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Thank you so much everybody for coming out for this wonderful event. I’m really, really honored to get to be a part of this and to join my colleagues and all of you in celebrating a historic anniversary. I’m thrilled to see several dedicated LGBT advocates here with us today, as well as some of my colleagues from the United Nations.
It’s very fitting that we’re meeting today at Roosevelt House, where Franklin and Eleanor lived for many years. As many of you know, Eleanor was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and probably conceived of parts of it here. And most of the Declaration – upon which so much of our work to advance peace and fundamental human rights is based – was drafted at Hunter College. So I want to thank Hunter’s president, Jennifer Raab, for hosting us today in such a historically resonant place. So, thank you Jennifer.
This Saturday, June 28 we mark 45 years since the Stonewall Riots. 45 years since a collection of people in a bar, a few subway stops away from where we are gathered today, decided that they have had enough. 45 years ago this Saturday, they refused to line up after countless police raids; they refused to hand over their IDs or to submit to degrading pat downs. They decided that they would no longer allow someone else to tell them who they were. 45 years ago this Saturday, this small group of individuals decided to fight back against a cycle of harassment, intimidation, and bullying— sparking a national movement for the equality of LGBT persons.
How far we have come from that time.
Many of you know the advances that the movement has achieved since Stonewall –many of you are in part responsible for those advances, but I’ll just highlight a couple. Today, 19 states, including this one, and the District of Columbia, recognize marriage equality. Today, millions of gay and lesbian people in this country can choose to serve in the military openly and proudly.
How do you get from Stonewall to here? The short answer is you get there through the efforts of generations of courageous, relentless, and smart advocates, who have built upon and learned from one another’s efforts. And today, you will hear from three of them.
Bill Bahlman, whose decades-long trajectory as an advocate has in many ways traced the arc of the incremental struggle from Stonewall, beginning with his leadership on the Gay Activist’s Alliance in the seventies, and continuing through his work in the eighties to demand a response to the then-exploding – and mostly ignored – HIV/AIDS crisis.
Zachary Quinto – an actor who felt a responsibility to come out of the closet in response to a wave of LGBT youth suicides – and who has since used his public profile as a bully pulpit to promote LGBT equality, providing kids with a living example that “It Gets Better.” And all of this, working in an industry in which many say taking such a stand, will make you type cast.
And Alyx Steadman, a young leader in the Trevor Project, who has dedicated himself to ensuring that other young people never have to experience the isolation that he once did, growing up gay in a small town in Montana.
Without Stonewall, the paths of these three advocates, and so many others in the movement, would likely have been very different. And without the relentless pressure exerted by this movement over the 45 years since then – we would surely be in a very different place as a nation today.
Without this movement, it is all but impossible to imagine a pride event like the one that took place last week. It was held – of all places – in the Benjamin Franklin room at the United States State Department. And it was organized by Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies – a group made up of LGBT persons, their families, and straight allies in the State Department and other federal agencies.
Secretary Kerry spoke passionately at the event about aligning our practices inside the government with the principles of LGBT equality that we are projecting outside of it, such as ensuring that the partners of foreign service officers can get visas to foreign countries.
Perhaps even more inspiring than the Secretary’s speech – and, really, you should go read this speech, and it’s one of the reasons he is a tremendous colleague and leader – but even more inspiring than that was the person who introduced him: Robyn McCutcheon. Robyn is the first transgender foreign service officer to come out on the job. She’s not only been a leading advocate for LGBT rights within the department, but she also authored State’s first report on transgender issues. How about that for living our values? Well, you can draw a line from that pride event at the State Department right back to the pride shown by those brave individuals at Stonewall.
But before we get too carried away with all of this progress talk, we of course have to acknowledge the obvious: that the struggle sparked at Stonewall is far from over.
While a growing number of states have recognized same-sex marriages, several others are considering legislation that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people justifying it as “promoting religious freedom.”
