The Little-Known Origin of 'Gay Rights Are Human Rights''

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Four years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did what no world leader had ever done before. Standing in the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva, she boldly proclaimed, “Gay rights are human rights,” laying out for the first time the United States’ strong commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as a part of all diplomatic and development efforts. This moment marked a monumental policy shift for the U.S. government. The words reverberated throughout the grand hall filled with hundreds of foreign ministers and diplomats who had gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Watching Secretary Clinton take the podium, I knew we were on the precipice of history. As her adviser on LGBT and gender issues on the policy planning staff, I sat anxiously in the audience and observed the crowd absorb the secretary’s message. For the next 30 minutes, the secretary offered a powerful and intricate argument for protecting a community that rarely gets favorable attention from world leaders, and she expected everyone to listen. She also signaled to that her declaration that “gay rights are human rights” were more than just a rhetorical play on her 1995 women’s rights speech in Beijing by announcing a historic multimillion-dollar commitment through the State Department’s Global Equality Fund to back up her words with the full force of the U.S. government.

What many people do not know is that Secretary Clinton had said that famous phrase before. A year and a half prior to Geneva, U.S. diplomats gathered for the State Department Pride celebration in a stuffy, windowless auditorium. At this small and unglamorous event, the secretary ran through most of her prepared speech, but then paused and looked up, catching the crowd by surprise. Going off script, she emphatically stated:

“These dangers are not 'gay' issues. This is a human rights issue. Just as I was very proud to say the obvious more than 15 years ago in Beijing that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, well, let me say today that, Human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights, once and for all.” 

Prior to that moment, those words were not in any U.S. government policy papers or mentioned in a speech. They came directly from Hillary Clinton, whose leadership and commitment to championing equality was crystal clear. The echoes of this declaration became public December 6, 2011.

The speech in Geneva was the crescendo of a journey that began shortly after she took up her role in Foggy Bottom in 2009. In an unprecedented effort, the U.S. Department of State had taken the lead on addressing inequality and human rights issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, within the federal government and abroad. I was fortunate to be a part of a group of committed policy advisers, both LGBT and allies, who worked to build equality into all aspects of our work, from including gender identity protections in the department’s equal employment code to ensuring that LGBT refugees could claim asylum from persecution and receive critical services to transforming regulations so trans people could reflect the accurate gender marker on their passports, providing critical identification to those who were previously denied recognition. We had no idea what reception this new initiative would encounter abroad.

At the Palais des Nations, our small U.S. delegation, made up of government officials and LGBT activists from terribly repressive anti-LGBT climates including Uganda and Russia, joined a private celebration with Secretary Clinton just before the remarks. She commended the activists’ brave efforts and urged the crowd to keep fighting. Then we all marched into the enormous chamber where every seat was filled.

As Secretary Clinton began the remarks, I wondered if the gathered diplomats, including ambassadors from the most conservative countries in the world, would simply walk out in protest, and held my breath. She called on leaders of nations with homophobic laws to change, and on individuals to address their biases and stand up for fundamental rights, and pledged to the LGBT community worldwide that they had an ally in the United States of America. Under the force of her words, a handful of officials did walk out but that did not deter her conviction. As she concluded, calling for us to be the right side of history, the room of over a thousand rose up to give her a standing ovation. The international community stood united with Secretary Clinton and the United States of America in recognizing the intrinsic place of the LGBT community as part of the global human rights agenda.

Four year later and in response to U.S. diplomatic engagement to promote and protect LGBT rights at home and abroad, the words “Gay rights are human rights” appear on signs and are chanted at Pride marches from India to the Czech Republic to here in the United States. The Global Equality Fund, a public-private partnership that I constructed and which was announced during the secretary’s speech, has provided over $20 million of funding to LGBT human rights groups around the world. And most importantly, countries with anti-sodomy laws have begun to change as a result of tireless activists fighting for equality and dignity for their own citizens. The arc of the moral universe continues to bend toward justice pushed by the collective force of these advocates for equality, many of whom are unseen and underappreciated around the world.

And yet the work continues. Over 70 countries criminalize millions of LGBT people for who they are or who they love. Violence, harassment, and imprisonment remain familiar to far too many in our community. Four years ago, Secretary Clinton stood shoulder to shoulder with LGBT activists to declare the fundamental truth that LGBT rights are human rights once and for all. She highlighted Eleanor Roosevelt’s notion that people’s rights are upheld in “small spaces close to home.” Let us celebrate the anniversary of these remarks by continuing the fight close to home, in our neighborhoods and cities from Kiev to Kampala, Houston to New Delhi, grounded in the notion that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

patel
MIRA PATEL was previously appointed in the Obama Administration from 2009-2013 as a Special Advisor on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State developing policy, programming, and communications on international human rights. Patel is a former Point Foundation scholar.

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