Thank you very much for that introduction. I am thrilled to be here today and to get the chance to talk with and meet so many of you.
My mom grew up here in Philadelphia so I have always felt a sense of connection to this city. And of course as a human rights guy, I feel lucky to get to give a talk here. Philly has what you might call a strong brand; it’s a city of principles—of liberty and of brotherly (and sisterly) love—core principles that reflect some of our most sacred moral intuitions; principles that undergird a commitment to democracy and human rights.
I want to start today by bringing you greetings from Secretary Clinton—I know that you invited her—a world superstar; historic figure; longtime champion of the human rights of LGBT people. And you got me. What can I say–these things happen. Let’s make the most of it.
More seriously, I know that Secretary Clinton would have liked to have been here today because she is deeply committed to breaking new ground in the quest for LGBT equality in her current job, and I know that she sees, as I do, the role that you play as journalists as critically important to that effort. But one of the nice things about her not being here is that it gives me a chance to brag on my boss a bit.
I was sworn in November of 2009, and from the moment I started my job, Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and the team they lead at the State Department have been 110% behind a major push to integrate the human rights of LGBT people into American foreign policy. For Secretary Clinton, this is in part the continuation of a trajectory that included her being the first First Lady to march in a Pride parade in 1999, her work on behalf of LGBT citizens of New York as Senator, her honest and open discussions on the campaign trail in 2008, and now her role as America’s chief diplomat. It is also a continuation of a lifelong commitment to advance a more inclusive idea of who counts—from her early work as an activist for marginalized children, to that truly epic moment when she rejected enduring efforts to put women’s rights to the side, saying plainly “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”
For a casual listener, that line can sound like just a little bit of wordplay. But it’s not. It’s a crucial philosophical assertion. To say that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights is to put forth two important truths. First, that women’s rights aren’t special, or optional, or separate. They’re human rights that attach to women because women are people. And second, is the fact that women count, that when we talk about human rights, every woman is part of that universe of humanity to which human rights apply. Human rights belong to women, too.
So it wasn’t just an opportune echo, it was a significant advance, when last year—remarking that she didn’t understand why it wasn’t self-evident, but that if it needed to be said, she’d surely put it just as plainly as she had in Beijing—she said “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
The human rights of LGBT people aren’t special or separate or optional—they follow from and are part of universal commitments. And LGBT people count as people. LGBT status is irrelevant to one’s claim to human dignity. It is irrelevant one’s deserving respect.
Secretary Clinton’s leadership has been crystal clear. And in the first two and a half years of the Obama administration, senior officials from the State Department have engaged diplomatically with heads of state and cabinet ministers from dozens of countries around the world on behalf of the human rights of LGBT people. We have reached out to encourage protection of those under threat and investigation of hate crimes; we have won support for endorsements of the human rights of LGBT people in international fora, including, two months ago, the first ever UN resolution supporting these rights at the Human Rights Council in Geneva—I was on the Council floor that day and it was an incredibly dramatic moment. There was no doubt that those on both sides of the resolution understood that a tide was changing, unstoppably. We have matched our diplomacy with ramped up efforts to support those advocates and activists on the ground, often in the most difficult places, to organize and advocate for LGBT equality in their communities. Our ambassadors have publicly supported and participated in Pride celebrations. We’ve stood up a new fund that gets emergency assistance to those who are targeted for their advocacy, and we are developing programs that will help network LGBT groups on the ground and build their capacity for advocacy, strategic litigation, and organization building. Our embassies around the world are re-invigorating their efforts to reach out to local actors; we’re developing a toolkit to help Embassy staff maximize the effectiveness of their engagement; and we’re continuing to beef up our reporting in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that my bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor publishes each year.
I am a lucky guy. A generation ago, I couldn’t have been an openly gay man in my job. Today, not only do I get to serve in a State Department that is transformed, I get to serve under a Secretary and a President who are committed to progressive change, to amplifying the move toward equality here at home and around the world, and to insisting that LGBT people count.
Before I came into government, I was a professor. By training I’m a philosopher and political theorist. So I have to be mindful of tendencies to stray into the abstract and theoretical. Most of us grew up in history classes that—falsely, I think—taught us that the engine of modern history has been a series of contests between abstractions—contests of religion, contests between capitalism and communism, contests between colonialism and self-determination, and so on. Surely these contests are not meaningless fabrications—they are lenses that help us understand and make sense of collections of events. But the engine of history isn’t ideas; it’s people. And in my work as a diplomat, as I travel the world and meet with foreign leaders, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders, and others wherever I go, I see that without a doubt, progress—by which I mean real change on the ground for real people—depends not on the beauty or elegance of your ideas; progress depends on the stories you tell about people, about their real lives, their joys, their pains, the injustices they suffer. The way that we come to know that dignity is something supremely valuable is that we come to know stories of people who have had theirs violently and vulgarly denied and trampled and we know stories of those who have courageously, against all odds, stood up to defend themselves or the dignity of others. The stories make ideas real. The narrative precedes the analytic.
I am the first to defend and be enthralled by the elegant aesthetic of the concept of rights that attach to each of us equally in virtue of our shared humanity. However, human rights don’t start with an abstraction, no matter how elegant. Human rights start with the stories we tell.
I want to say a bit more about the role of journalists in this respect. And about the intersection between journalism and free media and human rights. Most often in conversations about human rights, we talk about journalists as rights-holders—as persons entitled to freedom of expression and freedom from retribution—and often we talk about the ways in which journalists, in many, many countries around the world, continue to be abused, harassed and even killed for doing their jobs. And of course it is in this light that one of the indicators we use to tell whether a society respects human rights, including freedom of expression, is that it has a free press, and that journalists can practice their craft.
