U.S. Special Envoy Jessica Stern Discusses Global LGBTQ+ Rights at Harvard IOP Forum


U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Jessica Stern discussed America’s leadership in global LGBTQ+ rights at a Wednesday Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum.

The event was moderated by Timothy P. “Tim” McCarthy ’93, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who focuses on education leadership. During the forum, Stern and McCarthy discussed U.S. diplomacy and advocacy around addressing human rights crises around LGBTQ+ rights.

Stern said discrimination persists despite improvements in global LGBTQ+ rights, creating a landscape she described as a “moment of polarization.”

“We have certain priorities fighting decriminalization around the world, lifting up the vulnerability of LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees, increasing foreign assistance of LGBTQI rights, and being a leader in global coalitions to help make this work easier around the world,” she said.


Still, Stern said her work has not been free of criticism.

McCarthy said some have alleged Stern’s office is “imposing a vision or a view of human rights that’s very much American or western.” Stern acknowledged western legacies of colonialism and said her work focuses on collaborating with LGBTQ+ people “at the community level.”

McCarthy said another criticism Stern has faced is that her work is “imposing or importing homosexuality.”

“LGBTQI people are in every country of the world, in every family or in every neighborhood,” Stern said, in her response.

Stern added it is important to proceed with “humility” when working to further LGBTQ+ rights as a U.S. government official.

“I’m not pretending that we have all the answers for LGBTQI rights, and I think that’s really important,” she said.

Changes in the U.S. presidential administration can impact the work of the government around advancing LGBTQ+ rights, according to Stern.

Discussing the volatility of Stern’s role, McCarthy noted that the “position was created by President Obama and then left vacant during the Trump Administration, and now it’s back.”

“The institution has to reckon with what it means to not always have a stable North Star,” Stern said of her office.

Stern emphasized the importance of depoliticizing discussions around LGBTQ+ rights within the U.S. and globally.

“We act with an eye on the question of, ‘How do we institutionalize and depoliticize this agenda?’” Stern said.

Stern also discussed the importance of decriminalizing LGBTQ+ status around the world, noting that there are 66 countries with a form of sodomy law. Still, she added, there has been progress: Four countries have decriminalized sodomy this year.

Stern condemned conversion therapy, describing it as “incomprehensible.”

“It’s a set of practices that ranges from torture to starvation to electroshock therapy that seeks to change someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression or sex characteristics,” she said. “This can’t be okay for any of us.”

Stern also discussed the interplay between LGBTQ+ rights and national security, economic development, climate change, and refugee crises.

“There’s really not an issue you can think of where there’s not an LGBTQI angle,” she said.

Stern closed her talk by reflecting on her personal experience as an LGBTQ+ person, saying the “government hasn’t always defended our rights.”

“We’re more often on the streets asking governments to recognize us — but people are policy, so we also need people who are inside the institution,” she said. “We need people in the streets, we need people who negotiate with governments, and we need people who are in government. We need all of it.”

—Staff writer Hana Rostami can be reached at