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Ambassador Susan E. Rice reviews U.S. stance on LGBT rights

Editor's note: These are the remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice made Friday, June 24, at the LGBT Pride Month Reception held by Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA), at the State Department.

Thank you. It’s great to be with you here today. And I want to thank my IO colleague Chris Deutsch for that warm introduction and Jon Tollefson for everything he does to lead GLIFAA.

It’s particularly fitting that I am able to speak to this group today — exactly one week after the United Nations, for the first time in history, adopted a resolution dedicated to advancing the basic and fundamental human rights of LGBT persons. That vote at the Human Rights Council marked a major victory for defenders of human rights. It sent a clear message that abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity must end. And for the first time ever, it commissioned a UN report to investigate the challenges that LGBT persons face.

This was more than just another vote in Geneva. That vote marked the beginnings of universal recognition that LGBT persons are endowed with the same inalienable rights as all human beings and entitled to the same protections as all human beings. The United Nations is finally beginning to codify and enshrine the promise of equality for LGBT persons—and as it does so, the world will become a safer, more just, and more humane place for all.

Lots of people in this building and in Geneva — notably Ambassador Donahoe, Assistant Secretary Brimmer, Assistant Secretary Posner, and their teams— fought hard to ensure that this historic resolution passed. We did so because we believe in the equal value of all human beings and are committed to safeguarding everyone’s rights. When the U.S. delegation voted yes in Geneva, we reaffirmed a basic American promise: to fight discrimination in any guise and to embrace diversity in every form. The Obama Administration is proud to work to make that promise real. We’ve taken historic strides to advance LGBT equality and to strengthen LGBT families and communities.

I’m proud of the early progress we’ve made across the UN system. The United States is now a member of the LGBT Core Group at the United Nations — a decision that was long overdue. One of the very first changes our Administration made at the UN was to join the General Assembly’s Statement on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which condemns violence, harassment, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And in July 2010, the United States, working with others, won NGO consultative status for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission — the first LGBT group from the United States to do so and one of just a few LGBT groups worldwide.

Last year, we also waged a serious fight against discrimination in New York. When the General Assembly’s Third Committee voted to eliminate any mention of LGBT individuals from a resolution condemning the extrajudicial killing of vulnerable people around the world, I wasn’t just angry. I was incensed. On December 10, Human Rights Day, I pledged to use all of America’s influence to reverse that outrage. And when the resolution went to the full General Assembly, we battled back to restore the reference to sexual orientation. And we won.

The wider State Department has made important progress too. The Department’s annual Human Rights Report now includes a section on the way LGBT persons are treated in every country. In 2009, the Department announced a new grant to provide emergency aid to some human rights defenders, either because they work on LGBT issues or because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender themselves. And the Department has made clear that transgender applicants can, under certain conditions, obtain passports that accurately reflect their gender.

Even as we work to support LGBT persons abroad, we are leading by example — and pushing to ensure that LGBT rights are fully realized here at home.

In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which made it a federal crime to violently attack someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Law enforcement officials in this country now have the tools to respond to gay-bashing and related violent acts wherever they occur in the United States. And for the first time, the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” became part of U.S. law to provide explicit protection to LGBT individuals.

Also in 2009, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum extending, to the extent permissible under current law, federal benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of U.S. government employees. Secretary Clinton extended benefits for overseas State Department employees, and this, I’m proud to say, has served as a model for similar changes for LGBT Americans working for the UN Secretariat.

The Obama Administration also renewed the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides lifesaving medical services and support to Americans living with HIV/AIDS. We’ve eliminated the discriminatory ban that kept people out of the United States based on their HIV status. President Obama released the first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which focuses on decreasing new HIV infections in high-risk communities, improving care for people living with HIV/AIDS, and reducing health disparities. Despite tough economic times, the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget does not just maintain domestic HIV/AIDS funding — it increases it.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is opening core housing programs to all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. The President has honored the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and awarded the Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King. And President Obama has appointed more LGBT officials to his government than the previous two Administrations combined.

And then, of course, there was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — a law that violated fundamental American principles of fairness, integrity, and equality. President Obama was clear all along that we only weaken our national security and diminish our military readiness by depriving ourselves of the service of patriots determined to defend the country they love. He was right. He was determined. And on December 22, 2010, he signed the law that brought that discriminatory policy to an end.

This is real progress. But we have got a great deal more work to do together.

Around the world, some nations still cling to laws that criminalize gay relationships. Such laws don’t just violate human rights. They hinder social cohesion, economic development, and public health. They reduce trust and cooperation among nations. So we are working together with our fellow Core Group members to urge countries that still have such laws to repeal them — now.

At the UN, the United States continues to fight to ensure that NGOs working to advance LGBT rights have the access they deserve. We were deeply disappointed that the UN NGO Committee voted in May to deny UN accreditation to the Belgium-based International Lesbian and Gay Association. We are working with others to bring forward a resolution in ECOSOC this July to get that decision overturned.

At home, President Obama continues to support repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, so that committed gay couples can have the same rights and responsibilities as any married couple. We must protect the rights of all families by securing their adoption rights, ending employment discrimination, and ensuring that federal LGBT employees receive equal benefits. And we must ensure that LGBT teens are not singled out for bullying and abuse.

The quest for equality for LGBT persons isn’t just an American challenge. It must be the work of all peoples and all nations. But I do see it as a struggle rooted in a great and distinctly American promise: to ensure that all people can live with dignity and fairness under the law.

The story of America is, in part, a story of the expanding boundaries of equality and dignity — of the way that discrimination and prejudice have been overcome by diversity and respect. I feel this deeply and personally. Even at a time of profound challenges at home and abroad, we dare not give up on the great causes of equality and fundamental rights. And that includes the pursuit of full and equal rights for LGBT people in this country and around the world.

Each June, we remind ourselves that change comes from those on the front lines. Each June, we remember that change comes from people who refuse to move to the back of the bus. And each June, we stand proud for equal rights for all — no matter who you are or who you love.

Thank you, and thank you for everything you do for our country.