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COMMENTARY: Obama, Clinton put world on notice over LGBT rights

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s breathtaking speech in support of global LGBT rights, given before the UN Human Rights Council gathered Tuesday in Vienna to observe Human Rights Day, was historical and timely.

In perhaps the most important speech of her stellar career, Clinton reaffirmed her mantra that “Gay rights are Human Rights, and Human Rights are gay rights.”

Clinton also said that “It should never be a crime to be gay,” a blunt rebuke of nations like Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, where federal and local governments want to criminalize homosexuality to make political hay. Currently, it is illegal to be gay in 76 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, where LGBT people face horrific lives due to institutionalized discrimination and religion-based homophobia.

"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. 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. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm. I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual and trance gender 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. 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."

Simultaneous to Clinton’s speech, President Barack Obama issued a history-making presidential memorandum titled “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons,” marking the first time that the U.S. government has made LGBT rights an important part of its international mission:

“The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights. I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation. That is why I declared before heads of state gathered at the United Nations, ‘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.’ Under my Administration, agencies engaged abroad have already begun taking action to promote the fundamental human rights of LGBT persons everywhere. Our deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people is strengthened when we as the United States bring our tools to bear to vigorously advance this goal.

“By this memorandum I am directing all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

Obama also pledged to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.

“Those LGBT persons who seek refuge from violence and persecution face daunting challenges. In order to improve protection for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers at all stages of displacement, the Departments of State and Homeland Security shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure that LGBT refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum. In addition, the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security shall ensure appropriate training is in place so that relevant Federal Government personnel and key partners can effectively address the protection of LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, including by providing to them adequate assistance and ensuring that the Federal Government has the ability to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.”

Obama and Clinton have now put the world’s homophobic nations on notice that the United States will use its diplomacy and foreign assistance as tools to fight for human rights for all, including LGBT people.

This action is simply unprecedented in the history of the United States, and it is about time!

Readers of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News have read countless articles about homophobia and anti-gay violence, and about how America’s Religious Right has been exporting hatred against LGBT people to Africa and Asia, in particular. By demonizing LGBT people, ruthless dictators and corrupt political leaders desperately clinging to power, utilizing a cruel and unjust ploy to take public attention off their failed regimes and the economic plight of their citizens, have teamed with homophobic clergy and imams to create a public frenzy over homosexuality and marriage equality.

The Obama Administration’s plan of action in support of global LGBT rights has been in the works for some time. The president touched on the issue on Sept. 21 during a speech at the United Nations in which he stated:

“No country should deny people their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but also 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.”

Daniel Baer, the openly gay Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, previewed those plans in October during an important speech to an international audience in New York City attending “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality,” a consultation about finding ways to decriminalize homosexuality across the world and to bring equality and dignity to LGBT people.

Many political observers, though, did not expect Obama to make such a bold move before the presidential election in November 2012, although he may be reading the numerous polls showing that the American public is increasingly supportive of LGBT rights and marriage equality.

Now the hard work begins. How will the United States achieve its goals? How will homophobic nations react? Will the use of diplomacy and foreign assistance work to achieve equal rights on a global scale? Will an international dialogue on global gay rights now begin in earnest? This will be a difficult and delicate journey, but one well worth taking.