Deputy Assistant Secretary Melia on LGBT Issues in U.S. Foreign Policy

Tallinn, Estonia

Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia

Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia

Five years ago, here in Tallinn, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocates put on the first Pride parade the city had seen. Some in Tallinn didn’t seem to like it. Some people tried to stop the parade, at times even using violence. During the first two Baltic Pride celebrations in 2009 in Riga and last year in Vilnius, participants also encountered protests and even violence. The police and government leaders have protected the Pride parades and have agreed with LGBT advocates who insisted that they go on no matter what. Indeed they should. Indeed Pride celebrations in every part of the world should go on – whether in Tallinn or Moscow or Kampala. Pride celebrations bring together people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and their fellow advocates to highlight the importance of standing up to prejudice and discrimination. Barney Frank is an openly-gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and he has helped to define why we call it Pride. When asked why people are proud of a characteristic that is natural and innate, he said we are proud for standing up against hate, against prejudice, against violence. Especially when it can be so difficult to stand up and say, “This is who I am,” one should be so proud for doing so. I am proud of those here who have done so, and I thank you for demonstrating that pride and showing so many others how they, too, can be proud.

I would like to thank Urmas Vaino for hosting this conference and Estonian Gay Youth (EGN), the Tolerant Youth Association from Lithuania, the Lithuanian Gay League, and Mozaika from Latvia for organizing Baltic Pride events and for inviting me to participate. It is truly a pleasure to be here. I would also like to thank the government officials and members of parliament who are participating in this year’s Baltic Pride events, demonstrating great leadership and support of the LGBT community. The United States joins the European Union, the Government of Estonia, Open Estonia Foundation, and numerous embassies in supporting 2011 Baltic Pride. Today’s discussions have included many that are occurring in my own country: tolerance and acceptance, bullying, marriage equality, and the role of media in discussing LGBT issues, among others. These are important issues to discuss, and I am glad to contribute to them by specifically addressing the inclusion of LGBT advocacy within U.S. foreign policy.

Ambassador Michael C. Polt with Pride Event attendees at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

Ambassador Michael C. Polt (in blue polo) with Pride Event attendees at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

In every part of the world, men and women are subjected to horrific violence, persecution, and threats simply because of who they are or whom they love. We are gathered here today to discuss how we, as governments and individuals, can address this discrimination that harms so many people. Homophobia and transphobia, along with the brutal hostility that accompany them, are often based in a lack of understanding of what it actually means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. To address these misperceptions, we must work together to improve education and support those who stand up against laws that criminalize love and promote hate.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so passionately stated one year ago, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” Human rights are universal. People cannot be excluded from their protection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The United States will continue to advance a comprehensive human rights agenda that includes the elimination of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We are elevating our human rights dialogues with other governments and conducting public diplomacy to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Ambassador Michael C. Polt at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

Ambassador Michael C. Polt (in blue polo) at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

We produce an annual Human Rights Report that includes a section on how LGBT people are treated in every country. And last year, we announced a new grant to provide emergency aid to human rights defenders in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East who are at risk, either because they work on these issues or because of their LGBT status.

The United States is also focused on threats facing LGBT refugees. People are far too often forced to flee their homes and communities to escape threats from their government, their neighbors, or even their own family members. And once they find refuge in another country, they often face persecution within refugee camps or within their new country of resettlement. The United States is increasing its efforts to protect LGBT refugees, who are often among the most vulnerable of populations.

The United States is committed to supporting LGBT communities everywhere. Whether by supporting LGBT advocates marching in Belgrade, leading the effort at the United Nations to affirm the human rights of LGBT persons, or condemning a vile law under consideration in Uganda, we are committed to our friends and allies in every region of the world who are fighting for equality and justice. These are not Western concepts; these are universal human rights.

We have made some progress in recent years, but we have also encountered great resistance and back-sliding. We witness intense and frightening anti-LGBT sentiment coming from the most surprising of places, including from politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities. Such hatred poisons so-called “free” societies. Earlier this year, LGBT advocate David Kato was murdered in his home country of Uganda. He worked to promote the rights of those who struggle daily just to survive in their communities, let alone be accepted by them. Because of his work and because of his status as a prominent LGBT advocate, David Kato’s picture appeared on the cover of a fringe newspaper with a headline that read, “Hang them.” Such public calls for violence cannot go unchallenged. After hearing of his murder, President Obama said that “David showed tremendous courage in speaking out against hate.” President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. Government’s commitment to LGBT communities everywhere, saying, “We do this because we recognize the threat faced by leaders like David Kato, and we share in their commitment to advancing freedom, fairness, and equality for all.”

We each have a responsibility to help break this terrible cycle. The United States has responded by condemning negative actions and raising LGBT issues with government leaders across the world. In Honduras, the United States worked closely with the Justice Ministry to establish a special office devoted to investigating the unsolved murders of over 30 LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council in March, the U.S. co-led with Colombia and Slovenia the international lobbying effort on a joint statement on ending acts of violence against LGBT people, which was signed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and 82 other countries—18 more than signed onto any previous UN statement on LGBT issues. This was also the first such statement to call for the decriminalization of LGBT status.

The responsibility is not just for governments and the United Nations, however. Each of us as individuals also has a responsibility to help break the cycle. Whether by confronting bullying when we witness it in schools or on the streets or by helping to inform our friends and neighbors about what it means to be LGBT, we can help to move our world closer to acceptance. As we progress as nations, we also experience an ongoing expansion of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. Our collective understanding of the issues facing each of us as individuals and all of us as a community continuously evolves. The bar of citizenship rises; we are all expected to understand and respect each other more, as our societies become more inclusive. This progress is not new, however – it has ever been such. At the present moment, the defining question for our generation is whether we will do the necessary to secure equal citizenship for fellow citizens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Earlier generations did this for women, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, racial minorities, and others, knocking down the barriers that precluded equality and kept them from exercising the rights that had always been theirs.

As Secretary Clinton said, “I hope that each and every one of us will recommit ourselves to building a future in which every person – every, single person can live in dignity, free from violence, free to be themselves, free to live up to their God-given potential wherever they live and whoever they are.”

The United States will continue to challenge the antiquated standards and laws of society that allow for the erosion of human rights, because no free society can thrive when its government or people repress those with the least power and influence. I thank you for the work you do, often in unfriendly, even dangerous circumstances, to advance the rights and dignity of all people. Together, as governments and individuals, we will break this cycle of hatred and violence.

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