Remarks at the 2012 InterPride Annual World Conference

Cambridge, Massachusetts

I am very proud to be here tonight on behalf of Secretary Clinton and the Obama Administration.  I’m sure that the participants in the first Pride more than four decades ago would have found it hard to believe that some day there would be a conference with participants from around the world who are all leading the effort to organize pride celebrations in their communities.  And while it’s a long way, not only in time but in distance, from the Stonewall Inn to the streets of Cape Town or Sydney or Riga or Kampala or Rio, when we come together in meetings like this one, we’re all reminded of the common humanity and common causes that brings us together rather than the distances that separate our daily lives.

And we are reminded of the impatient insistence on claiming the mantle of common humanity, and the respect and dignity that goes with it, that was part of the motivation of the first participants in Pride, and that is a thread that runs through the years and decades to tie together today’s participants too.

Tonight I want to talk a bit about what the United States, and particularly what the State Department is doing to help advance human rights for all people, including LGBT people, as part of our foreign policy, and then I want to offer a few thoughts on what Pride means in 2012 and 2013, and why the work that you all do can help contribute to more inclusive, rights respecting communities for everyone.

Tomorrow will mark 10 months since Secretary Clinton gave a forty five minute speech at the United Nations in Geneva about why the United States sees the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy.  On the same day, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum ordering federal agencies engaged abroad to take steps to advance that policy.   The immediate audience for the Secretary’s speech included hundreds of diplomats, including those who represent their nations at the UN Human Rights Council.  But the speech was also watched by hundreds of thousands of people around the world on YouTube and the State Department website.  In fact, that speech attracted more than ten times as many viewers on social media as any other speech she’s given as Secretary of State.

Obviously, for those of us who work on these issues every day at the State Department and at embassies and consulates around the world, that speech, and the way that it articulated how a commitment to universal human rights logically included—and could not logically exclude—human rights for LGBT people, was a highlight.  It made me very proud to hear from other diplomats—including some from countries you might not expect to greet her message warmly— how inspired they were by our Secretary of State.

It’s important for me to let you know that while Secretary Clinton gives a great speech, she’s never been one for just talk.  And that speech was not a one off engagement or a kick off event, it was the continuation of work that began pretty much on the first day that she took office at the State Department.

Over the last three and a half years, the State Department has been ramping up efforts to support human rights protections for LGBT people around the world.  Let me highlight just a few of the things we’re doing.

It’s not always a given, but always a good thing, to start with the facts.  For many people working on human rights issues of all kinds around the world, both inside and outside of government, the United States’s annual Human Rights Reports, which report on human rights conditions in every country every year, are the go-to source for the plain and simple facts about human rights issues.  Over the last few years we’ve made a concerted effort to beef up our coverage of abuses and violations of LGBT people in these reports.   This isn’t easy—as you might expect, there are some places where violence and abuse against LGBT people is discussed in newspapers and even reported by governments, but there are others where it’s dangerous even to talk about anything related to LGBT people, and that makes finding the facts much more difficult.  But we know that this is crucially important work, and our human rights officers around the world have doggedly reached out to those who have first-hand accounts of incidents, who are keeping track of data and trends.

We know that recording this information helps our diplomats determine how and where to focus their efforts to advance human rights protections, and that it also reinforces advocates and activists as they work to hold their governments accountable.  So while it isn’t the flashiest part of our work, the effort we put into expanding our reporting is very important.

We’re also expanding our diplomatic engagement.  In June of 2010, Secretary Clinton sent a cable to every single U.S. Ambassador around the world asking them to integrate the human rights of LGBT people into their engagement with other countries, consistent with the longstanding central role that human rights has had in US foreign policy.  Accordingly, U.S. Ambassadors and their staffs, along with senior officials from Washington right up to the Secretary herself, have raised concerns about violence, imprisonment, and other abuses with governments on every continent.

Of course, the era where diplomacy consisted of having tea with a government official, if it ever existed, certainly has passed.  Some of the most important diplomacy that we do these days is done not in foreign ministries but in coffee shops or universities or NGO offices or at embassy events that include business people and civil society representatives from the host country.   And there too our diplomats have redoubled efforts to design outreach opportunities that reflect our commitment to human rights for LGBT people, whether that means simply ensuring that NGOs working on LGBT related issues are included in invite lists for embassy events (where they sometimes get to talk with government officials who might not agree to meet them otherwise) or organizing events specifically geared around relevant themes.

