The Obama administration on Tuesday made public a sweeping plan to confront anti-LGBT abuses overseas as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a high-profile speech on protecting human rights that made extensive references to LGBT rights abuses.
On Tuesday, President Obama issued what’s being called the first-ever U.S. government strategy to address LGBT human rights overseas in the form of a memo to the heads of government departments and agencies.
In the memo, Obama writes that the fight to end discrimination against LGBT people is “a global challenge” and “central to the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights.”
“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.
The memo articulates six points in the new strategy to combat LGBT human rights abuses.
* U.S. agencies overseas are directed to strengthen efforts to combat the criminalization by foreign governments of LGBT status or conduct in addition to expanding efforts to combat discrimination overseas on this basis.
* The Departments of State and Homeland Security are directed to ensure LGBT people seeking asylum in the United States have equal access to protection and assistance. Additionally, the Departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security are to ensure appropriate training is in place for government personnel to help LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.
* U.S. foreign aid agencies are directed to engage regularly with governments, citizens, civil society and the private sector to foster an awareness of LGBT human rights.
* The State Department is to lead a “standing group” geared toward ensuring swift response to serious incidents threatening the human rights of LGBT people overseas.
* U.S. agencies overseas are directed to work with international organizations to counter anti-LGBT discrimination and increase the number of countries willing to defend LGBT issues.
* U.S. agencies engaged abroad are required to prepare a report for the State Department within 180 days on their progress on these initiatives. The department will then compile a larger report for the president.
Joe Solmonese, president of the the Human Rights Campaign, praised the Obama administration for the new guidance in a statement.
“As Americans, we understand that no one should be made a criminal or subject to violence or even death because of who they are, no matter where they live,” Solmonese said. “Today’s actions by President Obama make clear that the United States will not turn a blind eye when governments commit or allow abuses to the human rights of LGBT people.”
Victoria Neilson, legal director for Immigration Equality, had particular praise for the added protections for LGBT people seeking asylum in the United States.
“Immigration Equality hears from more than 1,000 LGBT people a year who are fleeing persecution,” Neilson said. “Many face daunting challenges in escaping their home country, let alone reaching the shores of the United States. By instructing foreign service officers to offer all available assistance to those who seek their help, the White House is extending a helping hand to some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals.”
On the same day the memo was issued, Clinton spoke extensively about the need to incorporate LGBT people in human rights protections during remarks at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
The speech was in recognition of Human Rights Day, which recognizes the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly. More than 1,000 diplomats and experts were in attendance.
“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 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. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm. 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.”
Clinton acknowledged that her “own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect.” She noted that being gay was still a crime in many parts of the country until 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.
“Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences,” Clinton said. “So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.”
But the secretary also rejected the idea that homosexuality is a Western creation and people outside of Western countries therefore have grounds to reject LGBT people.
“Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world,” Clinton said. “They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.”
Clinton said those who first crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may not in 1948 have realized the document applied to LGBT people, but said many of the countries involved in its crafting have come to the realization that — as Clinton has articulated before — gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.
“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave,” Clinton said. “It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives.”
Clinton also announced the creation of a Global Equality Fund that will support the work of civil society organizations working on LGBT human rights issues around the world. The secretary said the U.S. government has already committed more than $3 million to start this fund.
During a conference call with reporters after the speech, a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor made grants to organizations in the past, but the Global Equality Fund will “make permanent, or bolster the efforts to support civil society organizations around the world.”
The official said organizations seeking to conduct work in the 80 countries where same-sex relations are criminalized “would be priority areas” for grant money under the fund.
Advocates hailed Clinton for her speech and called it a strong signal the United States is activel;y pushing for an end to LGBT rights abuses overseas. According to HRC, Solmonese met with Clinton in Geneva prior to her speech.
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, was also in attendance and said Clinton gave a “remarkable speech” that received a standing ovation.
“For us, I think the real question was to set the proper tone to be respectful and to recognize that this is a difficult conversation for many conservative countries, but to also to be very firm in stating unequivocally that this is a human rights priority and a U.S. foreign policy priority,” Bromley said.
Bromley added Clinton struck an appropriate balance by saying she delivered her address with “respect, understanding, and humility” while maintaining the importance of LGBT rights as a priority.
Justin Nelson, president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, was also a witness to Clinton’s remarks and called them “monumental” and “historic.”
“It’s such a strong statement that LGBT rights are human rights and human rights are LGBT rights, and that’s American foreign policy,” Nelson said. “It sends a very strong message that people all over the world know that they have an ally in America.”
Bromley said representatives from some countries didn’t stand after the remarks despite the state ovation, but he couldn’t identify who these people were or they countries from which they hailed.
“With most countries represented at some level, and 80 countries that continue to criminalize consensual same-sex relations, there were some that, obviously, would have a difficult time fully understanding the speech,” Bromley said. “But at the same time, I think, the vast majority of audience really reacted enthusiastically and understood it to be a balanced, respective but firm statement of U.S. foreign policy.”
The senior State Department official said 95 percent of the audience was standing after Clinton’s remarks and there was a “sustained standing ovation.”
“I think part of that is attributable to the fact that she came not to wag a finger, but to really invite a conversation,” Clinton said. “I think the audience felt the spirit of respect, and also the spirit of hopefulness that she brought to the speech.”
In the aftermath of the speech, questions linger on whether the Obama administration can truly be support LGBT rights abroad when neither Obama nor Clinton have yet to express support for marriage rights for gay couples at home.
Asked if by advocating for LGBT rights abroad overseas the Obama administration is now in favor of marriage equality, the senior State Department official responded, “I think the secretary and the president have both spoken about their personal views on marriage. I think that one of things that comes up a lot in the international context is that — as in America and elsewhere — there is an ongoing debate about gay marriage. But whatever our position on gay marriage, I think one of the things that many of us have been finding an agreement on is the fact that no matter what you think about that question, we can all agree that people ought not be killed or imprisoned for who are they are and who they love.”
Watch the video of Clinton’s speech here: