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December 16, 2011

U.S. takes major stand for worldwide LGBT rights

‘Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,’ says Secretary Clinton

Geneva, Switzerland--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a major address in honor of Human Rights Day on December 6, honoring the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the main focus of her speech was on the rights of LGBT people across the world.

“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,” she 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.”

“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 continued. “I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. 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.”

She acknowledged the objections of some religious groups to LGBT rights, but insisted that action could not be delayed.

“Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community,” she noted. “They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups.”

“Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity,” the Secretary of State explained. “This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human.”

“And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Clinton stated. “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 man 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.”

She listed other human rights violations occurring across the globe against LGBT people, like the systemic rape of lesbians and transgender women, forced hormone treatments, calls for violence against gays, and when medical care is withheld because someone is gay, among others.

Clinton also announced the formation of the Global Equality Fund, that will work with organizations around the world on LGBT equality issues.

“I know that the thoughts I’ve shared today involve questions on which opinions are still evolving. As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights,” she concluded. “We are called once more to make real the words of the Universal Declaration. Let us answer that call. Let us be on the right side of history, for our people, our nations, and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the work we do today. I come before you with great hope and confidence that no matter how long the road ahead, we will travel it successfully together.”

Her speech was heralded by the release of a White House fact sheet entitled, “Working to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons Globally,” which started with a statement from President Barack Obama.

“The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights,” it reads.

It also cites a memorandum to federal agencies working abroad “to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.” The memo applies to the departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, the United States Agency for International Development, the Import-Export Bank and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Obama can also designate other agencies that must follow the memorandum as well.

The presidential order calls for the agencies to combat LGBT criminalization, protect refugees and asylum-seekers, tie foreign aid to human rights and nondiscrimination protections, work with international organizations, respond to human rights abuses against LGBT people abroad and report on the progress of the work.

Two days later, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called anti-gay bullying “a grave violation of human rights,” continuing the theme started by Clinton. “Bullying of this kind is not restricted to a few countries but goes on in schools and local communities in all parts of the world,” he said. “It affects young people all the way through to adulthood, causing enormous and unnecessary suffering. Bullied children may become depressed and drop out of school. Some are even driven to suicide.”

That has been an increasingly visible problem in the United States, where dozens of high-profile instances of teen suicides resulting from bullying have splashed across news reports over the last few years.

“Tackling this problem is a shared challenge. We all have a role, whether as parents, family members, teachers, neighbors, community leaders, journalists, religious figures or public officials,” he said, insisting that nations have a legal responsibility to protect against this form of violence.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic noted that 76 countries criminalize consensual same-sex activity among adults, and that the United Nations is trying to work with those countries to change their laws. He spoke at a United Nations panel discussion that included U.N. officials, human rights campaigners from Thailand, Lebanon and Nigeria, the director of Human Rights Watch and Judy Shepard, the mother of slain college student Matthew Shepard.

“Gradually, states are coming to see that the commitments to eliminate discrimination enshrined in the Universal Declaration and in our core United Nations human rights treaties apply to everyone, not just heterosexuals but gays and lesbians and bisexual, transgender and intersex people too,” he said.

Despite this international cooperation on ending anti-LGBT legislation, Nigeria stands poised to pass a law criminalizing homosexuality, and its message to the United States is to mind its own business. Minister of Information Labaran Maku released a statement on December 7 saying that Nigeria is an independent, democratic country and will make its own laws. However, Maku also noted that the bill has not come up for a vote yet.

The Nigerian bill criminalizes same-sex marriages and public displays of affection, and aid workers worry that it could hinder efforts to fight HIV in the African nation.

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