'We came to listen and talk, not to judge'

'We came to listen and talk, not to judge'

US LGBTI advocates say visit was not designed to push gay agenda

BY VERNON DAVIDSON Executive editor -- publications davidsonv@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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RANDY Berry and Todd Larson wanted Jamaicans to have a clear understanding of the reason for their visit to the island last week.

So, in an interview with the Jamaica Observer lasting just under 30 minutes, the US Government officials stated more than once that they were here to listen, to engage America's partners in dialogue on human rights, and that meant the State giving equal treatment to everyone, regardless of their race, class, sexual orientation or beliefs.

"We're not advancing special rights, but talking about the universality... of human rights of everyone," said Larson, the United States Agency for International Development's senior LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) co-ordinator.

That point was reinforced by Berry, who was just a few weeks ago appointed special envoy for the human rights of the LGBTI community by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Both Berry and Larson sat with the Observer on Friday afternoon, a day after their arrival which sparked protest by some church groups who argued that they were here to force Jamaica to embrace homosexual lifestyle as normal.

"I think it's unfortunately uninformed of what we are here doing," Berry said when asked to respond to the protest.

"We have been very, very careful -- as the president (Barack Obama) was during his visit and others -- to ensure we are engaging in a spirit of equality within a human rights framework. That is what we are interested in. We are not at all interested in making judgements, in using any other manner than to seek just an honest dialogue."

Berry said that while he was aware of that view regarding his and Larson's visit, he was confident that there wouldn't have been that much controversy if there was an understanding that both men were here "engaging in a human rights framework".

Added Berry: "Both Todd and I have a global mandate from our respective agencies, and that is basically to seek partnerships, to consult, to learn and to inform US policy, not just in Jamaica, but as a global issue and to just make sure that we're speaking very clearly to our friends about where US policy is, understanding that we have also come into this space after a long struggle and to see how we can be a positive partner."

Against that background, both men described their meetings with various groups in the island as successful.

"We've had superb meetings with Government officials, leaders in faith communities... I think they have been very, very instructive and enlightening and I come away very, very optimistic because I think there is a wonderful dialogue that is emerging in what is a complicated and emotive environment, but we are here to speak with people, not to speak for them, not to speak at them, to them, but to really engage in dialogue," Berry emphasised.

"We are here, as Randy said, to listen and to learn, to glean from the Jamaica experience and take back so we can better represent the Jamaican perspective and experience on this issue, recognising that this is a discourse that is well underway," added Larson.

"As you noticed, when the president was here his approach was to amplify the voices of local actors, not to drown them out or to give a lecture, and it's very much in that spirit that we're following the president -- listen, learn and bring back," Larson said.

"My experience in Jamaica is limited. My experience with the issue theoretically and politically is not, but my understanding relative to where Jamaica stands and where Jamaica is headed on this derived from what the people who we have been interfacing with are saying," Larson explained.

"Without exception, everyone has endorsed the statements from their colleagues that this sort of conversation would not have been feasible 10 years ago, and yet here we are having a conversation, and dialogue, speaking among friends... and so they have expressed optimism, and as a result I have optimism," he said.

Both officials, who left the island on Saturday, said on their return to Washington, DC they would be better able to inform those on whose behalf they were serving "so that the ongoing dialogue and interface between the US Government and Jamaica can be better informed, more respectful and congnisant of the elements of that ongoing dialogue".

Berry described the talks as very helpful and constructive, saying that the experience had given him a much richer understanding of the dynamics.

"That helps us make smart decisions in terms of how we engage, and there's something here, I'm very conscious, as is Todd, about engaging in such a way that communicates partnership," he said.

"You mention the public perception that we're here to force them; we're not, nor would that be the case anywhere else. My travel schedule for the next five weeks includes 16 other countries, and the situation in each of those is unique in their own certain way.

"And it's important for me to make myself smarter about what is working in some countries [and] what is not. It just helps as we continually take a look at our global policies to make sure they are smart, that they are focused, that they engage and that they empower local discourse," Berry said.

Larson said that while he had, in the past, been exposed to the voices in the LGBTI community in Jamaica, he had not had an opportunity to speak with church, business or political leaders here.

"It can only help that we hear additional voices to better inform our perspectives and we can take that back to the states," he said.

"Our own history has not been a perfect history on point. The United States is not yet where it should be on this and other issues. We've made a lot of progress, but we're not here to point fingers, that would be a hypocritical thing for us," Larson said.

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