Obama Administration Makes Case for World LGBT Rights
December 06 2011 5:44 PM ET
Updated at 2:30 p.m. EST: In a historic address before the United Nations in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on all countries to respect the civil rights of LGBT individuals. The Secretary also announced new U.S. initiatives to support organizations working to protect gay people who are marginalized and targeted with violence.
Secretary Clinton's speech followed a memorandum issued Tuesday morning by President Obama, who in a multifaceted strategy directed federal agencies engaged abroad to defend LGBT rights. Both developments follow previous State Department and White House pronouncements supporting the global fight against anti-LGBT persecution.
"Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today," Clinton said in her address at the Palais des Nations before an audience of about 1,000 people, according to one estimate. "In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse.... I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time."
"Being LGBT does not make you less human," Clinton said to the audience, which included delegates from countries that criminalize homosexuality. "And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights," Clinton said, revisiting remarks she made at the State Department in Washington last year that played on her own 1995 women’s rights speech in Beijing.
But around the world, Clinton said, LGBT people are an “invisible minority” who are “routinely arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed.” More than 80 countries currently have anti-LGBT criminal laws.
"Even though progress on this front is not easy, we cannot delay acting," Clinton said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love?’”
The goals on global LGBT rights as outlined by the presidential memo Tuesday seek to:
• Combat the criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad.
• Protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.
• Leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination.
• Ensure swift and meaningful U.S. responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad.
• Engage international organizations in the fight against LGBT discrimination.
(RELATED: Read the complete memorandum as a PDF)
“I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world, whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation,” Obama said in the memorandum. Referring to a September address he gave to the UN general assembly in New York, the president said, “That is why I declared before heads of state gathered at the United Nations, ‘no country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.’”
Of particular interest to some international observers is how the U.S. may "leverage" foreign aid —particularly after British prime minister David Cameron said in a recent interview that Commonwealth countries that continue to criminalize and persecute gays could see their bilateral aid cut as a result.
White House spokesman Shin Inouye told The Advocate that the U.S. will not withhold aid as a result of the new directives, however. "The President’s memo today puts forward a comprehensive strategy, of which one component is finding affirmative ways to support these efforts through our assistance,” Inouye said. “We are not talking about cutting aid or tying aid, but we are talking about using all of our tools, including assistance, to translate our principles into action.”
Secretary Clinton announced formal commitments to advocacy groups worldwide, notably a fund to assist organizations working on LGBT rights. Last month, a State Department official toldThe Advocate that the department will, in the coming year, provide grants to better document LGBT human rights abuses, as well as establish organizational networks across borders, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
The global fund announced is small — $3 million, according to a State Department official — though advocates hope that the program will encourage additional funding support from outside groups committed to LGBT rights. Some grants have already been administered to human rights groups, an official said late Tuesday.
In her speech, Clinton conceded that the United States has its own failings in ensuring equal civil rights for its own LGBT citizens, a theme picked up by reporters traveling with the Secretary.
(RELATED: Read The Advocate's Cover Story Interview With Secretary Clinton from Earlier This Year)
Asked by one reporter how the Obama administration squares its support for global LGBT rights while not explicitly endorsing marriage equality in the United States, a senior State Department official replied that condemning acts of violence and eradicating criminal laws against homosexuality were logical first steps on which to focus. “You don’t attack, you don’t commit a violent act, against somebody because of their sexual orientation,” the official said. “You don’t criminalize conduct. And so we’re here trying to, again, broadly speaking, identify a human right, a global human right, which starts with those fundamental principles and which is consistent with everything we’re doing across the board.”
American LGBT leaders in attendance for the Geneva address included Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese and Council for Global Equality chair Mark Bromley, who were joined by representatives from mainstream human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In a statement, HRC’s Solmonese said, “Along with today’s memorandum by President Obama, it is clear that this administration will not turn its head when governments commit or allow abuses of the human rights of LGBT people. Additionally, Secretary Clinton’s message directly to LGBT people around the world that they have an ally in the United States sends a powerful message.”
Bromley of the Council for Global Equality called the speech a landmark moment and a “strong assertion that U.S. foreign policy should include fundamental support for all people, including LGBT citizens internationally.”
Prior to the speech, Secretary Clinton met with several LGBT advocates, some from countries such as Uganda and Cameroon, nations that have been criticized for poor human rights records and laws that criminalize homosexuality.
Last week the Nigerian Senate approved a bill that criminalizes same-sex marriages — which were already illegal in Africa’s most populous nation — with penalties of up to 14 years in prison (regions of the country governed by Sharia law impose the death penalty). Those found guilty of organizing or supporting LGBT groups could face 10 years in prison under the new law, which has troubled advocates concerned that the legislation hampers HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts in Africa’s most populous nation.
Among those who reportedly met with the secretary was Alice N’kom, a Cameroonian civil rights attorney who defends those arrested on charges of homosexuality.
(RELATED: A Profile of Alice N'kom's Work in Africa)
While international media attention has focused largely on struggles in Africa, the State Department under Secretary Clinton has also documented virulent discrimination elsewhere in the world, including proposed new civil penalties for LGBT rights groups in Russia and the banning of gay pride demonstrations in Serbia.
In March, the UN’s Human Rights Council approved for the first time a resolution condemning discrimination and violence against LGBT people.
In the resolution, the council “[expresses] grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” The measure was introduced by South Africa, one of 12 African nations on the council, with significant behind-the-scenes support from the U.S.
MORE: Read Hillary Clinton's Complete Speech on the Following Page