Thank you for that warm introduction, and thank you, Reverend Ogle and Bishop Christopher, for inviting me to speak today and for putting me in such good company on such an important set of topics. Bishop Christopher, the assembled crowd here today, and the people you’ve met with all across the United States, clearly recognize the importance of your work at home in Uganda. So thanks especially to you.
I want to begin today by sharing a bit about how I see protecting the human rights of LGBT people as fitting into a broader foreign policy context, and telling you a bit about what we’ve been working on at the State Department, and where we’re headed. And then I want to take a little time to zero in on some of the key challenges and opportunities that lie at the intersection of promoting human rights for LGBT people and engaging with religious leaders and communities of faith.
The Obama administration has forged a strong record of vocal and active support for the human rights of LGBT people as part of our overall foreign policy approach of principled engagement. In this and other areas we start from a commitment to universal standards that apply to everyone, including ourselves, and we are motivated by the belief that, as President Obama put it in his Nobel lecture, the only lasting peace will be one founded on respect for the inherent dignity of each person.
About 80 countries still criminalize same-sex sexual activity. Hate crimes against LGBT people continue to plague many more countries than that, including our own. Hatred of, discrimination against and marginalization of LGBT people hampers economic development, public health, and social cohesion wherever it occurs. And, like all forms of intolerance, the desire to stamp out or subjugate or ostracize certain individuals because of who they are, how they worship, or who they love stands as an obstacle for all members of society. Intolerance prevents the achievement of a rights respecting society that preserves the dignity of each person—and it is that sort of society in which both reason and morality dictate that we ought to want to live. The burden of intolerance is surely borne most severely by the victims, but like all forms of hatred, the active perpetrators and passive bystanders—who are by no means moral bystanders—also pay a price.
Intolerance is a moral, a political, and a social ill. But it is also a solvable one. It is not an immutable phenomenon. Unlike the aspects of identity for which people are hated, hatred itself can be left behind. And for that reason, the scourge of intolerance demands not only our analysis and attention, it demands our action. It’s not easy work, but it is urgent work.
Looking back over American history, the story of our nation’s progress toward a “more perfect union” is at its most inspiring when it is told through the series of chapters in which we have confronted intolerance and hate, both domestically and in our engagement with the world. At the same time, the most regretful chapters are those when we have failed to act. And as we look to the future, we know that the story is not over, the work continues. Our future progress will continue to be defined in part by our success at continuing to address false assertions of inequality and remove their manifestations in our laws and practice. And our progress in building the kind of peaceful, stable, and prosperous world in which we want to live will depend on our encouraging and promoting those around the world who are simultaneously working to make their own societies more inclusive and rights-respecting.
It is against this backdrop that this administration sees the work to protect the human rights of LGBT people around the world. It is part of a broader effort, and it follows from our commitment to universal standards and our interest in being a positive force behind the efforts of many around the world to, as Secretary Clinton has put it, “make human rights a human reality.”
At the State Department we’re working hard every day to put that principled policy commitment into action, and we’re making real progress because we have strong support from the White House and steadfast leadership from the Secretary of State. The problems facing LGBT people are not new, but never before in American foreign policy have the human rights of LGBT people been an open, unambiguous, and clear policy priority. From her first days in office, and building on a lifetime of advocacy on behalf of those who have been left out or pushed aside, Secretary Clinton has made clear that, as she said in June 2010, echoing her famous words in Beijing fifteen years earlier, “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
And Secretary Clinton’s leadership is changing the way that our diplomats and development professionals do business around the world. The Secretary has sent instructions to every single ambassador directing them to engage in support of the human rights of LGBT people with foreign governments and civil society actors as part of our comprehensive human rights policy. And in foreign ministries around the world, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with partners to collaborate on enhancing rights protections for all people, including LGBT people.
Here in New York and also at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the United States has been leading within the UN system to make clear that human rights apply to everyone, without exception. About this time last year, a semi-annual resolution on extra-judicial killings at the UN General Assembly came up and an amendment was offered and passed that removed sexual orientation from the list of examples of reasons why people ought not be killed. Working with our partners, and by reaching out in capitals around the world, we built a coalition to reverse that amendment and successfully reinstated the deleted language. A few words in a resolution can seem like a small matter, especially to those who don’t follow the nitty gritty of the UN system, but reinstating that language sent a clear message that no, the international community would not countenance a spiteful step backward in the fight against violations of human rights. Earlier this year in Geneva, we were part of a cross regional group of countries that gathered 85 country signatories to a joint statement rejecting violence against LGBT people and criminalization of LGBT status or behavior.
And then—in a step that even the most hopeful among us thought unlikely even months earlier, on June 17 history was made when the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution expressing support for equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. I was on the floor of the Council that day, and there was an electrifying buzz in the room as the winning vote tally came in. It was a close vote—23 to 19—but everyone in the room recognized that it was a watershed moment.
