I’d like to welcome you to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and I’d like to begin if I could with just a few remarks before handing the floor to Masha Gessen and Juliet Mphande from Zambia, and they’re going to offer their own opening reflections and then we’re going to have a great discussion together.
As you know, today is International Human Rights Day, and it’s hard to imagine an assemblage of activists who have done more to promote human rights than you all. The leaders in this room have come from places as near as snowy New York and as far as Moscow, Malaysia and Malawi; you’re a wonderfully diverse and, more importantly, an incredibly skilled and rigorous group from whom I am very eager to learn, so I will be very brief in the comments I make here.
Several years ago, when I began working on UN-related issues at the White House, the very organization that has brought many of you here today, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, was being denied consultative status here at the UN. Representatives of the Commission, I don’t have to tell you, sought year after year after year to gain the right to participate fully in the international system, but they were rejected because of what they stood for and whom they sought to protect and represent. We decided that we were not going to sit around and let that continue. And so we fought – and because we could accept nothing less, we eventually won. And when we did, President Obama himself said, quote “with the more full inclusion of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the United Nations is closer to the ideals on which it was founded, and to the values of inclusion and equality to which the United States is deeply committed.”
At that time, there was only one UN resolution that even mentioned “sexual orientation” – it was a resolution asserting what should be obvious: summarily executing people on the basis of a variety of factors, including “sexual orientation,” is an abomination against human decency and fairness. When certain countries – including some who have civil society representatives seated around this table –waged a campaign to strike “sexual orientation” from the resolution, we united with many of you again, we fought again, and we won again, but only after our Ambassadors here had tough conversations about the meaning of equality with the leaders of governments that explicitly criminalize homosexuality. And then last year, we were able to improve a similar resolution by including not only “sexual orientation” but also “gender identity.”
One year after the battle to get the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission a seat at the table, and six months after winning the fight to retain the words “sexual orientation” in a resolution condemning extrajudicial execution, we – together – managed at the Human Rights Council to pass the first UN resolution in history focused solely on LGBT persons – a historic action highlighting violence and human rights abuses faced by LGBT persons worldwide. This paved the way for the first ever UN report on this topic.
And this September, we had the first-ever Ministerial LGBT meeting during the General Assembly, which I attended along with Secretary of State John Kerry. That’s progress. And that happened because of the leadership of people around this table. And the determined commitment of leaders like President Obama on this fundamental human rights issue of our time.
As you know, the struggle for equality does not respect national borders. It was not until President Obama came to office that the issue of fair treatment became a key building block of U.S. overall human rights policy. And it was not until, quite literally, June of this year that my own gay and lesbian employees’ spouses could receive the same health benefits as their heterosexual colleagues. Just this year.
If we are to continue changing laws, ending violence, enlightening minds, and opening hearts , we must go forward on every front – locally, as you all demonstrate, and globally. The recent enactment of Russia’s anti-propaganda law is as outrageous as it is dangerous. And it is a reminder that whether the struggle for equality takes the form of equal employee benefits or protection from being imprisoned or executed, we have a long way to go. We are well into the 21st century and yet some seventy-eight countries still have laws that criminalize consensual sex between adults. In some countries, the sentence for being gay is still the death penalty.
Let’s be clear: To criticize the criminalization of LGBT status is not cultural imperialism. And to deny gays and lesbians the right to live freely – and to threaten them with discrimination or even death – is not a form of moral or religious puritanism. It’s in fact barbarism. And on this International Human Rights Day it is imperative that we reaffirm our commitment to advancing and protecting the rights of LGBT persons, whether in Kansas or in Kampala.
The death this past week of Nelson Mandela reminds us of what one fearless and passionate voice can achieve when raised in a righteous cause. Your example, the work that you do every day in support of the LGBT community, and your meeting together now to share ideas and learn from one another makes me proud and makes me very, very confident about the road ahead. So I salute you all for what you have accomplished, and all that is left to accomplish, all that you plan yet to accomplish – and I pledge to do everything I can to support your urgent and ultimately lifesaving work and life-giving work. So I thank you.
What I’d like to do now if I could is ask Masha Gessen, followed by Juliet Mphande to offer a few brief observations and then I’d like us to put our heads together and strategize on next steps recognizing how much further we still yet have to go.