Let me give you a sample of some of the ways—large and small—that our embassies have been engaged.  Our embassy in Mexico City collaborated with a local film producer and LGBT organizations to produce a Spanish language video based on the “It Gets Better” campaign that features Embassy personnel and Mexican artists.  You can see this great video on YouTube.  The embassy in Tirana, Albania hosted a regional LGBT workshop, with over 100 participants from 17 different European countries, and included both diplomats and civil society members learning together.  The Deputy Prime Minister even stopped by.

In Lusaka, Zambia, one of our security officers brought his extensive experience in law enforcement to moderate a lively student debate about gender based violence and LGBT issues at Cavendish University.  More than 65 law and social work students enthusiastically took part, with constructive arguments about human rights and the law.

All told, this year over 70 of our posts around the world reported back to the Department in Washington about Pride events they had participated in or hosted.   My former colleague, Karen Stewart, who is now our ambassador in Laos, hosted a Pride event at her residence that was heralded as the first ever in that country.  My current colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Melia, marched along with our Ambassador to Latvia, Judy Garber, and our Ambassador to Estonia, Michael Bolt, at Baltic Pride in Riga, Latvia this year.  And Secretary Clinton’s visit to Uganda this summer happened to coincide with the first Pride celebration there, organized by the Ugandan LGBT community.  While there, Secretary Clinton presented the Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which has been instrumental in pushing back against new threats to human rights of all Ugandans like the Bahati bill, with the State Department’s Annual Human Rights Award.

I want to be clear here about what I call the “theory of the change” that is in the back of our minds as we do this work.  We know that change around the world is most likely to come from within, and that it’s the activists and advocates who are making the case within their own communities, in their own voice, who will most often make the most compelling arguments and have the most influence.  It is people within a society who are the catalysts and custodians for lasting change.  So a central goal of our efforts is to help protect the space for them to do their work, to throw them a lifeline of support when they get in trouble—which they sometimes do—and help them build their own organizations and skills to make their work more effective.

To this end, we have a number of programs designed to support the work of civil society actors that are engaged in enhancing protections against abuses and violations of LGBT people.

These programs, which are similar to those that we have that are focused on protecting the human rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups, are helping to train advocacy organizations on skills like documentation and data storage, or to support civic education.   Because we know that many of the organizations working on these issues around the world are very small—1, 2, 5, maybe 10 people—we’ve developed a small grants program that leverages the global reach of our embassies and consulates to deliver targeted assistance where it’s needed most.  And we’ve launched an emergency fund that helps us respond quickly when an activist gets beat up or thrown in jail for his or her work and get them the legal, medical or other assistance they need.  Secretary Clinton announced the creation of a Global Equality Fund in Geneva last year, and that fund allows us to join our own funds with the resources of other governments and private sector donations to amplify the work being done to support civil society organizations around the world.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Secretary Clinton has also taken a number of steps to make the State Department’s internal policies better reflect our values, consistent with the broader efforts by President Obama across the federal workforce.  Early in her tenure, Secretary Clinton ordered revision of personnel and consular policies to provide equal rights and benefits to LGBT employees and U.S. citizens.  Following President Obama’s 2009 memorandum on same-sex domestic partners’ benefits, the State Department announced that the full range of legally available benefits and allowances for opposite sex spouses would be extended to same-sex domestic partners of Foreign Service staff serving abroad.

People often talk about “mainstreaming” or “integrating” various policy areas.  One of the parts of our work on human rights for LGBT people about which I am most pleased, is the way in which this has, in a relatively short amount of time, become simply part of what we do as diplomats and assistance professionals.  It’s just part of the job. I chair a monthly task force at the State Department that includes representatives from all our regional bureaus—we share information, coordinate diplomatic outreach, monitor breaking crises.  It’s all just part of what we do now.

The United States has a long history of putting human rights at the center of our foreign policy—the existence of my bureau at the State Department is unusual when compared to other foreign ministries, and an indication of that priority—and whether we’re advocating for protections for religious minorities, efforts to combat discrimination against groups like the Roma in Europe, or an end to impunity for abuses of LGBT people, we’re doing work that not only helps shine a spotlight on both the problems and the heroic activists on the frontlines of solving them, but also reinforces the American commitment and reputation as a defender of universal values, globally.

As you can tell—there’s a lot going on at the State Department these days.

