Special Envoy Stern on The Greek Current Podcast:  “Greece, the U.S., and the Work to Advance LGBTQI+ Rights”

Special Envoy Stern on The Greek Current Podcast:
“Greece, the U.S., and the Work to Advance LGBTQI+ Rights”
Recorded: August 22, 2023 at 9am ET 


Thanos Davelis: Welcome to the Greek Current, a podcast by HALC and Kathimerini. I’m your host, Thanos Davelis. Last month, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he planned to legalize same sex marriage in his new term. Many have noted that this would be a huge step forward for LGBTQI+ rights at a time when some governments, even in the West, are cracking down on the community. Jessica Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, and Nikos Efstathiou, a journalist and author from Athens and the current managing editor at the magazine LiFO, join me to talk about LGBTQI+ rights in Greece and around the world and look at what Greece and the U.S. can learn from each other as they work to advance these rights. Special Envoy Jessica Stern, Nikos, it’s great to have you both on the Greek Current today. 

 Jessica Stern: Thank you, Thanos. It’s great to be here with you. 

 Nikos Efstathiou: Thanos, thank you so much for the invitation, particularly on a topic that’s really close to my heart. 

 Thanos Davelis: Special Envoy Stern, you’ve traveled the world, including Greece, working to advance LGBTQI+ rights, an issue that’s a key foreign policy issue for the U.S. as well. Where do you see LGBTQI+ rights today and what role do you see for the U.S. and advocating for the rights of these individuals? 

 Jessica Stern: It’s a great question Thanos. I just came back from a four-country trip, mostly in the sub-Saharan African region, and I spent my time going from country to country asking LGBTQI+ people, “Do you feel safe and secure in your daily lives? Do you feel like your government represents and defends you? And what can foreign governments like the U.S. do to support you?” And the truth is that we’re in a moment of polarization on LGBTQI+ issues. On the one hand, there were LGBTQI+ people for me to meet with and they weren’t afraid to meet with me and many of them were coming from LGBTQI+ rights organizations. So, that in and of itself is a huge success and represents real progress from where we were 20 years ago.

On the other hand, the stories of bullying in schools, family rejection and religious rejection, discrimination at work and lack of legal protections and even lack of adequate health care was a through line in every conversation I had with members of the LGBTQI+ community. So, it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do on this issue.

Where does the U.S. government fit into all of this? Well, I always start by emphasizing a very simple concept of foreign policy, and that is that governments talk to one another, we talk to each other all the time. We talk about climate change; we talk about war and peace; we talk about economic development, and we talk about bilateral agreements. And so, my role is to ensure that those conversations between the U.S. government and our counterparts in other governments include human rights and specifically the rights of LGBTQI+ persons.
So how does this all come together? Well, I have to say I had the great pleasure of visiting Greece last October and it was an amazing experience because I got to meet with a lot of LGBTQI+ activists and community members and writers and thinkers in Greece, and it was wonderful because I had been reading about the National Action Plan on LGBTQI+ rights in Greece. And so I would ask people, “What do you want now and where are you going?” And what I heard is that people want marriage equality. They want access to equal adoption. They want anti-discrimination and anti-bullying in schools and in all parts of their lives. And most importantly, I really heard that people just want to be treated equally, as any person in Greece would be treated regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression or sex characteristics. So, when I think about where the U.S. comes into this, we are always fighting to support the people of a country and to have a respectful relationship with the government. And so those are our priorities as well and we’ll continue to advocate publicly and privately in support of what we heard from LGBTQI+ people in Greece. 

 Thanos Davelis: Niko, I want to turn to you and hone in on Greece and the experience of its LGBTQI+ community. What have some of the key challenges been and how has this changed over the years? 

Nikos Efstathiou: Thank you for the question, Thanos. I think if I were to characterize Greece’s position right now, I would say that we’re in a transition, as is very often the case with these things. So, we’ve seen tremendous progress that we do need to recognize, but we also have a lot ahead of us that remains to be done. And I couldn’t agree more with the Special Envoy’s message of equality, but what LGBTQI+ people and communities in Greece are asking for is really equal treatment by the state and by the law at all levels.

So, let’s look at what I think are three different levels where we’ve seen progress, but also there’s more progress ahead of us. I think the first level is legal. We’re talking about state protections to advance LGBTQI+ rights. And there I have to note that there’s been significant progress to make Greece catch up with the rest of the EU by both the previous governments. What we saw under the SYRIZA government was the passing of the same sex partnership bill and also the expansion of the protections under hate speech law to now apply to anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric. It’s very important. As the Special Envoy said, it’s very important to feel safe and secure. And that definitely applies to narrative and discourse as well. And we had the current government continue that course, setting up a committee to create a roadmap, a national action plan, and we’ve seen some of the recommendations that are being implemented as well. What I have to say is it’s very important that we’ve seen it expand to some of the most visible minorities within the LGBTQI+ umbrella, if you will. So, we had legislation to protect intersex children or we had the state subsidizing companies hiring trans individuals to include them more in the workforce. I think these things are also equally important. 

