Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s December 6 Geneva speech on LGBT rights is another high-water mark in the Obama administration’s integration of the human and civil rights of LGBT people into U.S. foreign policy.
Clinton spoke to a diplomatic audience, one that included ambassadors from a range of countries that criminally penalize same-sex relations and relationships. Her message — that LGBT people are humans with inherent and equal value — was framed with reason and wrapped in sensitivity to culture and religion. The references to her own personal journey on this issue, and to that of our country, underscored that fairness for LGBT people is a common cause, not a subject for lecture.
This, of course, confirms a refreshing change of direction for U.S. diplomacy on a previously ignored problem. The U.S. is a latecomer to international efforts to address the horrific abuses that LGBT people suffer around the world, and the need for our voice has never been more acute. The Obama administration has risen to the occasion in numerous examples where LGBT rights have been at stake. Although a good start, these efforts often have carried a catch-up feel, without strategic thought or direction. Clinton’s speech provides that framework and direction.
For those of us in the hall, Clinton’s speech seemed powerfully spoken from the heart. To me, a gay former diplomat, it also demonstrated the resilience of our diplomacy to respond to real and urgent needs. The speech, indeed, represents only part of a powerful legacy she will leave on LGBT rights at the State Department. Her early efforts to end discriminatory workplace policies for gay and lesbian diplomats set the standard for other federal agencies. The department’s attention to LGBT problems in its annual human rights reports has strengthened. Passport procedures have been changed to benefit transgender citizens and gay and lesbian parents. International speaker and exchange visitor programs now consciously reach out to LGBT populations, helping make the case for equal treatment in even the most skeptical overseas audiences. Funding for antidiscrimination and hate crimes–related projects has followed. And U.S. embassies now interact increasingly with LGBT groups at all levels, giving the latter greater visibility and respect in their communities.
A partner presidential memorandum issued the day of Clinton’s speech directed all foreign affairs agencies to follow State’s out-in-front, LGBT-inclusive lead in international programming. This, of course, will bear future impact down the road across the full range of embassy programs and activities.
But those who say that this was just another speech are missing the larger and more immediate impact. By “outing” the issue of LGBT abuse and discrimination in the very chamber in which the League of Nations (predecessor to the UN) was born, Clinton has ensured that the issue will be talked about at senior levels in foreign ministries of our partner countries. She also made clear that the muscle and tools of U.S. diplomacy will be committed to easing the climate of anti-LGBT bigotry around the world, and to ending criminal penalties for being gay. That too will reverberate.
We of course are not seeing the movement we want on LGBT rights at home, and in an election year, that may not change. But Clinton’s speech shows that continued movement on LGBT rights is still possible. And it underscores again that America’s diplomacy is at its best when it is grounded in our founding beliefs in equality, fairness, personal liberties, and fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and expression — all of which are at stake when gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are abused abroad.
The first openly gay ambassador to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, MICHAEL GUEST served as ambassador to Romania from 2001 to 2004. He is a senior adviser for the Council for Global Equality.