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Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights: Reflections on Secretary Clinton’s Remarks

Daniel Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, shares his thoughts on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic speech in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ed. Note: This is cross-posted from the U.S. Department of State's official blog.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a historic speech in Geneva, Switzerland entitled “Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights.” I was honored to be in the audience with activists, students, and diplomats representing countries throughout the world, when Secretary Clinton invited all people -- those who defend the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and those who have not yet embraced the fact that human rights apply to everyone, government officials and individual activists, and people of all faiths and from every corner of the world -- to come together to address "one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time" -- the challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in their pursuit of equal human rights and protections.

“We engage humbly with those with whom we disagree in the hope of creating greater understanding,” said the Secretary, acknowledging that “the obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs.” And she called for a conversation about those beliefs, remarking that “understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.”

For me, part of the answer to overcoming those obstacles lay in simple questions the Secretary asked those opposed to gay rights to consider:

"How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?"

In the United States, our conversation about the human rights of LGBT people is still ongoing. But any individual who reflects with empathy on the questions the Secretary posed will recognize the responsibility to protect and promote the human rights of LGBT people lies with us all. As the Secretary pointed out:

“The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home -- the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are."

In yesterday's speech, Secretary Clinton confirmed that protecting the human rights of LGBT people is a top foreign policy priority, both for herself and for President Obama. Indeed, earlier in the day, the President announced the launch of the first government-wide strategy dedicating to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Here at the State Department, I look forward to continuing our ongoing efforts to protect the rights of LGBT persons and to working with other agencies in making the President and the Secretary's vision a reality.

In my two years at the State Department, nothing has made me prouder than to see our country stand up and fight for American principles and ideals, wherever and whenever they are threatened. I am incredibly grateful to have witnessed this historic speech, and will work tirelessly to help us live up to its words in the years to come.

You can find a transcript of the Secretary's speech and more information on the U.S. government's engagement on the rights of LGBT people here.

Daniel Baer is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.