 This sort of leads me to the second area of growth, but also of challenges, which is visibility. I think the Greek LGBTQI+ community is more thriving and more open than ever before. We’ve had people come out in politics for the first time and be represented in government. I think there are multinational corporations and often American corporations that are active in Greece, [that] play an important role in bringing this sort of diversity culture into the Greek ecosystem. So, you start seeing people being out and proud and companies wanting to attract more LGBTQI+ people. I think that’s also great. But where I think there’s the most area for growth, if you will, and improvement is discourse and social sentiments. Things are definitely better than they were, but also there’s a lot of things that need to be done. I can’t not mention the shocking case of the murder of Zach Kostopoulos in 2018, some years ago, and seeing how a lot of the facts were very misrepresented and what was evidently eventually we all realized an attack triggered by hate and homophobic sentiments that was completely misrepresented in the media. We see some of these ripple effects happening again today. We recently had the murder of a trans woman in Athens.

To see some of the narratives sprouting out of these instances are worrisome. I think what ends up happening is that progress is a pull, but then you also have a push to the other side. This is very often how these things go through. And I think Greece is in the middle of this situation, if you will. So, what I can say is things are definitely better, but there is a roadmap and there is a lot that we also need to make sure that there is equality for all Greeks. 

 Thanos Davelis: Special Envoy, you mentioned your trip to Greece last fall. Are there any success stories from the U.S. experience that you think can help advance LGBTQI+ rights in Greece? 

 Jessica Stern: I want to say that there are a lot of parallels between the framework document that guides my work and the national strategy in Greece. I work under the Presidential Memorandum for LGBTQI+ Inclusion in U.S. Foreign Policy and Foreign Assistance. It’s a document set forth by President Biden within the first two weeks that he assumed the presidency and the analogy to the national plan for LGBTQI+ rights in Greece is that when there’s a framework document, it says whether or not to work on LGBTQI+ inclusive governance is not optional, it’s not subjective, it’s not based on someone being a nice person or being LGBTQI+ themselves, or having a queer kid or wanting to just do it because they think it’s the sign of the times. The analogy is that it is our obligation to fulfill the mandate that we were given and I want to say that the framework document that I work under is actually quite broad and inclusive, and I think that’s true for the national plan in Greece as well. In some ways, your plan actually goes further than ours because it actually set precedent, whereas ours provided a sort of broad tent that directed priorities. But nonetheless, I think they’re both absolutely essential because when I speak with government officials, they often ask, how do I work on LGBTQI+ rights when it almost seems so daunting. There’s so much to do. Where do I start?  

Well, we don’t actually have to guess. The experts have done this work for all of government. And in the context of Greece, I think that the new law banning unnecessary surgeries on intersex persons, which Niko, you so brilliantly referenced, is not only important in the context of safeguarding intersex people in Greece, but it actually positions Greece as a world leader because unfortunately there are less than half a dozen countries worldwide that have banned unnecessary surgeries on intersex people. I want to also underscore that President Biden issued something called Executive Order 14075 last year in honor of Pride and it did something that in some ways, one might even argue was influenced by the National Action Plan in Greece, which is that it looked at the grave practice known as conversion therapy. In the context of the U.S. executive order, it mandated that the U.S. Department of State lead an interagency effort to oppose conversion therapy practices around the world. So it makes me very happy that Greece is actually one of the countries that’s established a law banning and even criminalizing conversion therapy practices. Part of the reason why this is so important is because when LGBTQI+ people come out, they need to know that nothing bad is going to happen to them. It’s not enough to not be sentenced to prison because of who you are. You have to know that your family is not going to try to change your sexual orientation or gender identity. Neither will your religion, neither will anyone else in your life.  

 And then I want to also say the Prime Minister has said that he would pursue same sex marriage during his second term. I think this is another analogy to the U.S. You might be aware that Americans won marriage equality through a decision of the Supreme Court and we celebrated that. In fact, it actually changed people’s lives here in the U.S. Once upon a time, Americans asked if there’s marriage equality, will the family continue to exist? And the truth is, the family still exists in the United States and we have marriage equality. If anything, I would argue that the family is safer and more secure because more people feel loved and protected by it. I sometimes think it’s like a badge of honor for straight people to be invited to a gay or lesbian wedding because everyone wants to show that they’re an ally.  

 But the remarkable change that happened in the U.S. and it happens in a generation is that we actually went from achieving marriage equality through the courts to last year, actually having the Defense of Marriage Act be passed by our Congress. It was one of the only bipartisan pieces of legislation to make it through our Congress, which is remarkable in and of itself, because our Congress can’t even agree on doing things like investing in roads and infrastructure. But they agreed on this and the President signed it into law. So maybe the success story, Thanos, is that you can expand rights, you can do it, you can expand rights for people, and they will be safer and more secure. Social acceptance of LGBTQI+ Americans has skyrocketed in the past decade, and actually it’s helped make all Americans feel more secure. So if Greece can learn anything from the U.S. and I want to underscore the U.S. also learns a lot from Greece, it’s that by institutionalizing rights for more vulnerable groups, it helps all people. 

