“The heart and conscience of our diplomacy” — that is what Secretary of State John Kerry calls promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

But that heart was wounded in April when two gay rights activists were hacked to death in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka.

The victims were U.S. Agency for International Development employee Xulhaz Mannan and his friend, Tanay Mojumdar. Mannan was editor of Bangladesh’s first and only gay rights magazine.

Kerry called the murders “barbaric,” saying Mannan was an “advocate for human rights and dignity.”

To end such crimes and discrimination against LGBTI people, the U.S. Department of State established a Global Equality Fund in 2011.

The fund, so far, has provided groups in 80 countries $30 million to help individuals who have been threatened or harassed and to combat discrimination.

Courageous LGBT advocates from around the world are standing up for equality, even while facing violence, intolerance and discrimination,” said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, a partner in the fund.

GIF showing increase of countries' progress for LGBTI laws (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

In 2015 Kerry named Randy Berry the first U.S. special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons. Since then Berry has been traveling the world to assert the dignity of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Portrait of smiling man (Courtesy of Tiernan Brady)
Tiernan Brady (Courtesy photo)

The Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) notes progress in its 2016 report on state-sponsored homophobia.

Laws in 123 countries protect LGBTI persons from discrimination, hate crimes and hate speech. Forty-seven of those countries recognize same-sex marriage.

“There can be no doubt that in roughly 20 years, Ireland has moved from being an unfriendly and isolating place for lesbian and gay people to being one of the best,” said Tiernan Brady, political director of Gay and Lesbian Equality Network in Dublin. “Equal marriage rights and strong anti-discrimination legislation provide the backdrop for that.”

Problems remain

Still, ILGA says, more can be done. According to the group, laws in 73 countries allow LGBTI people to be jailed or even killed because of their sexual orientation or activity.

Kerry decries such laws as violations of basic human rights. LGBTI people “are threatened, jailed and prosecuted because of who they are or who they love,” he said. He counsels diligent advocacy because, despite recent progress, “too many governments have proposed or enacted laws that aim to curb freedom.”

Pepe Onziema (Courtesy of NED/Elise Alexander)
Pepe Onziema (Courtesy photo)

And ILGA notes that, even where where same-sex relations are legal, gay people can nevertheless face social stigma, be discriminated against by their families, or receive unequal education or health care.

Pepe Onziema, a leading rights activist and program director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said LGBTI Ugandans are “part of the global movement” and “take every opportunity to speak out.” He said that he and his fellow activists, despite having faced harsh treatment in the past, are optimistic. “Our desire for freedom has taken deep root,” he said. “The roots will one day prove deeper than hatred.”