The stars and rainbow stripes

The stars and rainbow stripes
Image: John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)

IT was a February day in Melbourne and Washington DC’s man in Canberra was in something of a political pickle.

It had all been so easy in Sydney.

When the Mardi Gras parade sashayed its way down Oxford St, he had a plum position perfectly situated to savour the floats and imbibe the atmosphere.

“I was supposed to just watch just like I did in Sydney,” insists John Berry of his trip to Melbourne for Pride March earlier this year.

But he hadn’t factored on Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, fresh from his election triumph, sauntering past with the party’s LGBTI wing.

“The Premier says ‘hey come out here and walk with me’ so I was, ‘okay’,” Berry says.

Is it the done thing for a foreign diplomat to march under the banner of a local political party?

“I didn’t want it to be seen as a political endorsement,” the ambassador says.

“[But] when a Premier asks you to do something, the answer is ‘yes sir’.”

So far, relations between Canberra and Washington have survived Pride, one of a slew of LGBTI-centric events across the country Berry has attended since he took on the role of US Ambassador to Australia in 2013.

He has also made a point of meeting members of the LGBTI community across the country, including hosting dinners at the US Embassy attended by the likes of Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

“These are engaged, persistent creative leaders who are making a huge difference and it just gives me such hope in the future,” says Berry, who is adamant the more gay people are out, the easier it will be for the next generation.

The ambassador himself has been open about his own sexuality from the very beginning.

In a YouTube video he made to introduce himself to his new host nation — a clip in which Berry is so full of folksy affability you feel he might be about to invite all of Australia around for an ice tea on the embassy lawn — he talks warmly about his spouse, Hawaiian-born lawyer Curtis Yee.

“I’ve never been in the closet since I’ve been 25,” he tells the Star Observer.

“I’m take or leave it — if you have a problem with it, it’s your problem not mine.”

John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)
John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)

BERRY’S journey to becoming America’s first openly gay ambassador to a G20 nation began within the mammoth US Government bureaucracy.

While assistant secretary of the Interior Department, he signed off on the heritage listing for New York’s Stonewall Inn, the site of a riot in 1969 when the bar’s patrons hit back at the police’s continued harassment of the LGBTI community.

Berry spoke about Stonewall — widely cited as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement and the forerunner of today’s multitude of pride parades — at New York Pride in 2000.

“Trying to get a crowd of two million homosexuals to be quiet and listen to a speech is not a good idea,” he jokes.

“One of the more important addresses I’ve given [and] you can count on one hand the people that heard two words.”

However, via the media, word did get out.

Screen shot 2015-06-19 at 7.53.55 PM“It led to everything from death threats to other things,” he recalls.

“That audience was angry that I tied gay civil rights to the advances of civil rights for all in the United States.

“But that’s been the philosophy I have pursued in my life.”

By 2009, Berry — who was once described in The Australian newspaper by former Labor leader and current Australian Ambassador to the US Kim Beazley as a “bright bloke, very well-connected in DC” — was heading up the Office of Personnel Management, essentially the US Government’s HR arm.

There he extended the anti-discrimination policy to trans* employees and led the process which culminated in President Barack Obama extending federal benefits to same-sex partners.

Berry is effusive in his praise of Obama saying LGBTI rights “will be one of the historical landmarks of his presidency”.

Along the way, the ambassador has collected a few unique souvenirs.

Following a stint at the US National Zoo, a lion was named in his honour and a mountain in Antarctica has been christened “Berry Bastion” after his push to increase funding into climate change research.

“Once you have a mountain and a lion named after you, you can relax,” he says.

“Who needs a Nobel prize?”

John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)
John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)

THIS month the US Supreme Court is due to make a judgement that could effectively legalise marriage equality across the country.

Of the nine judges who will make the decision, four are assumed to be in favour of changing the law and four against.

“It all comes down to Justice Kennedy,” Berry says.

“Hopefully, it’ll be a 5:4 decision in favour of marriage equality but you can never predict what the Supreme Court is going to do.”

Should Kennedy vote no, Berry says he would hold no rancour: “I have managed 40 per cent of our federal law enforcement, the secret service, customs — that’s a lot of gun-carrying agents — and to do that job I had to hold the highest security clearances.