 Thanos Davelis: Niko, something that Special Envoy Stern brought up was Mitsotakis’s ambition and his plan to legalize same sex marriage. Is Greek society, as the Prime Minister said last month, ready for this step? And what will this mean for the LGBTQI+ community?  

  Nikos Efstathiou: Thank you for the question, Thanos. So, yeah, you’re right to say that this is sort of the flagship policy change that we’re all looking for. The Prime Minister has announced his intention of passing it, which in itself I think is a significant step. As Special Envoy said, to see these things get support from both sides of the political spectrum is very encouraging. So, to have the Prime Minister, the leader of a center-right party, back such a proposal is very encouraging on its own and we’re waiting to see how it will be debated in Parliament. We’re expecting it to come very, very soon. I think it’s tremendously important. I think marriage equality is sort of a flagship policy change, but even in itself, I don’t think it’s enough.   

  I will absolutely agree with sort of the framework that Special Envoy gave before. It’s, you know, equality is something that we need to strive for across the spectrum of what the state means. It’s something that has to be embedded in our education system, something that has to be embedded in healthcare as well. So, I think while it’s incredibly important and the aspect of having a family and being able to adopt a child is equally important. Sort of hiding behind the terminology of talking about marriage equality is the right to have a family. I will absolutely agree also with what the Special Envoy said about this. Really not only not going against the idea of a family but enhancing the idea of a family. You know very well that Greece is facing an underpopulation problem and a demographic problem.  

  Why not give the chance to LGBTQI+ people that comprise a big part of our society the chance to participate in this notion of a family? I think in any case, both ideologies have a lot of reasons to support something like this, but it’s also just the beginning for something bigger and I retain my optimism. But what I will say is that Greece does really look up to the U.S. and the rest of the world for inspiration. I personally have lived in the U.S., have celebrated myself the repeal of DOMA by the Supreme Court back in the day and carried a lot of these things back here in my work. But we also see the pushback that’s happening globally in terms of discourse. And I think also the U.S. is a very large and wide country and, in some areas, in some states you see progress and others you see a pushback. Greece is also equally affected by pushback. So, it’s very great to see governments sort of coming together, discussing policy proposals and ways to not only change policy, but also discourse and the culture around equality and making it something that garners support from the entirety of the political spectrum.   

  To answer your question, I think Greece is ready, but I think the political system needs to understand that this is just the beginning. Things are not static and if we really want to normalize equality and embed it into the system, this is just the start and there’s a lot more that needs to be done. And there’s consistent effort that needs to be done to protect equality at all levels. 

 Thanos Davelis: Special Envoy, a quick closing remark from you. You know, a lot of people around the world on multiple issues look to the United States for leadership and for inspiration. What message or thoughts would you like to share with Greek activists and allies? 

 Jessica Stern: Well, I think that inspiration comes from all places. And I certainly was inspired by the LGBTQI+ activists and thinkers in Greece that I met. So, the respect is entirely mutual. Well, I want to just highlight EuroPride, which is going to take place next year in Thessaloniki. I don’t know if I can squeeze it into my schedule, but I certainly am considering it because it’s an incredible opportunity to see the LGBTQI+ movement of Greece on the world stage and to see the region gravitate towards Greece as a place of forward momentum on these issues. I went to WorldPride Sydney in February in Australia. No, don’t feel sorry for me that my job is so hard! But actually, the reason why I go to events like this, is because regional or global pride events are action-forcing events. And the truth is that when a country is hosting a pride event that other countries are going to attend, it is an opportunity to demonstrate your track record on these issues. And so one message I want to share to Greek activists, to allies, to the government is: seize the opportunity of Europride in Thessaloniki. 

 It is an opportunity to make new announcements about the country’s commitment to LGBTQI+ equality. It is an opportunity for the Greek private sector to show their commitment to LGBTQI+ inclusion in the workplace. It is an opportunity for religious leaders to say they don’t tolerate intolerance in any form, especially in the name of religion, and it is an opportunity for regional and global leaders to learn from some of these landmark successes that Greece is helping to lead for the world, including on intersex rights and conversion therapy practices. So, I guess in closing, I would say my message is: one attend EuroPride in Thessaloniki and two, don’t give up the fight. We really don’t have time to waste when it comes to safety, security and equality. And if you think that LGBTQI+ issues are a niche concern, then ask yourself: “Who in my life is LGBTQI+? Is it a member of my family, a neighbor, or someone from my workplace?” And the answer is probably all of the above. And you’ll realize that LGBTQI+ equality is a priority for all of us. 

Thanos Davelis: Special Envoy Jessica Stern. Niko, thank you both for joining. It’s been great speaking with you. 

 Jessica Stern: Such a pleasure to join you both today. Thank you for the rich conversation. 

Nikos Efstathiou: Thank you so much for a very inspiring conversation.