, children and senior citizens delivered fiery remarks supporting the LGBTIQ+ community. I met with countless LGBTIQ+ organisations here. They are strong and smart. There are wonderful allies who try to support the LGBTIQ + people. I am leaving with confidence that LGBTIQ+ people exist in Nepal, they are changing Nepal and more of Nepal view them as valued ones.