The United States was founded on the principles of liberty and equality. We are proud of our role in bringing the Universal Declaration to fruition, and we have shared in the global progress made since 1948 in expanding human rights – including the repeal of racist laws, upholding of religious freedom, and ending much legal and social discrimination against women. We remain conscious of our own historical and ongoing struggles with inequality and injustice, and the work that remains to be done.
It is in this context that the United States is now articulating its commitment to the protection of human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people – the LGBT community.
President Barack Obama made a September 2011 plea to the United Nations General Assembly to allow all people to reach their true potential. He called on the nations of the world to ensure they never “deny people their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” but also never to “deny people their rights because of who they love.” Our President has made this a core part of our foreign policy, issuing a memorandum to all U.S. Government agencies that he is “deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world,” and instructing all U.S. agencies to make the global challenge to “end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons” central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights.
On the same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the UN in Geneva in commemoration of International Human Rights Day. She made a number of critical points:
- Gay rights are human rights. The human rights of LGBT people are those fundamental freedoms that belong to us all – these are not new or special rights. No one should suffer violence or death for their sexual orientation, nor should they face legal discrimination or denial of health care – but they do, around the world; this is a violation of human rights. When the rights of the LGBT community are not respected, there are costs to society: lives (both gay and straight) lost to disease and violence, economic opportunities foregone, civic voices not heard.
- Gay people are born into and belong in every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors. Governments around the world are taking steps to protect their rights. South Africa took the lead in sponsoring the first-ever UN resolution on the rights of LGBT persons in 2011; that measure passed with support from dozens of countries, including many in Latin America. The Organization of American States has also adopted a resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Religious and cultural traditions are not in conflict with the protection of human rights. The bonds of love and family, like those of religious belief and practice, are fundamental ways in which many of us find meaning and identity. Compassion for humanity is common to all faiths. History records that religious teachings have sometimes been invoked to defend practices now reviled, such as slavery, sectarian prejudice, or mistreatment of women. In time, however, global attitudes changed through national dialogues on these issues begun by courageous pioneers. In each case, discriminatory laws have been rewritten, countless conversations have taken place, and new social understandings have arisen.
- Progress starts with honest discussion. Many common fears – such as those equating homosexuality with disease, pedophilia, or irresponsible behavior – are groundless misconceptions. Merely saying so, however, is not enough; we want to engage those who hold these fears in conversations. Americans know that our own record is flawed, and that questions of sexual identity are sensitive. We respectfully and humbly seek to share our view of universal human rights with countries through a series of conversations, from speeches at the United Nations to discussions here in the Eastern Caribbean.
- The United States defends the rights of LGBT people as a foreign policy priority as part of a comprehensive commitment to human rights. Our relations with other countries are rich and complex, and do not rest upon any single issue; nor does the United States have any wish to “impose” its values on anyone else, even if that were feasible.
As we ring in a new year, let us reaffirm that all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Let us pledge to make real the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to protect our friends, our family, our children, and our children’s children, no matter who they are, who they may become or whom they may love.
(Christopher Sandrolini is the Charge d’Affaires at the US Embassy to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean).