As I listened to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s landmark Human Rights Day speech last week before a United Nations audience in Geneva, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was not alone in wiping tears away during the speech. Many others from our delegation of U.S. and global activists – State Department officials too – were equally touched by the secretary’s words. When it was over, I had never been prouder as an American, as an activist and as a lesbian.
Clinton was at her best. And we were there not only to witness that moment in history, but also because we were an integral part of shifting U.S. policy.
I remember the first time I went to the State Department in 1991 as the founding director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. I didn’t know much about the federal agency responsible for U.S. foreign policy, but I knew it published an annual report of every country’s human rights conditions, which the Immigration and Naturalization Service used in determining asylum claims for LGBT people from around the world.
So I got on a plane to D.C. and persuaded the State Department to issue its first cable to embassies instructing them to include sexual orientation in their reporting. I still have the fax of that cable, but I didn’t really understand then the journey that had begun in making America’s human rights policy fully inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fast-forward 20: Today many important human rights organizations and governments seriously address the human rights of LGBT people around the world. The Council for Global Equality, the organization I’m now affiliated with, was formed to ensure that the tools used in promoting American foreign policy are responsive to LGBT issues. We are delighted with the genuine progress our country has made so far in addressing LGBT human rights issues abroad.
Still, nothing compares to the power of words.
Clinton’s speech consolidates the progress this administration has made already. But she also pushed our journey to a higher plane, with a new and carefully crafted agenda. Instead of alienating world leaders by pointing out the many places in the world where violations are at their worst, she invited the world into a conversation about LGBT people, and she did so with immense understanding and compassion. She spoke with the humility of a leader from a country with an imperfect record and a long way to go toward full equality for LGBT Americans, but with the unequivocal understanding of right and wrong. She used the power of her position brilliantly, as she invited everyone to join her on the right side of history.
It was during the enthusiastic standing ovation after the speech when I really started to cry. Only a few hostile country representatives remained in their seats, fighting to ignore the excitement that consumed the chamber when she finished. But they could not miss the inevitable course that human history is taking. Neither could we.
This article appeared on page A – 16 of the San Francisco Chronicle