We’re not just working with governments. Because we know that sustainable change is most likely to come from within societies, we’re redoubling our efforts to engage with local civil society groups who are working to defend LGBT people from human rights abuses, and who advocate for legal protections and accountability for abuses. As you might expect, these groups are often themselves marginalized and left out, even by other human rights NGOs, so our engagement can be a lifeline of moral support. We’re also working to help them build their own capacity and skills, and to connect them to each other so that they can become more effective advocates. And because we know that like all human rights defenders, those who call out wrongs and push for change often find themselves targets for intimidation or worse, we have created a special fund that can offer emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people so that when there’s no one else to turn to, we can help them stay safe and continue their work.
We have human rights officers in every embassy around the world, and while the United States has a long history of advocating for human rights abroad, we recognize that ramping up engagement on the human rights of LGBT people entails making contact with new actors and organizations at our posts. It entails knowing how to broach what is often a “sensitive” topic and being able to prioritize among a menu of options for action in a way that enhances the chances of our making a difference on the ground. For these reasons, in the coming months, we’ll be road-testing and rolling out a toolkit that can be used by our embassies to help guide their work.
And because effective advocacy depends on facts that make the case for change, we’ve beefed up our reporting in the human rights reports that my bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor publishes every year. We’re also supporting local civil society groups in this fact-finding and reporting effort, providing state-of-the art software and training that will help them document incidents in their communities, so that they can direct their own efforts and focus the attention of others on the realities that people are confronting day-by-day.
For my own part, I feel immensely grateful and fortunate to be a part of a team of professionals at the State Department and at posts around the world that has taken Secretary Clinton’s encouragement and leadership and translated it into action, and that is working every day to make a difference. Having a President and Secretary who are committed to defending the human rights of all people has put American leadership and hard work on the side of vulnerable people around the world.
My portfolio includes Africa and Asia, and as I travel the world, one of the sets of questions that I hear most often revolves around the role of the religious community in securing human rights for all people, how the religious community can help, and how it can, whether intentionally or not, undermine efforts to build a more humane and rights respecting world that includes protections for the rights that each person deserves by virtue of her or his humanity.
I am sure you can guess the kinds of questions I hear: “Aren’t we exporting hate?” people ask about the alleged role of American religious leaders in encouraging the Anti-Homosexuality bill in Uganda, for example. “What are you doing to stop missionaries from pushing for criminalization?” Or “isn’t it true that the Islamic world will never accept the human rights of gay people?”
Conversations about the human rights of LGBT people are still difficult and awkward in many contexts—the legacy of stigma still burdens even well-intentioned actors. And throw religion into the mix and the conversations certainly don’t get any easier. But these conversations—conversations like the ones that this conference is fostering and making space for—are important. Misunderstandings and differences of opinion or belief don’t solve or resolve themselves. We’re talking about the intersection of some of the most important, and therefore justifiably sensitive, aspects of individual fulfillment and meaning in life. And when the subject matter is deep, skating on the surface doesn’t suffice—the only way to make progress is to wade right in. So I want to try to do that in the time that remains for me today. I guess I should stop here and say “pray for me.”
I won’t pretend I have answers, but I want to say three things about my own approach, and about why I don’t just see the effort to find common ground as imperative, but am also optimistic about the possibility of doing so.
The first point is that there are as many religious actors as there are religious people. Religious people are not a monolithic group, and there is diversity in views within religious communities as well as across them. So while, yes, there are examples of religious leaders preaching intolerance, not just of gays but of people of other religious groups or nationalities or of women, there are of course also numerous examples of those for whom religious values are the foundation for a commitment to compassion, tolerance, and human dignity. We should not forget the role of religious people and religious leaders in our own national struggles for social justice—many abolitionists understood their cause as God’s work, a number of northern Jews went south to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, and Reverend King was a man of cloth as well as of change. Last year, I spoke at an event in Geneva where Desmond Tutu delivered a message of tolerance. It’s worth pausing to quote his message briefly. “Sexual orientation, like skin color,” he said, “is a feature of our diversity. How sad it is that when God’s children are facing such massive problems – poverty, disease, corruption, conflict—we are so often obsessed with human sexuality. Is there not already too much hate in this world, without seeking to persecute those who love?”
Religious leaders have a positive role to play in fostering tolerance and respect for the dignity of all. If we start by assuming that there are only challenges, we lose perspective at the outset, and we aren’t poised to seize opportunities.
The second point has three layers—bear with me—philosophical, moral, and practical. So we’re going to have 2A, 2B, and 2C. (I know, that’s cheating.) But the overall point 2 is simple: that we can and should seek to engage those whose religious beliefs and teachings seem to be at odds with advancing human rights for all people. We can have the conversation, we should have the conversation, and we must have the conversation if we’re to make progress at all.
The philosophical part of this point—2A— is essentially to reject the contention put forward by some that religious thought and human rights doctrine are divided by an impenetrable epistemological barrier. The argument here is something along the lines that those who are concerned with understanding and obeying God’s law are necessarily operating, essentially, in a different conceptual universe from “secular” human rights standards. In other words, we can’t talk to each other because we’re using a different language. But such arguments are as thin philosophically as they are easy to disprove empirically. For in fact we can talk to each other, and we can use the ideas of religious thought to make sense of the moral demands of human rights, and vice versa. As I have already noted, in many cases religious and human rights leaders aren’t from separate epistemic communities at all; in fact some people are both religious leaders and human rights leaders, and they use the lexicon of each sphere of thought without any apparent philosophical dissonance. Religious people played a part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And our country’s own Declaration of Independence—in which the constituent concepts of human rights are salient—also grounds these rights in the idea that we are each endowed with them by our Creator. There is no legitimate philosophical excuse for not engaging.
