Remarks at the 2012 Cream City Foundation Equality Business Luncheon

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Thank you, Paul, for that introduction.  And thank you for inviting me here.  In this job I have the real honor of getting to represent President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and the American people as I travel to a lot of different places around the world—in the last week I’ve been in Burma for the first ever human rights dialogue between the United States and that country, and in Haiti with Secretary Clinton, former President Clinton and others for the opening of a new industrial park that will be an economic base for the northern part of that country as post-earthquake development  continues.  But the trip here has special meaning to me.

For one thing, I never thought I’d be speaking at Harley Davidson—I have a confession to make: I drive a Vespa, and I was half surprised I wasn’t turned away at the door.  But this is also an important trip because I have never been to Milwaukee, and my dad, Shorewood High School class of 1966, grew up here.   So it feels like a homecoming of sorts to me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I’m also glad to see Hannah Rosenthal, who left her post as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the State Department last month—our loss is Milwaukee’s gain and I’m sure that those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet will come to appreciate her straight talk, her infectious sense of humor, and the passion and goodness she brings to your community as she did to ours.

I am grateful that Sue Walsh is here—partly because she drove all the way from the southern suburbs of Chicago, stopping at O’Hare to pick me up on the way.  And partly because it is, I think, especially germane to today’s event that I can stand here in my capacity as an American diplomat, in the course of doing my job, and that I can recognize her as my partner, Brian’s, mother and thank her for supporting me.   You see, I’m not that old, but when I was in grade school, people working for the State Department were still being ferreted out and fired for being gay; when I was in high school it was still commonly regarded as a career liability and there were no employment discrimination laws or policies protecting LGBT employees; when I was in college the Senate refused to confirm President Clinton’s nomination of an openly gay ambassador; and now, here I am in the year 2012, and I don’t give a second thought to mentioning it in passing.   I am grateful for that.

And I am grateful to all of you for being here today and for sending a signal with your presence that you recognize the importance of creating workplaces and enterprises where all those who contribute their talents, their efforts, their long hours, their stress, their mentoring skills, their teamwork, and their drive can bring their whole selves to work, and when they do so can trust that they will be measured by how they perform and not who they are or who they love.  You are creating workplaces that reflect the highest values of this country—creating a community governed by principles of liberty and equal dignity, which is the foundation for a society in which individuals are evaluated on the merits in the course of their pursuit of fulfillment and happiness.

You are also helping to create workplaces in which the human rights of all of your employees are respected, because it is a universal value—not only an American one—that people are born, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, “free and equal in dignity and rights” and that discrimination on any basis is inconsistent with that central premise.

I want to tell you a bit about what we at the State Department have been up to over the last few years to support the protection of human rights for all people, including LGBT individuals, and then to talk a bit about how the private sector plays a role in these efforts for human rights progress, including right here in Wisconsin.

A little over 10 months ago Secretary Clinton gave a speech at the United Nations in Geneva about why the United States sees the human rights of LGBT people as part of our human rights foreign policy.  On the same day, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum ordering federal agencies engaged abroad to take steps to advance that policy.

In the audience for the Secretary were 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 You Tube and the State Department website.  In fact, that speech spurred millions of tweets in the first hour alone, and attracted more than ten times as many viewers on social media than any other speech she’s given as Secretary of State.

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.  Let me highlight just a few of the things we’re doing.

First, we’re getting 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’ annual Human Rights Reports, which report on human rights conditions in every country, 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 the human rights of LGBT individuals 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 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.

We’re also expanding our diplomatic engagement.  In June of 2010, Secretary Clinton sent a cable to every single 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, 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 government officials, 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 factories or 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, 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 or business leaders who might not meet them otherwise) or organizing events and other initiatives specifically geared around relevant themes.

For example, 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.  That video has been viewed thousands of times on YouTube and received rave reviews.  In Tirana, Albania, our Embassy 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 mayor of Tirana even showed up, with greetings from the Prime Minister.   In Lusaka, Zambia, one of our security officers brought his extensive experience in law enforcement moderator of a lively student debate about gender based violence and LGBT issues at a local university. 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.

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 in Kampala, Secretary Clinton presented the Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which has been instrumental in pushing back against new threats to the human rights of all Ugandans like the Bahati bill, or so called “Kill the Gays” bill, with the State Department’s Annual Human Rights Award.

I want to be clear here about what I call the “theory of change” is that, 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.

That’s why we have a number of programs designed to support the work of civil society actors working in this space.  These programs –which are similar to those that we have that are focused on protecting the human rights of women, members of religious and ethnic minorities; persons with disabilities; and individuals in other historically marginalized groups—are helping to train advocacy organizations on skills like documentation and data storage, or to support civic education.

