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Following is the text of Secretary of State John Kerry‘s remarks at the annual Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) Pride Celebration on June 19, 2014.
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
June 19, 2014
SECRETARY KERRY: Robyn, thank you very, very much. Thank you to all of you. Welcome to this celebration of pride here at State, and I’m very, very honored to have a chance to be able to talk with everybody. And thank you especially for putting up with my tardiness, which is not my fault. Blame Iraq and – (laughter) – a few other places. But I’m really delighted to be here. Robyn’s leadership is terrific, and Robyn works very, very closely with all of us on the 7th floor. I could list any number of her accomplishments during her tenure, but let me just share two very quickly.
Her advocacy and partnership with OPM and with Under Secretary Kennedy – where is he? Somewhere here. Right in front of me. (Laughter.) Well, Pat, thank you very much. That advocacy made an enormous difference, and through it, she helped to lift the exclusionary ban that prevented insurance companies from providing coverage for medical needs to gender transition. And she’s also made it her mission to ensure that our employees overseas can be accompanied by their families, and I think very few people have cared more, done more, or fought more to make that happen. So Robyn, thank you for your leadership. I really appreciate it. (Applause.)
I have to add something else. Robyn is the first transgender Foreign Service officer to come out on the job, and believe me it wasn’t easy. I think everybody here knows that. When she was posted in Bucharest, she faced a lot of prejudice, she had to deal with completely inappropriate judgments that people were making, questions about her abilities, but she didn’t just persevere. In the end, she won the hearts of the Ambassador, her career Foreign Service colleagues, Civil Service colleagues, and the local staff, and she actually made Embassy Bucharest a model of acceptance. She even authored the first State Department report on transgender issues, and she didn’t just get through a difficult period, she was determined to turn it into a precedent-setting event, and as a result she made it a lot easier for those – or at least a little easier for those who follow. And I can’t begin to tell you and I think everybody here knows what a difference that has made.
I also want to thank our guest of honor, Masha Gessen, for her own special perseverance and advocacy. When all the repressive anti-LGBT laws in Russia threatened literally to break apart her family, she put up a fight. Fearlessly, she spoke out on Russia’s only independent television channel, and her Pink Triangle Campaign, which everybody became familiar with, unleashed a wave of grassroots activism. And the government in Moscow may look at Masha as a troublemaker to contend with, but here in the United States, we know that she is a wonderful person – a mother, a journalist, an extraordinary human rights defender – and we are honored by her presence here. Thank you for being here. (Applause.)
Now I know that all of us right now are more than aware of – we can palpably feel the wave of new, growing – the trend if you will, in some places for anti-LGBT laws that are metastasizing in various places. And for some it’s, obviously, easy to get alarmed by that. But let me just share this with you: I don’t think it’s time to get alarmed. I think it’s time to get active. Because your activism and your energy and your pushback – it won’t be the first time you’ve pushed back – can make all the difference in the world for a lot of people. And if anybody doesn’t believe that, just take a look at the recent history that we’ve all lived through here.
I came to the Senate in 1985. It was a time when AIDS was pilloried as a “gay disease.” And somehow that may have been deemed to give some people the permission to ignore it. I remember just a few years later, I testified before Strom Thurmond’s Armed Services Committee at an open hearing to speak out as a combat veteran about why gays ought to be allowed to serve openly in the military, and I ran into a world of misperceptions. Three years after that, I was the only United States Senator, as Robyn mentioned, to vote against DOMA.
Now – the only one who was running for reelection – there were 14 of us. Only 14 who voted against it. Today, that would never pass. That is an amazing journey. That’s a statement about how far we have come. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed. LGBT Americans who are willing to die for their country are today allowed to fight for their country. And we’ve gone from a Senate that passed DOMA over my objections to one that recently welcomed its first openly lesbian United States Senator.
We’ve gone from a Senate where AIDS was a forbidden topic, to one where we were able to finally get Jesse Helms to join us in unanimously passing the first anti–AIDS legislation. And subsequently now, PEPFAR is in its 11th year and we stand on the brink of an AIDS-free generation. And I am proud to be the first sitting Secretary of State to support same-sex marriage working for the first President of the United States to support same-sex marriage.
So all of us in this room are pretty well aware of the debt that we owe to those who came before us, and whether it is those who stood up after Stonewall or incredible, inspiring visionaries like Harvey Milk. And I’m proud to follow in the footsteps of an extraordinary advocate for the cause. When Hillary Clinton gave that speech in front of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and said five simple words, “Gay rights are human rights,” she transformed the debate. And standing here with Robyn, I want to build on that legacy, because LGBT rights are human rights, and human rights are LGBT rights.
The State Department, I’m proud to say, has always been at the forefront of equality in the federal government. And that’s why I was proud to announce during my visit to London last year that we were tearing down an unjust and unfair barrier that for far too long stood in the way of same-sex families traveling together to the United States. And I was personally honored to hand over the first visa within two months of the Supreme Court’s historic Windsor decision.