The moral part of the point—2B— is that engaging those with whom we disagree in dialogue and debate, holding them responsible—in the literal sense of answering for their claims—is part of treating them with respect. The act of engaging and holding responsible is properly respectful, it indicates a preliminary assumption that that person is worthy of taking seriously; and similarly dismissing out of hand and refusing to engage someone who disagrees demonstrates a lack of respect. Engaging is the right thing, the respectful thing to do.
And the practical part of this point—2C—is that neither ignoring nor suppressing ideas has ever solved the problem of resolving apparent gaps or disagreements on how to build good lives or good societies. There are many who believe that we should limit speech that is offensive or hateful. But our position has been to avoid censorship, which is almost never perfectly executed, and which is in a sense, denying the problem instead of dealing with it. When people say hateful things we shouldn’t hide the hate, we should confront it, reject the premises on which it is founded, and attempt to refute it through force of argument. If we’re to make progress at identifying a common ground and forging a way forward, we have to engage. We don’t make progress by attempting to shut down or do battle, we make progress when both sides come together—shall we say “in good faith?”—and attempt to identify and correct misunderstandings and make the case.
So we need to take the tough conversations on. Obviously there are some people on both sides who aren’t prepared to come to the table—I know that—but there are plenty of others who are. And we need to make arguments that are aimed at finding common ground and forging a way forward. It may be that I will never find agreement with those who make religiously based moral arguments that homosexuality is wrong—though I certainly don’t start from the premise that that is impossible. But, even if we ultimately disagree about what constitutes a life well lived in the fullest sense, we might nevertheless agree that we ought to be unambiguously committed to defending the potential that is bound up with each human life. We might agree that in order to get to the conversation about what a good life looks like, one must start with protecting that life. And further that concern for life might lead us to be particularly careful to avoid unintended consequences of things we say or write into law.
And this leads me to my third point, which is that as difficult as the intersection of faith and sexuality is, I am hopeful and optimistic about the road ahead. This is partly because I don’t think we really have a choice: No serious person can think plausible a world without human spirituality or a world without human sexuality. Finding a way to transcend intolerance is not just what a commitment to human dignity dictates, it’s what any appreciation for the realities of human experience suggests as the only real lasting option for building a peaceful future together.
But I’m also hopeful because I think there is common ground to be found and that concepts that are familiar in nearly every religious tradition and in secular moral thought can help us get there—a sincere embrace of dignity, of generosity, of compassion, of patience can help us to uncover and appreciate what we have in common.
For many many people, religious belief and practice is a source of meaning, fundamental to their own flourishing and to making sense of the world around them and their relationships with others. Universal standards of human rights protect the freedom of each person to choose and practice her or his religion, and those protections create a space in which individuals around the world seek and find fulfillment.
Similarly, for most people, the bonds we share and the commitments we make to others, and particularly to those whom we consider family, are both crucial to our own identities and understanding of our place in the world as well as expressions of a uniquely human capacity. To deprive someone of a loving relationship entered freely is to deprive him or her of a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human, and to cut off a source of meaning and fulfillment.
The use of religion to advocate for limitations on the lives, rights, and freedoms of others, whether those of other faiths, as it often is, or those whose lives reflect other aspects of human diversity, is a manipulation of faith that tragically disregards the same goodness that religion itself can bring to human existence. There is no true love of God that can justify hatred of man.
I am optimistic because I believe that even if it is not apparent at the outset, a common purpose will reveal itself. And I am confident that a commitment to the universal human rights of all people, grounded in a respect for human dignity and made real through equal and real protections for all, will underpin the world in which each person can flourish.
I want to close with a final thought and personal reflection.
One of the virtues that is central to many religious traditions and to the aspirations of many religious people is that of forgiveness. And that virtue, in particular, is I think important for all participants in difficult discussions to keep in mind. 9 years ago I was visiting my father in the hospital as he was dying, and a young man, a nurse’s aide, was working around his hospital bed, checking the machines and such. He had gotten to know my dad during his long hospital visit, and my dad, enjoying the visit with one of his own sons, asked the guy about his father. The young man said that his dad had left his mom and siblings when he was young, and had offered neither financial nor emotional support throughout his growing up. “I used to really hate the guy,” he said “but in the last few years, he reached out, he’s made an effort, and we’ve actually become really close.” My father—who was a deeply religious man—immediately remarked “how kind of you to be able to forgive him, to give him permission to change.”
It’s a lesson that still rings true to me years later, and something I had never thought of before that moment, the empowering effect of forgiveness. As we engage in tough conversations about right and wrong, about the societies we want to make, and the beliefs we hold most dear, it’s something that I keep close at hand. We’re in this together, and we need to be prepared to forgive each other, we need to be prepared to give each other permission to change, in order to build together a stronger, more humane and holy world.
Thank you very much again for having me.