Madame Secretary

“Gay rights are human rights.” With that declaration — and the team she has assembled at the State Department — Hillary Rodham Clinton has elevated the dialogue on LGBT rights around the globe.

BY Kerry Eleveld

January 10 2011 4:00 AM ET

 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveled before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 State Department employees celebrating gay pride at the agency’s Loy Henderson Auditorium in Washington, D.C. last summer. “Gee, let’s do this every week!” she said. This, it seemed, was to be more of a reunion of old acquaintances than a perfunctory speech on diversity.

At first, Clinton glanced down—to the lectern and her prepared remarks. But her focus on the written page melted away as she looked up and rolled on with the speech, channeling the myriad mental notes she had made over the years.

Displaying an uncanny depth of understanding for the challenges that many LGBT youth experience, Clinton spoke of tragedies that would only come to national attention months later after a spate of heart-wrenching teen suicides dominated headlines for weeks. She called on the staff members before her to help create a safe space for gays and lesbians everywhere, “Particularly young people, particularly teenagers who still, today, have such a difficult time and who, still, in numbers far beyond what should ever happen, take their own lives rather than live that life.”

Men and women around the world were being “harassed, beaten, subjected to sexual violence, even killed, because of who they are and whom they love,” she said.

“This is a human rights issue,” Clinton told the rapt audience. She ad-libbed, recalling an oft-quoted line from a landmark speech on women’s rights at a U.N. conference in China: “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.”

Asked months later what was going through her mind when she offered the unscripted line at the pride celebration, Clinton responds with her inimitable laugh. “Oh, heavens, I don’t know—I don’t know,” she says before settling back into the moment. “I was looking out at the audience where a lot of longtime friends, political supporters, colleagues were sitting, and it just seemed so important and right to make that statement.”

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