U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at the United Nations in Geneva, urged an end to discrimination worldwide against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. (Sebastien Feval/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration said Tuesday that it will intensify efforts to fight discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people as a major element of its foreign policy.

In coordinated actions, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a lengthy, impassioned speech on the subject to diplomats and activists at the U.N. Human Rights Council here, and the White House released a presidential memo ordering all elements of the federal government abroad to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

The directive said President Obama is “deeply concerned by the violence” against LGBT people in many parts of the world.

He ordered embassies to step up efforts to combat the criminalization of homosexuality in other countries; protect LGBT refugees and asylum-seekers; and work with foreign governments, human rights organizations and other groups to promote LGBT equality. The memo also called for a new “standing group” within the State Department to ensure that the government reacts quickly to threats to the rights of gay men and lesbians.

The issue is important to a key element of Obama’s political base, and the move strengthens his argument that he has done more than his predecessors to end the ostracism experienced by the LGBT community at home and abroad.

Obama linked the directive to his statement at the U.N. General Assembly in September, in which he said, “No country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.”

In her 45-minute speech, Clinton said the United States has committed more than $3 million to help civil society groups working on LGBT issues around the world and hopes other countries will join in that support.

Activist groups praised her remarks — and Clinton — effusively. She “distinguished herself as a legendary champion of rights for all people,” said the Human Rights Campaign, a major U.S. gay rights group. “In a remarkable speech to an international audience, the Secretary showed the power of American leadership that calls on the world to live up to the idea that all people are entitled to basic human rights and dignity.”

This weekend marks the 63rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Clinton spoke of LGBT rights in that context.

The speech was not advertised as focused on gay rights, and Clinton eased her way into the subject, saying she wanted 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.”

Calling them an “invisible minority,” she said that LGBT people “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.”

She did not name any countries where that occurs, although homosexual activity is illegal in a number of nations with which the United States has close ties. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is punishable by death.

Instead, she congratulated countries that have incorporated protection of gay rights into law, including South Africa, Colombia and Argentina.

“I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect,” Clinton said. “Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of the United States. . . . We, like all other nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.”

The administration did not suggest that U.S. bilateral assistance to those deemed to be violating LGBT rights would be cut or in any way affected by the new directive. Rather, it ordered U.S. government agencies abroad to adopt supportive attitudes and offer assistance.

Wilson reported from Washington.