By Ian Thompson, Legislative Representative, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Tuesday marked a historic commitment by the United States to the cause of LGBT international human rights. First, President Obama issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons. The memorandum represents the first-ever U.S. government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad.

Specifically, the memorandum directs agencies to:
– Combat the criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad;
– Protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers;
– Leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination;
– Ensure swift and meaningful U.S. responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad;
– Engage International Organizations in the fight against LGBT discrimination; and
– Report on progress.

Later in the day, in recognition of International Human Rights Day, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton delivered a landmark speech before the U.N. in Geneva on the importance of LGBT international human rights. For those who haven’t seen the speech, it really is a must-see. You can watch the entire speech by clicking here.

The speech is remarkable on many levels. What comes across throughout is the depth of commitment to this issue that is unmatched by anything preceding it. As Secretary Clinton states clearly upfront:

Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

She calls the struggle for LGBT human rights one of the important “remaining human rights challenges of our time.” Throughout the speech, Secretary Clinton described basic truths for LGBT around the world, but truths that are rarely heard from such a prominent international figure on a global stage. For example:

…gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.

Listening to the speech, I was thinking about what this commitment from the U.S. will mean to LGBT activists and advocates around the world, particularly those like Frank Mugisha from Uganda, who often do this critical work at great personal risk. In a recent interview with TheRoot.com, Mugisha described some of these risks:

If you are an activist, then you have to calculate and decide, "Should I take that street, should I go to that shopping mall, should I do this today, even?” Because you don’t know where the harassment will come from.

Tuesday’s memorandum and speech follow adoption, for the first time ever, of a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June condemning violence and discrimination against those who are LGBT. It was the first U.N. resolution to focus solely on LGBT persons.

Tuesday’s developments were a great step forward for LGBT international human rights. We certainly hope it is a sign of further progress to come in the trend toward a greater global recognition that LGBT rights are really core human rights. That is the position that the ACLU will certainly be working to advance here at home.