Many of the organizations working on these issues around the world are very small—1, 2, 5, maybe 10 people—so 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 activists get beaten up or thrown in jail for their work and get them the legal, medical or other assistance they need.  Secretary Clinton announced the creation of a Global Equality Fund during her December speech in Geneva, and that fund allows us to leverage 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 own “corporate” 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 many personnel and consular policies to address disparities in 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.

One of the parts of our work on human rights for LGBT persons 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 foreign 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.

And whether or not you spend much time thinking about it, for all those in this room who spend time working to create companies and workplaces that are free from discrimination, human rights is part of what you do too. The history of civil and human rights in this country is usually told with a focus on Congress, courts, lawyers, and Presidents.  But alongside –and often in front of the public legal and policy reforms—have been private actors who have made their own contributions toward justice.

The private sector has a role to play on both a micro and a macro level, and I want to zero in on these in turn.

As you may know, the American contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was bound up in the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked tirelessly, along with counterparts from around the world, to negotiate draft after draft of that document.  And one of my favorites of her observations is worth quoting in full:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? She asked. In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

What Roosevelt observes is obvious but so often forgotten in any conversation about rights and justice: while the story of civil rights may be one that unfolds cinematically in our mind’s eye under the marble columns of the Supreme Court building or amid throngs of thousands marching on the National Mall in Washington—the personal experience of those rights is one that we encounter in our every day.

For most of us, our work is one of the small places close to home where we are aware of those rights.  For most of us, work is also where we are most likely to encounter people who come from different races, cultures, faiths, and backgrounds on a daily basis—it’s a place where diversity requires us to have strong principled leadership and to purposefully establish guardrails to protect people, and it’s a place where we have the daily opportunity to be part of and experience an actual environment that reflects the American and universal ideal of people treated fairly and valued equally as individuals.

For very good reasons—because we focus on rights each person deserves—it can be tempting to think a lot about all the protections and policies that help make a workplace free from discrimination and harassment, and to forget about what those protections make possible.   There are a lot of “don’ts” that can distract us from what people can do in inclusive and open work environments.

One of the reasons why work is a place where human rights begin is that it is also a place where each of us as an individual carves his or her own path, where we test our talents and ideas, debate with friends and colleagues, have the opportunity to derive satisfaction from our productive efforts, and to find meaning in our daily lives.  Life and liberty—including liberty from unfair discrimination—are only two parts of an American triad.  The pursuit of happiness—where happiness is understood as the rich sense of fulfillment to which our work lives have the potential to contribute– is a central purpose that requires and justifies protecting individuals’ rights.

So, while discussions of how to prevent discrimination and build more inclusive workplaces may most often happen in your companies in the context of HR managers or lawyers talking about employee retention or risk reduction—and those are certainly good reasons for firms to think about their policies and procedures– it’s also important to remember that the work you do to ensure that each employee can bring his or her full self to work, free from fear, is part of the story of civil and human rights in America.

And that leads me to another way—the more macro level—that firms like yours make a contribution.  I suppose the common perception of the private sector in our political discourse is not as a bastion of progressivism.  However, it is simply undeniable that, at least insofar as the rights of LGBT persons are concerned, the private sector has been indispensable to progress.

Perhaps it’s because executives, too, come to work in diverse environments, appreciate their fellow employees and decide not to countenance discrimination.  Perhaps it’s because the profit motives of business create incentives not to put up with the costs that discriminatory policies impose on firms in a truly competitive environment.  Perhaps it’s because firms aren’t democracies, and they are organizationally more suited to be ‘out in front’ in some situations.

Whatever the reasons, the private sector is still ahead of public laws nationwide.  And the policies that businesses make and publicize don’t just affect the employees who are protected under them; they affect all of us.  When you establish policies against discrimination against gay or transgender people you don’t just send a message of welcome to those employees, you send a message to all employees about the kind of meritocratic environment you want your company to be.

And when a brand like Harley Davidson takes a public action—even one so seemingly small as putting its non-discrimination policies at the bottom of advertisements seeking new employees—it sends a message to everyone who reads it.

The policies that a firm makes—much like the laws in a community—don’t just govern specific kinds of decisions or actions—they have what has been called a “pedagogical effect”—they signal to the community writ large about who counts, who deserves to be treated fairly.    And while Congress has been debating various versions of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act since before I was born, 87% of the Fortune 500 have instituted corporate policies banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and nearly half have done the same with regard to gender identity.

In my work abroad, I’m trying to make the most of the lessons that your leadership here at home offers.  I’m convinced that American firms and American leadership in the world stand to benefit if respect for human rights is consistently seen as part of the American brand, and a commitment to treat each person as free and equal in dignity is part of building that brand.

Thank you again to Paul and the Cream City Foundation, thank you to Harley Davidson for hosting us here today.


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