On Friday, ahead of remarks at the White House for Pride Month, President Joe Biden announced he will appoint Jessica Stern, the executive director of the global LGBTQ advocacy organization OutRight Action International, as the U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons at the U.S. State Department.
The special envoy plays an important role in leading the implementation of a presidential memorandum, issued by Biden in February, directing executive departments and agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ people around the world.
That memorandum, in part, directs agencies to strengthen any existing efforts to push foreign governments to rescind any laws that criminalize LGBTQ people, or overlook violence or discrimination against LGBTQ people at the hands of both state and non-state actors; to protect vulnerable LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers; to take a country’s record of human rights, including the rights of LGBTQI+ people, into account when making decisions regarding foreign aid; and respond swiftly and meaningfully to incidents that threaten the human rights of LGBTQI+ individuals abroad.
“All human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear no matter who they are or whom they love,” the memorandum reads. “Around the globe, including here at home, brave LGBTQI+ activists are fighting for equal protection under the law, freedom from violence, and recognition of their fundamental human rights. … It shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.”
Stern is the second person to be named to the special envoy position. The first was her predecessor, Randy Berry, who served in the role from the time it was created in 2015 until 2017, at which point former Presidentr Donald Trump left the position unfilled, reports CNN.
The White House noted in a statement that the special envoy position is particularly crucial at a time when LGBTQI+ rights are threatened in all regions of the world. In her new position, Stern will be expected to rally governments that support LGBTQI+ rights, civil society organizations, the business community, and international organizations to stand up for the rights of sexual and gender minorities in various ways.
Stern, who is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, has served as executive director of OutRight Action International for nine years. Under her leadership, the organization expanded its focus, establishing a permanent presence at the United Nations, obtaining official accreditation, advocating for the creation of the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and fighting for inclusion of LGBTQ-inclusive language in various UN resolutions and documents.
She also established a Global Research Program, an Arabic Media Project, a Corporate Engagement Program, and a Caribbean Program, and personally created a training and advocacy program for LGBTIQ activists, Advocacy Week, that has become a model used around the world.
Stern also honed OutRight’s focus on research and advocacy. Under her leadership, Stern led the organization’s publication of landmark global reports documenting the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQI+ people and exposing the global reach of conversion therapy. During her tenure, the organization helped launch a dozen LGBTQI+ organizations, trained over 1,000 LGBTQI+ activists, and distributed millions in grants to organizations supporting LGBTQI+ individuals abroad.
“Serving as OutRight’s executive director has been the honor of a lifetime,” Stern said in a statement.
“I can think of no organization that works with more integrity, more skillful staff, more motivated board members, more valued partners, or greater impact. After 11 years with OutRight, leaving will be bittersweet, but I know that the organization could not be stronger.”
OutRight Action International praised Biden’s selection of Stern, saying it not only sends a message in countering lesbian invisibility, but indicates a serious dedication to defending LGBTQI+ rights abroad — something critical at a time when democratic institutions and basic freedoms are being eroded by authoritarianism, right-wing populism, and scapegoating of sexual and gender minorities.
“The United States is emerging from four years of unreliable foreign policy, distortions of international human rights standards, and backs turned on LGBTIQ people domestically. In such times, LGBTIQ communities in the United States and around the world need and deserve a clear-eyed human rights champion to galvanize a wise reemergence of the U.S. government insisting on full human rights for LGBTIQ people everywhere,” Jenny Pizer, the co-chair of OutRight’s board of directors, said in a statement. “Jessica is that person. No one works with deeper commitment, greater integrity, or more skillful strategic vision on behalf of our global LGBTIQ family. We who know Jessica’s talents best know what an immense positive impact she can have.”
The Council for Global Equality also congratulated Stern over her appointment.
“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,” the council said in a blog post. “We could not imagine a better choice to lead President Biden’s vision for equality and human rights abroad.
“Our next Special Envoy brings unique skill and perspective. She is a highly effective human rights advocate who is both passionate and diplomatic,” the post continued. “We congratulate her on the job and look forward to working with her in support of global equality.”
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