I am proud that we worked with GLIFAA and Pat Kennedy to press OPM to remove its exclusionary language from health insurance plans so that employees who have undergone a gender transition can get the health care that they need. And that’s what it means to fight and that’s what it means to win in a battle that we all know matters enormously, not as a matter of making these things a privilege, but to make sure that they are, in fact, a right.
So I am very proud of the progress that we are now making even in appointing LGBT ambassadors. I worked with the committee here at the State Department – with the D Committee, and I worked with the White House. And as a result, Ted Osius, sitting here, whom I’ve known a long time, and his family I know, will be the first openly LGBT officer nominated to serve as an ambassador in Asia. And on confirmation, he’s going to join five openly gay ambassadors who are now serving their country. I’m working hard to ensure that by the end of my tenure, we will have lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ambassadors in our ranks as well.
Now, I see the possibilities for the simple reason that we now have hundreds of LGBT individuals in our bureaus at State, USAID, and at posts all around the world. Foreign Service Officers like Lucia Piazza – where is Lucia? Somewhere – is she here? Not here right now. But she’s here in Washington. Kerri Hannan in Buenos Aires. Michelle Schohn and her wife, Mary Glantz, in Tallinn. And the wonderful thing about this is nobody looks at these folks when they’re out there and says, “Wow. That’s a great LGBT diplomat.” They look at them and say, “Those are great diplomats.” And that’s exactly how we make progress in this fight.
Now, we also know that none of this progress would have been possible without the courage and the creativity and innovation and effort of organizations like GLIFAA. And it’s an amazing journey. I have to tell you, I have very, very good friends in the LGBT/gay community throughout the country, particularly. One of them, David Mixner, who I knew for a long time – I met him way back when we were – you may know him as a strong advocate, but we met years ago in the anti-war movement – well before he came out. And I remember him lamenting to me on the telephone once, years ago, how difficult it was and how he was going to funeral after funeral after funeral during a period when nobody was paying attention to AIDS.
So I know this journey and know it through friends, and I think back then there were a lot of meetings of people in secret rooms. People knew that if they opened up about who they were in GLIFFA, it would be shut down, their careers would be destroyed. But even then there were people who stood up and fought, and people like AFSA, helpers like AFSA, and especially Sharon Papp – who has stood with our LGBT brothers and sisters since the beginning and who is standing with us today.
So we have come a long way at home, but everybody here knows there’s cloud hanging over this journey right now. We have a long, long way to go in the world. I won’t go into the details of a couple of conversations I’ve had with presidents of countries trying to move them on their current laws. From Uganda to Russia to Iran, LGBT communities face discriminatory laws and practices that attack dignity, undermine safety, and violate human rights. And we each have a responsibility to push back against a global trend of rising violence and discrimination against LGBT persons. Maybe all the success we’ve had here, we sort of felt, oh, gosh, it’s got to be happening everywhere else. But it hasn’t been. It’ll come. It’s going to take a while, and it’s going to take courage and patience, stamina in order to continue the fight. Because we need to make certain that we make it clear to people everywhere that there is a fundamental truth: Anti-LGBT violence anywhere is a threat to peace and stability and prosperity everywhere.
That’s why across the globe – Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas – our diplomats are supporting local LGBT organizations and human rights advocates. They’re one and the same. And through the Global Equality Fund, the State Department has provided critical emergency and long-term assistance to promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons in more than 25 countries. I’m proud that we’ve opened up the fund to corporate donations, and I want to urge our friends in the business community to step up their contributions to this cause. I was especially proud to speak at the first-ever ministerial on LGBT issues at the UN General Assembly last year, and I look forward to continuing to engage on this issue at the UN and other international fora.
So we are leading by example here. We are recognizing marriages for foreign diplomats who are assigned to the United States. Our Consular Affairs Bureau is implementing language on diplomatic passports to make sure we treat all spouses equally. Consular Affairs has also moved swiftly with other federal agencies to update our regulations after DOMA was struck down last year, and we’re now considering all visa applications made by same-sex spouses in the same manner as those made by opposite-sex spouses.
So let me be clear: We oppose any effort by any country to deny visas for spouses of American staff. It’s discriminatory, it’s unacceptable, it has no place in the 21st century. And I understand how challenging this issue is for all of you, which is why I’ve sent instructions to ambassadors at posts worldwide to engage at the highest levels on your behalf. Together we pay a price when these rights are trampled on, but together we win when these rights are protected.
One thing is clear: Making our shared vision a reality will require both the persistent protection of governments, as well as the active participation of citizens. I will never forget standing on the Capitol steps in October of 1998 when thousands gathered on a cool autumn evening, and we were there to remember Matthew Shepard two days after he’d been killed in Laramie, Wyoming. And as we gathered in the city of monuments, I posed a question: Is there a lesson that can become a monument to Matthew Shepard and to so many others who suffer because of the intolerance and prejudice of so few?
