Four years ago, Hillary Clinton delivered a high-profile speech in Geneva positioning the United States as a leader in the fight to protect LGBT human rights overseas. Now, on the anniversary of the address on Sunday, international LGBT rights advocates say it had a meaningful impact in countries like Uganda where the lives of LGBT people have been in jeopardy.
Clinton, who’s now seeking the Democratic nomination for president, delivered the 30-minute speech on Dec. 6, 2011, before the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in her capacity as secretary of state.
“To LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone,” Clinton said during the speech. “People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.”
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, was in the audience in Geneva during the address and said it was clear Clinton “was welcoming us into a new era.”
“Before the speech, hostile states plotted, often successfully, to keep LGBT issues off of the U.N.’s human rights agenda,” Bromley said. “After the speech, they still fight to bury our issues on procedural grounds, but they can’t deny their significance as one of the most significant human rights concerns of our day.”
Among the accomplishments in LGBT rights Bromley cited since that time was the adoption of resolutions and expert studies on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations.
“I think it’s fair to say that for those of us who were there that day, and for countless others around the world, we will always look back at the speech as a decisive moment, one when the world changed a little and we suddenly found ourselves in a new era,” Bromley said. “The world looked different after that speech, indeed the State Department acted differently, and while there is still so much to accomplish to recognize the fundamental rights of LGBT individuals globally, it’s a different era.”
Clinton is credited during the speech with coining the phrase, “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” She actually first used that phrase publicly in 2010 during another speech at a Pride celebration with State Department LGBT employees, although those words resounded more strongly after the Geneva address. After that time, they became a favorite phrase for Obama administration officials to express solidarity with the LGBT community.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement to the Washington Blade those words alone were enough to elevate the role of the United States in supporting international LGBT rights.
“With those powerful yet simple 11 words four years ago, Secretary Clinton boldly put the human rights of LGBT people on the international stage,” Griffin said.
The Clinton campaign marked the fourth anniversary of the speech with a video highlighting portions of the address as well as another speech in favor of LGBT rights at the State Department and this year before supporters of the Human Rights Campaign. Interspersed in the video is footage of same-sex couples who support Clinton, including former U.S. ambassador to Romania Michael Guest and his partner.
LGBT advocates cite the speech’s impact on derailing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda as significant. Initially, the “kill the gays” bill had a provision that would have instituted the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which under the legislation was defined as repeated homosexuality, but that provision was later removed.
Although Uganda President Yoweri Museveni promised U.S. officials he would oppose the legislation, he signed the measure into law in 2014. The courts would later strike down the measure on procedural grounds.
Wade McMullen, managing attorney of the International Strategic Litigation Unit at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said Clinton’s speech articulated principals that led to international efforts against the law and proposals in other countries similar to the measure.
“After Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Law, President Museveni initially thought he could get away with signing it into law with little international repercussion,” McMullen said. “But the U.S. would go on to place travel bans on a whole range of human rights abusers, including those who violated the rights of LGBT people, to redirect U.S. aid away from harmful homophobic groups like the Inter-Religious Council and to cancel a joint military exercise with the Ugandans. This follow-through on the ideals and commitment first articulated by Hillary Clinton in Geneva, changed the game in Uganda and made other homophobic legislators on the continent stop plans of their own to follow in Uganda’s footsteps with similar anti-LGBT legislation.”
Sharita Gruberg, senior policy analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, said the speech had an impact on Uganda, which she said “definitely backpedaled as a result of the international pressure.”
“There seems to be an acknowledgement that countries that have a relationship with the U.S. are going to have to make a decision here,” Gruberg said. “Do they continue to take these actions that scapegoat minority populations? Starting with her speech, it really sent a message to our partnership in the world that this is a priority, and that there is a risk that countries are taking if they’re going to persecute LGBT people as far as their relationship with the U.S. goes and how the U.S. sees them as a global partner.”
The speech coincided with a memo from President Obama establishing LGBT human rights would henceforth be a priority for U.S. agencies doing work overseas. Mentioned by Clinton in her speech, the memo, among other things, instructs the Departments of State and Homeland Security to ensure LGBT people seeking asylum in the United States have equal access to assistance and instructs U.S. agencies overseas to work with international organizations to counter anti-LGBT discrimination.
Clinton also took the occasion of the speech to announce the launch of the State Department’s Global Equality Fund, which is funded by governments, businesses and civil society groups across the globe to advance LGBT rights. According to the State Department, within its first three years, the Global Equality Fund provided more than $20 million in assistance to civil society groups in more than 50 countries.
Government members of the fund include Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United States and Uruguay. Organizations supporting the fund are the Arcus Foundation, the John D. Evans Foundation, LLH: the Norwegian LGBT Organization, the MAC AIDS Fund, Deloitte LLP, the Royal Bank of Canada, Hilton Worldwide, the Human Rights Campaign and Out Leadership.
In August, the fund awarded $350,000 to the LGBT group in South Africa known as NGO OUT Wellbeing, which offers medical, legal and mental health services to people in addition to promoting awareness of LGBT rights.
Ty Cobb, director of HRC Global, said Clinton’s speech “in and of itself was groundbreaking,” but concrete action followed such as the establishment of the Global Equality Fund.
“The fund, which HRC joined earlier this year, brings together governments, corporations, foundations, and civil society organizations to work toward a world where LGBT people can live free of violence and discrimination,” Cobb said.
LGBT advocates outside the United States said efforts to advance LGBT rights were underway in other countries before the address, but maintained in many other ways the speech had an impact.
Esteban Paulón, president of the LGBT Federation of Argentina, told the Blade the importance of LGBT rights was ingrained in media and society and same-sex marriage legislation was advancing, but the speech “undoubtedly” helped.
“I think the speech itself has had a strong impact on the entire region,” Paulón said. “A powerful voice like hers, at the time in her role as secretary of state, has been historic for the global agenda of human rights of LGBT people.”
Björn van Roozendaal, programmes director of the European coalition LGBT group ILGA-Europe, said the speech “sent a clear signal” to U.S. embassies around the world: LGBT rights are a foreign policy priority.
“This has led to visibly increased engagement, for example, the prominent participation of U.S. embassies in Pride parades,” Van Roozendaal said. “Here in Brussels, the tangible impact has been that we have discussed policy issues on a more frequent basis with the U.S. embassy to the E.U. Her speech was visible evidence that the U.S. was finally catching up with other countries who had been publicly pioneering the defense of LGBTI human rights years earlier, such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and others.”
LGBT advocates also expressed the sense the impact of the speech would be amplified in the future if the woman who delivered it becomes president in 2017.
Gruberg said “we could definitely assume” the power of the speech would be bolstered in posterity based on the power of the words and the way Clinton used it to position herself as an LGBT rights leader.
“It sets the tone for how she sees LGBT rights globally,” Gruberg added.
For Bromley, the impact of the speech would be amplified “if the president who follows President Obama believes in strong U.S. leadership on human rights, and I think there are certain candidates who do and some who don’t.”
Asked if Clinton was among those individuals who do, Bromley replied, “Yes, absolutely.”