And while this year the National Football League drafted its first openly gay player, there is still no federal law that prevents Michael Sam from being fired for being gay. And when that player celebrated his achievement by kissing his partner on camera, several NFL players responded with homophobic tweets. One would hope that if a sports figure were caught on tape disparaging people for who they love – as Donald Sterling was caught disparaging people for the color of their skin – that it would draw universal condemnation and revulsion; but right now I think it’s fair to say, we couldn’t count on that.
Now, as real as the challenges are that we face here at home and that my colleagues will speak to, they are even greater in other countries. In fact, there are some parts of the world where the situation abroad is actually taking a sharp turn for the worse for LGBT individuals. Becoming more intolerant and more dangerous.
Back in February, I met with an LGBT activist from Uganda named Frank Mugisha. At the time, the president of his country was contemplating signing the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which proposed setting a life-sentence for consensual same-sex acts, and broadly criminalized what was called the “promotion of homosexuality.” Even before the law, LGBT people in Uganda were suffering widespread abuse, and Frank told me that he feared that its passage would make the situation even worse.
He was right. Less than two weeks after I met with Frank, Uganda’s president signed the legislation into law. Since then, arbitrary arrests, beatings, harassment, and other abuses by police have increased. LGBT people have been evicted from their homes by landlords fearful of being charged with “promoting homosexuality” for leasing apartments to a gay person, and health providers have cut back on services to LGBT people, fearing they too will be criminally liable as complicit.
Unfortunately, Uganda’s anti-gay legislation is not an outlier. Nor is the climate of intolerance and abuse that it has fostered. Indeed, it’s a pattern we’ve seen following the passage of similarly homophobic legislation was passed in countries worldwide, such as Russia and Nigeria. Nearly 80 countries now have laws that criminalize LGBT individuals; in seven of them – and it’ll be eight if Brunei continues along its path – consensual same-sex acts are punishable by death.
So, what can we in the US government do about this alarming trend?
Well, just as we are practicing what we preach on LGBT equality inside the government, we to be ready to bring our principles to bear in our foreign policy. To that end, President Obama warned the Ugandan President that there would be consequences for our relationship with his country if he signed anti-gay legislation. And he has followed through on that commitment.
Last week, we announced measures to deny entry to the U.S. by certain Ugandan officials involved in serious human rights abuses, including abuses against LGBT individuals. We have canceled plans for a joint military exercise. While we continue to press Ugandan police to respect the rights of all people, we will stop supporting a community-policing program. And even as we remain steadfastly committed to working toward addressing the real health needs of the Ugandan people, we are redirecting certain health funds to nongovernmental partners – so as to ensure that no one intended to receive that support is turned away on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
Of course, our actions alone will not be able to reverse this appalling trend. But I’m proud to serve under a President who is committed to sending a message that such legislation, and similar acts of intolerance, will affect our relationships with other countries.
So, as we look back over the 45 years since Stonewall, we can see how far we’ve come, thanks in large part due to the work of brave individuals like Robyn McCutcheon, and the three advocates you will hear from today.
But we can also see how much further we have left to go. Yes, we have amazing projects like, “It Gets Better,” which didn’t exist when Bill and Zachary were growing up. But we still need projects like it – and the phones at the Trevor Project keep ringing, day and night – because in some parts of our country, in some communities, and in some families, it still can be very, very bad. Because some LGBT kids need to hear that it won’t always hurt as much as it does right now. And they need to hear that before the pain becomes overwhelming for them; so long as those kids are out there – so long as those phones are still ringing – we still have work, real work, to do.
And I’d go one step further – and, full disclosure, it’s big step. Marin Luther King once said famously: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we believe that to be the case, and I think we do; and if we are truly universal champions of LGBT equality, as I know we are; and if we are witnessing such an alarming backlash against LGBT rights, in so many parts of the world, as we unquestionably are; then it is our duty to take the lessons we have learned in our own movement and share them with the people who are waging this struggle beyond our borders. They too need to know that “It Gets Better.” They need any help that we can offer in making it better.
Who better to help them answer that call, as we look back upon the 45 years since Stonewall, than us?
So, thank you and with that I have the privilege of now turning the floor to my colleagues.