Our commitment to freedom of expression is grounded in the fact that it is a fundamental freedom, recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is part of that fundamentally human basket of entitlements: the rights that make a life recognizably, distinctively, human. In that sense, we believe in it not because it is productive or instrumentally good, but because it is simply what human dignity demands. Free expression is a right independent of whatever other benefits we see free expression producing.
Nonetheless, if asked, most of us could readily suggest ways that societies that protect freedom of expression benefit from doing so. Some might say that such societies are less likely to have problems with public corruption or exploitation by the most powerful. Others might point out that a free press is critical to the political competition that produces democracy’s dividends. Anyone who has lived in a censored press environment would be able to tell you that a free press is undoubtedly more interesting. Editors of today’s tabloids could probably forgive Pravda for being untrue—it was the fact that it was dull that would have been the real deficiency.
But one of the benefits that is less likely to be mentioned is the fact that in societies in which the stories of individual people are freely shared in the public sphere, there is a perennially refreshed set of reference points for understanding and knowing the human experience. Those stories, in highlighting the joys and pains, particularly of so-called ordinary people, remind us of their humanity, and remind us that human lives are really quite extra-ordinary. They remind us that underneath our shared experience resides a common humanity—the common humanity that grounds a shared set of individual rights and common duties to one another.
Conversely, in societies where the freedom of expression and a free press are curtailed, the stories of people are suppressed—and much more often than not, it’s not just the freedom of expression that is curtailed. Governments that fail to respect the freedom of expression fail to respect the rights of citizens more generally. In order to hold authorities accountable for protecting and respecting rights, we need to know more than that the laws of the land include human rights and that leaders pay lip-service to these commitments in the rhetoric of political speeches. We need to know the stories of real people, and whether they conform to the states’ commitments and obligations.
This is why the stories that you tell as journalists are so important. The stories you tell give a human face to the wrongs perpetrated by governments against the vulnerable. They expose failures to protect. They make plain for readers, listeners, and viewers the costs of the failure to respect human rights. The stories you tell embarrass leaders, outrage citizens, and make undeniable the gaps between rhetoric and reality.
But equally importantly, and often simultaneously in the very same story, by providing an account of particular episodes in particular lives, you paradoxically remind your audience of the universality of the human experience. When we are moved to tears by the story of a mother in Somalia watching her fourth child die of starvation, it is not because she is different, it is because she is the same. And that sameness is fundamental to both the philosophical truth underlying human rights, and to motivating human beings to do more to protect and defend human rights in the here and now.
The stories you tell highlight wrongs and their costs. They also highlight the humanity of specific people, and in so doing, give us cause to believe in the humanity, and human rights, of all people.
In the context of the human rights of LGBT people, I think it’s particularly important that we not lose sight of the role that journalists play in affirming the common humanity of all people, not by making political arguments for equality, but by telling stories about individual lives that provide the evidence for that claim.
Let me give a familiar example—a few years back, when the New York Times announced that it would start carrying wedding announcements for gay couples, a lot of people saw that as important for the political statement it made. The New York Times was endorsing a notion—an abstract one—that gay partnerships were substantively similar to straight ones.
But I would argue that the more powerful effect, particularly in changing the minds of those who didn’t already buy the abstract argument, was in the stories that followed on the pages. Both because the stories about gay couples—meeting, falling in love, taking a break, sorting through a misunderstanding or a logistical challenge, and ending up together—were pretty much the same as the familiar stories of straight couples and the evolution of their relationships, and more simply, because the protagonists in those stories were gay people who were just, well, people, plain and simple.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and I’m probably going to be the first student of human rights or public official to link the wedding section to human rights, but the simple truth is: In whatever part of journalism you find yourself—from TV news to local radio to photo spreads to the wedding section—the stories you tell are part of the foundation for human rights, because they are the most prevalent and popular public account of what it is to be human. Human rights start with the stories we tell about what it is to be human.
Before concluding I want to say a quick word about not the stories you tell, but rather about the stories you bring to your craft. After all the organization under whose auspices we meet today is as much about shared identity as it is about shared endeavor. And there are a lot of folks who might be understandably skeptical of that. “I’ve never joined,” a friend in D.C. who works for a major newspaper told me, “I’m not a gay journalist, I’m a journalist.” Most of us have had similar thoughts—I have whenever I have participated in LGBT groups organized around my profession. Given that in so many cases, the goal is to get others to not pay attention to something that should be irrelevant to rights or job advancement or acceptance, it can seem odd or even counterproductive to call attention to the supposedly irrelevant. But of course, on the other hand, my friend is wrong—he is a gay journalist. And like any journalist, where he’s come from, including not only being LGBT but having been raised on a farm, having gone to a particular college, having grown up reading certain books, the places he’s traveled to, etc, all shape the way he tells the stories he tells because they shape how he sees the world.
For my own part, I hope that having spent an adolescence often characterized by feeling different and fearing exclusion has enhanced my compassion and empathy for others in my role as a teacher, manager, and diplomat. And in your work, of course, the lives you’ve led inevitably are the prism through which the lives you examine and write about are refracted. The stories you bring are part of the foundation you work from in the stories you tell.
Thank you for inviting me here today. Thank you for the work you do to capture the human story through an ongoing and ever-expanding collection of accounts of individual lives, their joys and their sorrows, their failures and their triumphs. It’s through the stories of others that we come to see their humanity, that we arrive at our intuitive understanding of what human dignity is, why it applies to each of us, and what it demands of each of us. Thank you for the stories you tell.