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U.S. State Department Expands LGBT Terminology

Serra Sippel

In a United Nations meeting this week, the U.S. State Department announced that it will refer to"sexual rights" when speaking about sexual and reproductive health rights, and that phrase will include LGBT rights. The rhetorical shift will bring the United States into line with other countries currently using the term "sexual rights."

According to a statement posted on the State Department website, sexual rights refers to the "right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence." Human rights advocates and organizations have been pushing for the change for years, while State Department officials stressed that the Department's commitment to protecting LGBT rights worldwide remains unchanged.

"On one level, it's symbolic," Serra Sippel, president of Washington-based Center for Health and Gender Equity, told the Associated Press. "It also sends a signal to the global community that sexual and reproductive health and rights are a part of the global development agenda." She went on to note that the Obama administration has made "huge strides" on LGBT rights.

"Sexual rights are not human rights, and they are not enshrined in international human rights law; our use of this term does not reflect a view that they are part of customary international law," deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Erdman said in a meeting of the U.N. women's agency. "It is, however, a critical expression of our support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the State Department would cease using the phrase "LGBT rights" in U.N. correspondence. In reality, the Department is expanding its terminology to bring it in line with international practices, but will continue to discuss LGBT rights specifically, in addition to sexual rights more broadly. 

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