Earlier this week I met with a group of young LGBT activists from different places around the world.  And one of them said to me “you know part of the problem in my country is that people think there is no way you can be LGBT and be happy.  Everyone thinks that to be LGBT means to live in shame, to be in a constant state of sadness, to live a life in the shadows.  Why go on if that’s what awaits?  So I try to counter that, to show that you can be who you are and be happy.”   And as I listened to him, and thought about this event tonight, it occurred to me that this simple idea surely must be one of the things that is at the center of every Pride celebration, and that connects it with the first Pride march more than forty two years ago.

As you all know the first Pride, in New York City, was the project and brainchild of a rather ragtag group of activists in the wake of Stonewall.  And while in some places Pride has become more recognizable as a celebration than as an overtly political march or activist event, in all places—whether it’s a vibrant parade that draws hundreds of thousands of well-wishers or a small brave band of marchers who proceed under strong police protection and a downpour of jeers and taunts, or worse, there is a common element that endures and connects: the rejection of shame and the claiming of full humanity.

We sometimes forget how young human rights are—sure the ideas are not young, and they have been part of the United States’s politics and laws for more than two centuries.  But it was less than 70 years ago that Eleanor Roosevelt worked tirelessly with representatives of other countries to negotiate the Universal Declaration of Human rights.  When the first Pride happened, human rights, as a fixture of international political and legal discussions and documents, was less than 25 years old.

And since then we’ve made enormous progress—one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century was to take the horrors of war and genocide and use them to drive the elaboration of the rights to which each person was entitled, and to attach that moral truth to the basic structure of world politics, by making human rights the entitlement of persons and the obligation of states.

In business school you learn that there are really only two ways to earn more revenue: you can sell more, or you can charge more.  Similarly, in human rights, you can make human rights more real in the world in one of two main ways: you can clarify and specify the rights that follow from the idea of persons that are free and equal in dignity; or you can clarify who “counts” as a person.  Enhancing the protections or widening the circle of who counts.  That’s what we’re talking about.  And in the case of LGBT people, the main political argument at the center of the push for human rights is not about any new elaboration of rights, it’s about saying simply “we are people.  We count.”

As Secretary Clinton said in Geneva last year “Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

Now I think this connects directly to Pride, and one of the challenges around explaining what it does and what it means.  After all, the idea of LGBT Pride can be confusing to people.   There are plenty of people who don’t fully “get” Pride.  Even sympathetic people in my own life—some of them LGBT—have raised the question to me “I could understand “gay equality”, but why gay PRIDE?  Why is anyone particularly proud to be gay?  There’s no straight Pride.”

To offer a compelling explanation, you really have to start from the basics.  The fact is that all over the world, there are people who perpetuate the notion that being LGBT makes someone less than human, less than fully deserving of dignity, as the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky put it, “less than one.”

The kind of shame that prevents people from recognizing their own humanity is difficult to empathize with for anyone who hasn’t experienced it.   For some of us, the very fortunate ones, no matter how much we may have suffered the pain of the closet, we have to transport ourselves back in time, or across space to other places in the world, to be able to begin to imagine that kind of soul crushing insecurity.

In coming together at Pride, whatever form it takes, we reaffirm our humanity.  Pride challenges each participant—whether for ourselves or on behalf of others—to reject that shame, to say “I am not diminished. I claim my humanity with pride.  I am here.”

Of course there can be a cathartic effect to that. For individuals there may be a very real psychological dividend to the assertion of value, of dignity, of being a representative of a natural feature of human diversity.

But Pride isn’t just about an emancipatory emotional benefit for individual persons; it also serves a broader political purpose—and this is true whether or not the people at a pride celebration are wearing beads and boas or carrying protest signs, and whether or not they themselves intend to be political or just have fun.  Because by rejecting the false claims of stigma and intolerance, by showing that they will not be denied dignity in a prison of shame, by being proud to be who they are, LGBT people don’t just say “we’re here”, they also say “we count”—as people, free and equal in dignity and rights.

I mentioned earlier that Pride has evolved in different ways in different places.  We could be tempted to see the places where Pride has become more celebration than movement or protest as departures from the original purpose and intent of Pride.  But I see them as a continuation, and very much connected.  They remind us that for most people, politics isn’t the end, it’s the means, and a politics that starts with human rights is the best means.  And they remind us of the importance, as the young activist I spoke to earlier this week understood, of the example of happiness, of the possibility of happiness, and of the inspiration that each of us can find in that simplest and most beautiful of human emotions.   We are all called to do what we can to help create a world where—to take an American locution—“the pursuit of happiness” is something in which people are equally free to partake.

I want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me, and to wish you all a good night.


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