Secretary of State Hillary Clinton marked International Human Rights Day with a phenomenal speech in Geneva yesterday. Over the course of 30 minutes, Clinton delivered a blunt yet inspiring speech that took on all the myths and canards about homosexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people. Her address earned her a standing ovation in the Palais des Nations and will endear her and the Obama administration to gay people around the world.
After outlining the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how they apply to all people seeking dignity and respect of who they are, Clinton declared, “[G]ay 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. 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. And it is a violation of human rights when life-saving care is withheld from people because they are gay, or equal access to justice is denied to people because they are gay, or public spaces are out of bounds to people because they are gay. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity.
Clinton slapped back the notion prevalent around the world, particularly in Africa, that homosexuality is an evil export from the Western Hemisphere. She called for “honest discussion” about the beliefs that “all gay people are pedophiles, that homosexuality is a disease that can be caught or cured, or that gays recruit others to become gay.” Beliefs that Clinton flat-out said “are simply not true.” But she added, “They are also unlikely to disappear if those who promote or accept them are dismissed out of hand rather than invited to share their fears and concerns. No one has ever abandoned a belief because he was forced to do so.”
Clinton also directly confronted those who would use their religious or cultural beliefs to validate their bigotry against LGBT people.
This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn't cultural; it's criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.
In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.
Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.
The secretary talked about the power of the law to make things right -- even before society appears to be ready to embrace positive change. “In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights,” she said. “Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.”
And then Clinton announced what the United States is doing to help protect the lives and respect the dignity of LGBT people around the world. A first-ever U.S. strategy to combat human rights abuses against LGBT around the world. President Obama “has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.”
At an event over the weekend for the Velvet Foundation, which hopes to build a national museum about gender and sexual identity, there were t-shirts that read “Here I am” for sale. According to the foundation’s Web site, “‘Here I am’ is an invitation to all: See me, recognize me, and understand me as a person, regardless of how I define my gender and sexuality.” Clinton’s speech in Geneva and the administration’s moves are the clearest sign that the United States accepts such an invitation proudly and without reservation.