Screen shot 2015-06-19 at 7.54.06 PM“I could not have held those clearances if sodomy was still illegal and Justice Kennedy struck down that law.

“He’s already proven he’s a friend, he stands for equality, so I have nothing but admiration for him.

“I trust his judgement enough that if he were somehow to say ‘it’s not time’ it would give me pause.”

Kennedy was also pivotal in the 2013 striking down of the Defence of Marriage Act, one of the biggest hurdles to countrywide marriage equality.

Ten days after the act’s demise, Berry and Yee married.

How did it feel to finally say their vows, 17 years after their relationship began?

“It’s so increased our awareness and appreciation of the power of love,” Berry says.

“We can tend to think of this just as a legal thing but this was to me a very empowering thing that made me take our relationship 10 times more seriously and that’s I think the power of marriage.

“I feel confident that, god forbid, if I were to have cancer and Curtis [had] to take care of me he would be able to do that all the better based on the emotional love that was deepened through our marriage ceremony.

“And I say that as someone who cared for my first partner who died from AIDS and knowing what’s involved with taking care of someone as they die.”

Has he discussed his views with Australia’s anti-marriage equality Prime Minister Tony Abbott?

“No,” he says, pointing to marriage equality advocacy not being US foreign policy and so beyond his diplomatic remit.

“I always wear my wedding ring and I’m happy to talk about how the US handled marriage but that’s as far as I go.

“But he has met Curtis and I.

Screen shot 2015-06-19 at 7.54.23 PM“I feel he has extended every diplomatic courtesy and he and his wife have been very generous at making sure we’re welcomed.”

Berry recently attended an event in Washington DC with five other openly-gay US ambassadors. But what exactly do gay ambassadors chat about when they get together?

“Drapery,” Berry shoots back, before conceding that following talk of home furnishings, the group discusses how they can help their fellow LGBTI employees in the State Department.

While the US has never had so many gay ambassadors, all are men. Could Berry see a time when, perhaps, a trans* person was appointed ambassador?

“Absolutely,” he says.

“There are a great many transgender employees at senior levels of the government.

“The President has made well over 300 LGBT appointments and it’s only a matter of a time before every one of those categories will make it into the ambassadorial ranks.”

US Ambassador John Berry married Curtis Yee in Washington DC in 2013. (Supplied photo)
US Ambassador John Berry married Curtis Yee in Washington DC in 2013. (Supplied photo)

BERRY says his Australian bucket list is almost complete following an avalanche of sightseeing advice on Facebook.

A suggestion which caught his eye was to visit the place which — inadvertently — bears his name.

So, one weekend Berry and Yee headed down to the historic NSW town of Berry.

“It’s hysterical,” he says.

“Everything in Berry has signs that say, you know, Berry doughnuts, the Berry milkshake shop.

“So we took pictures everywhere and I said ‘look, I know where I’m moving when I’m done being ambassador’.”

Given he already has a lion and a mountain, the US Embassy might want to start thinking about the going away gift for the ambassador and his husband sooner rather than later.

John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)
John Berry is the openly-gay US Ambassador to Australia. PHOTO: Frank Farrugia (Same Love Photography)

Others flying the rainbow flag from the embassy

Stephen Brady, Australia

Upon his appointment to Denmark, Australia’s envoy made history by becoming the world’s first ambassador to have a same-sex partner officially recognised by another country. In 2015, he reportedly offered to resign following a request from a Canberra official not to bring his partner to greet visiting Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

James Hormel, US

The LGBTI activist’s posting to Luxembourg in 1999, in the face of fierce opposition from traditionalist lobby groups, made him America’s first openly-gay ambassador. 

Grete Lochen, Norway 

Oslo’s openly-gay envoy caused a stir in 2012 when she was sent to Sri Lanka — a country where homosexuality is considered illegal.

Brian Davidson, UK 

Marriage equality may be a long way off in China but there are loopholes. Britain’s Consul-General to Shanghai married his same-sex partner last year at the UK’s Beijing Embassy — but under English law.  

Laurent Stefanini, France 

The Pope has so far failed to respond to France’s request to send openly-gay Stefanini as Paris’ man in the Vatican. Reportedly, it’s not the first time the Holy See has snubbed gay would-be ambassadors.


**This was first published in the July edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.

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