Jessica Stern is on a mission to advance the cause of LGBTQ people in a world where sexual orientation violence and discrimination know no geographical boundaries.
Afghan gays and lesbians are hiding in fear for their lives following the Taliban’s terrifying return to power. A new law in Hungary makes it illegal to show or share materials depicting homosexuality or gender issues with minors. Legislators in Ghana and Senegal are pushing bills that would increase prison sentences for people convicted of same-sex relationships.
In the United States, conservative state legislatures introduced more than 100 pieces of legislation restricting the rights of transgender Americans in the last year alone.
Stern’s job is to promote and protect LGBTQ rights around the world, which often necessitates a diplomatic balancing act. Because of social, cultural, political, and religious differences, working in the background can be more effective than working on the front lines. It’s a diplomatic protocol she’s still figuring out as she settles into her new position.
Stern was appointed as a special envoy by President Joe Biden in June, citing her work on gender, sexuality, and human rights issues as executive director of OutRight Action International, which aims to end persecution, inequality, and violence against LGBTQ people around the world.
Stern, who is only the second person to hold the position, took office in late September.
One of her first tasks was to assist the State Department in the development of a passport with a “X” gender designation for people who do not identify as male or female. Supporters said the move would help transgender people and those who identify as non-binary, intersex, or gender nonconforming avoid harassment and discrimination when traveling abroad. “My phone was deluged with friends from everywhere who told me how much that policy advance meant to them,” Stern said when the first passport with the “X” gender designation was issued in October.
Passports are expected to become more widely available early next year, after application forms and the department’s computer systems have been updated.
Stern also stated that she has been involved in the administration’s efforts to address the needs of LGBTQ asylum seekers in the United States.
The Trump administration imposed new immigration restrictions and dismantled many of the support systems for asylum seekers and refugees seeking to resettle in the United States. Critics argue that the Biden administration’s continued use of restrictive border policies such as Title 42, which allows border agents to deport asylum seekers to Mexico to prevent the spread of coronavirus, is frequently a significant barrier for transgender people seeking asylum in the United States.
The Rainbow Railroad, a U.S. and Canadian organization that assists LGBT people facing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, said it has also struggled to resettle LGBTQ Afghan refugees in the United States.
Afghanistan has never been a welcoming place for LGBT people. However, when the Taliban reclaimed power in August, the situation changed overnight – from bad to horrific, according to Rainbow Railroad’s executive director, Kimahli Powell.
Since the fall of Kabul in August, Rainbow Railroad has received approximately 1,000 requests for assistance. According to Powell, the group has assisted about 100 people in fleeing to safer countries and is currently prioritizing other requests.
The organization has asked the Biden administration to assist in establishing an expedited process for accepting and resettling LGBTQ Afghan refugees. However, despite working with government officials in the United Kingdom to resettle Afghan LGBTQ refugees, the group has not been able to get any resettled in the United States thus far, according to Powell.
Powell mentioned that Biden signed a memorandum in February to advance LGBTQ rights. “Afghanistan is a critical opportunity for the administration to demonstrate its ability to carry out the commitments in that memorandum,” he said.
Stern stated that the United States recognizes that LGBTQ Afghans are among the most vulnerable people in the country and has been assisting them. She stated that some LGBT Afghans have resettled in the United States, but she declined to say how many, citing the need for sensitivity and confidentiality.