Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice at the White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights
It’s great to be here, and particularly great to see such a wonderful collection of faith leaders, human rights activists, private sector representatives and colleagues in government all in one place. Protecting and upholding human rights, especially for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, is work to which we all are called, so thank you, thank you so much for joining us here today.
The inexhaustible pursuit of equality, the drive to expand opportunity, the unshakeable conviction that human dignity and human rights are the natural endowment of all humankind—these are qualities that are fundamental to our American character. For many Americans, they are also essential to our personal story. I would not be standing here today if those who came before me had not pried open doors that had long been shut to people who look like me. So, I feel a responsibility and a personal passion to help others enjoy the same opportunities that I have been blessed to receive. It’s what drives me as a public servant and as a mother, because I do not want my children, or anyone else’s, to have their life choices limited by how they look, who they worship, or whom they love.
Universal human rights are not bestowed by governments or powerful majorities, they are God’s gift and the birth right of all people. They belong to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women as surely as they belong to anyone in the human family. As President Obama has said so eloquently, “If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
It offends our common humanity when men or women anywhere in the world are beaten or abused, or when individuals anywhere have their rights restricted because of who they are. And, it doesn’t just harm those who are targeted. It rends the bonds that knit society together. Trust recedes; suspicion spreads. Entire countries are deprived of vital contributions from citizens in minority groups.
We know this to be true because we’ve seen in our own history—we’ve seen how much is gained by widening the circle of inclusion. This year, Americans celebrate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, where we acknowledged that separate can never be equal. And it’s the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which brought us closer to full equality before the law. This year also marks 45 years since the Stonewall riots. All these anniversaries remind us how far the United States has come, and how change never happens without passionate people willing to sacrifice for what’s right.
Unfortunately, in too many places, being gay or transgender is enough to make someone the target of slurs, torments, and violence. We all know the names of Harvey Milk, Eric Lembembe, David Kato, and too many other brave advocates who refused to hide or be silenced, and who have been ostracized or killed for their work. In many places, allies and supporters of the LGBT community are also penalized. New laws in Uganda and Nigeria incite the fear of arrest and detention for those who provide health services or defend basic legal rights in court. In addition to the pernicious so-called “propaganda” law already on the books, proposed legislation in Russia would allow the government to take children away from their gay parents. There are almost 80 countries—eight-zero— countries in this world where discrimination against LGBT citizens is enshrined in law, and that number threatens to grow. In seven countries—eight, if Brunei continues on its path—same-sex acts are punishable by death.
So protecting our LGBT brothers and sisters is among the most challenging human rights issues we face. Prejudice has deep roots, and the laws limiting gay rights frequently enjoy strong popular support. Abuse is often encouraged by custom and by local authorities who look the other way, or worse. But cultural differences do not excuse human rights violations. They do not justify criminal behavior. Governments are responsible for protecting the rights of all citizens, and it is incumbent upon the state, and upon each of us, to foster tolerance and reverse the tide of discrimination.
That’s why the Obama administration has worked so hard to do better here at home. For much of our history, we were not even close to living up to our own ideals. While more work remains to ensure that the rights of all Americans are unassailable, under President Obama’s leadership, we’ve secured important victories. Our service members no longer need to hide who they love in order to serve the country they love. LGBT federal employees and their families now enjoy the same benefits as their coworkers, including, as of last week, the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Law enforcement officials now have the tools to prosecute violent acts motivated by someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and to prosecute them as the hate crimes that they are. And, President Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, because it was unconstitutional. Nearly one year ago, the Supreme Court agreed. What a great day that was for America.
We’re also seeing public attitudes evolve with breathtaking speed, because proud members of the LGBT movement—including so many of you—have worked to replace fear with familiarity and vitriol with respect. When you share quiet moments with your friends and families, your church members and coworkers, you seed mutual understanding. When a pro-basketball player, or an NFL draft pick, or a high school principal comes out—when a transgender woman is on the cover of TIME magazine—young people all over the country see that they can live their lives openly, with dignity, and achieve great things. As a result, today in 19 states and the District of Columbia, marriage equality is the law of the land. And, last week, the Presbyterian Church overwhelmingly voted to allow their ministers to officiate these ceremonies. So as we all know, political and social progress indeed go hand in hand.
America’s support for LGBT rights is not just a national cause but it’s also a global enterprise. President Obama has specifically directed that American diplomacy and American assistance promote and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women, all around the world. He has pressed this message to the leaders of countries where gay rights are under threat—as he did, for example, in Senegal last year—and personally conveyed support to local civil society groups that defend those rights. We’ve made it clear that the United States will respond appropriately when nations target their own citizens. Last week, we unveiled additional actions in response to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, including restricting entry to the United States for individual human rights abusers, and cancelling and adjusting certain programs and activities, including a military exercise.
Through the Global Equality Fund and the LGBT Global Development Partnership, the United States is working with government and private sector partners to advance equality and human rights protections worldwide. The Fund provides emergency assistance to activists in more than 50 countries. Now, we’re launching new efforts to help civil society build partnerships with local faith communities, business leaders, and health care providers to enhance protections for LGBT rights. And, thanks to a new partnership between the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and USAID, we will provide business development training and build new networks to help economically empower the LGBT community.
We’re also working tirelessly in international institutions to bolster the norms protecting rights. During my four and a half years at the United Nations, the U.S. joined the LGBT core group. We worked to pass the first Human Rights Council resolution focused solely on the human rights of LGBT people. And, we fought to broaden other UN resolutions to expressly cover LGBT persons. When some countries worked hard, and succeeded, in stripping language on sexual orientation and gender identity from a resolution condemning extrajudicial killings, we battled back, we restored the language, and when that resolution went to the full General Assembly, we won.
The United States government will continue to beat back barriers and speak out on behalf of the rights of all people, the world over. We do this both because it’s our moral obligation, and because it’s in our national interests. Nations that protect human rights are more stable, more peaceful, and more prosperous partners for the United States. But, to achieve lasting global change, we need everyone’s shoulder at the wheel. That’s what today is about, finding new ways for all of us to push forward together. With more voices to enrich and amplify the message—the message that gay rights are straight-up human rights—we can open many more minds.
So, take this opportunity amongst yourselves to build new connections. Look for ways to strengthen your networks, both with LGBT groups at home and with communities working overseas. Let’s challenge ourselves not just to talk about how difficult the mission ahead of us is, but to make concrete commitments that will bring us closer to our goal.
For the faith community, how can we reinforce to religious groups that God loves all the children of his creation equally? For the human rights community, how can we help activists work together to advance social justice for everyone? Because, if you care about equal rights for women or ethnic or religious minorities, you should care about LGBT human rights too. It’s all the same. And for the private sector, how can we make the strongest case that protecting rights is good business? These are the questions that I hope we’ll continue to work together to answer.
Because when I listen to my own children and to the young people I’m privileged to meet with, I am filled with hope—hope that tomorrow will indeed get better for all people of the world, whether they live in Peoria or Peshawar. And I have no doubt that future generations will wonder why anyone ever sought to criminalize love or condemn another human for being true to him or herself.
Change will come. It’s already coming. We have achieved so much. And, working together, we can be assured that the future belongs to those who stand up for freedom and human dignity. So let’s recommit to doing everything we can to reach the day when love—all love—is met only with celebration, when all of our brothers and sisters encounter only equal opportunity and acceptance, and when all rights are just simply human rights—sacred and inviolable. Thank you all so much for being here with us.