Matthew’s mother, Judy, later provided us an answer. As she struggled to make sense of a question that only God can answer, she said loving one another doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our beliefs. It simply means that we choose to be compassionate and respectful of others. In her life and in her work, Judy hasn’t just spoken words about compassion and respect. She has lived them. And I’m proud that she’s partnering with the State Department to speak out on these issues around the world. She is an example that reminds us we each have a responsibility to speak out loudly and clearly, and we each have to choose – and it is a choice – to be compassionate and respectful of others. And as Secretary of State, I am very proud of the choice that our country has been making these past years.
We’re here today to send a message: No matter where you are, no matter who you love, we stand with you. And that’s what pride means, and that’s what drives us today. The journey isn’t complete, the march isn’t over, the promise isn’t perfected. But we will march on together. Thank you all. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Secretary Kerry, thank you for those words. I think I speak for many people in this room that I wanted to interrupt with applause a number of times. (Laughter.) If you can bear with us for just a few more minutes —
SECRETARY KERRY: So what the Hell’s the matter with you? (Laughter.) I’m joking. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: I’ve got two questions that were submitted to us by GLIFAA members from around the world, and I’d like to pose them to you. The first question – I’ll just read it out, and reading it, I’m realizing I think you answered much of it already. But let me read it to you, in any case:
“Mr. Secretary, we’ve seen so much progress here at home, but I have to tell you that for us in GLIFAA, in many ways we’re feeling even more squeezed. All of us want to succeed, but the list of countries where we can serve is growing shorter and shorter. Countries that used to quietly give visas to our family members or our friends are now being asked for visas for our spouses, and that term is causing a kneejerk reaction in many countries.”
This one member writes, “I personally counted all the jobs on my bid list, and I had to cross of 68 percent of them just because I’m gay and that country will not give a visa to my partner. We need your support, and we need the Department to do something more. So as much as we all want to succeed, this is a serious obstacle that is hurting us in our careers and hurting our families. How does the Department plan to address this?”
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thanks, Robyn. We are addressing it, I think you know. I think I spoke to that fairly – I made it pretty clear during the course of my comments. But look, we are instructing embassies to inform governments locally that this is our policy and that they need to honor our policy. It’s that simple. And a lot of governments will respond positively; obviously, some won’t. And where they don’t, if they don’t extend recognition and immunities, we’re going to instruct them that we’re also going to begin gathering information on the host government policies and practices on accreditation. And we will make this information that is relevant to assignments – make it easier for employees and all of you to sort of pick and choose and know what the lay of the land is.
But at some point in time, we may have to begin to make it clear to them that that can affect one program or another or the choices that we make. It’s not going to be a normal relationship. This is who we are, this what you have to respect, and that’s the way it is. And we’ll see how it goes as we collect this information and what the lay of the land is on that, but that 68 percent is daunting. And for – in one particular case, it doesn’t mean it’s across the board. But we’ve got to take a look at it, and we will push back. That’s the bottom line. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, I know you’ve given great hope to our members with that statement. Our second question:
“Mr. Secretary, we hear so much about the difficulties faced by transgender persons around the globe. In so many countries, transgender persons are denied documents that reflect the gender in which they live their daily lives. And as a result, they are denied basic services, jobs, access to medicine, and too often they feel forced into sex work because they see no other choice. What is the Department doing to support the human rights of transgender persons?”
SECRETARY KERRY: Well again, this part of what I said. It’s really related to the first question also in many ways. It’s part and parcel of the same response in places. We have instructed our posts to report on and perform outreach to transgender communities in countries. In addition, we have instructed our human rights and health officers to raise transgender issues in their host countries, and we have encouraged our public affairs officers to include the needs of transgender groups in their programming, so that we are showing that this is something that we’re going to engage in. And we’re supporting civil society organizations that increase the protection of transgender persons who face the potential of acute violence.
So we’re taking steps specifically with respect to communities and with respect to the treatment of our folks. Again, it’s going to be clear and it is clear they need to make sure that they’re not discriminated against, and that our people expect – we expect, our nation expects that all of our people will be afforded the full measure of human rights that we afford them here in our country. And as time goes on now, we’ll accrue more and more information. We’ll have a better sense of who’s doing what, where the real trouble spots are and why. And we’ll be able to begin to build a policy of response to that over a period of time as we get a better sense, and hopefully isolate those people for those policies – hopefully, first, actually, break through and get them to simply change without – just as a matter of a reasonable conversation and an understanding.
But if it’s more entrenched and more broadly pervasive and damaging to our functioning in the way that we function, then we’re going to have to consider what the options are with respect to actions that we’ll take. And that’s something that will evolve over the course of the next year or two, and we’ll see where we are. But we’re not going to sit around and permit what we have fought for so hard to be undone. And as I said earlier, LGBT rights are human rights and human rights are LGBT rights, so we will protect them, period. (Applause.)
I was just given my instructions. I was being told I have to go. (Laughter.) I’m sorry. Thank you all, and happy Pride Day. Thanks. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Secretary Kerry, thank you.