Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an important speech yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland, on the rights of gay people worldwide. Her address contained a crucial passage on religion that should not be overlooked.
Speaking at a United Nations event in recognition of International Human Rights Day, Clinton pulled no punches in her defense of LGBT rights. She referred to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people as “human beings born free [with] equality and dignity” and said their struggle for rights is “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time.”
Most satisfyingly, Clinton firmly rejected the idea that bias against LGBT people based on cultural or religious norms is acceptable.
“Now, raising this issue, I know, is sensitive for many people and 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,” Clinton said. “So I come here before you with respect, understanding, and humility. Even though progress on this front is not easy, we cannot delay acting.”
Clinton acknowledged the difficulty in overcoming religious and cultural objections to protecting LGBT rights. But she said such objections are no excuse for a nation to fail to protect its own people.
“This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation,” observed Clinton. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights. In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.”
I recall being at an event at the National Press Club here in Washington a few years ago that featured a young man from Uganda. This speaker, who could not give his real name, was a gay-rights activist in that country. He had to speak while wearing a paper bag over his head. If his identity were known, he would likely have been murdered once he got home.
Uganda’s parliament was considering an extreme anti-gay bill at the time that would have given the death penalty or life imprisonment to anyone caught taking part in homosexual acts. Many of us were horrified to learn that some extreme Religious Right activists had gone to Uganda and stirred up anti-gay sentiment. The press conference was held to denounce them and the proposed legislation, which, thanks to international pressure, was put off. Ugandan legislators continue to press for its passage, however.
Obviously, things aren’t as bad as that here in the United States. Our government would never sanction such a bill. But we all know cases of gays who are assaulted, gay teens who are harassed in school so much that their grades suffer or they even commit suicide and gay people who are fired from jobs for no other reason than their sexual orientation.
Too often, fundamentalist religious beliefs are used to justify such intolerance. In Michigan recently, an anti-bullying law actually contained an exemption for actions grounded in sincerely held religious belief. After a public outcry, the bill was amended.
Fundamentalists have the right to hate whomever they want. I don’t think that’s much in the spirit of the founder of their faith, but the law gives them the right to have cold hearts.
They don’t have the right to expect the government to reflect their mean-spirited theology or to enshrine their narrow doctrines into the law for all to follow. Clinton’s speech makes it clear that this administration will have no truck with that.
Clinton’s address is being hailed as historic. And there’s action behind it. The Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama has issued a memorandum ordering U.S. agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development “to use foreign aid to assist gays and lesbians who are facing human rights violations. And he ordered U.S. agencies to protect vulnerable gay and lesbian refugees and asylum seekers.”
It's no surprise that the Religious Right is going absolutely bonkers over this. But you know, often that’s a good thing.