I believe I am in public service today because of the following 235-year-old sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
With those words and the sentence that immediately follows them – ”[T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – a small band of revolutionaries inverted the world order, cemented human rights at the heart of the American experiment, and created a promising future for legions of folks, including me, who were not born into traditional elites or favored demographics.
The Declaration of Independence in which those words are found did not spring from whole cloth in 1776. The first waves of European settlers to arrive 150 years earlier had been driven from their homes by religious persecution. Ships of Puritans, Quakers, Roman Catholics, and Jews came to find space in which to worship unmolested … free from oppression, enforced orthodoxy, and political and economic reprisals. The new communities they built in America reflected and protected freedoms denied them in their old communities.
As would surprise no thinking person, progress did not occur in a straight line or a consistent manner. As often happens when minorities become majorities, certain of the early settler groups, notably the Puritans, attempted to impose a uniform orthodoxy of their own, expelling, imprisoning, or even executing those who unrepentantly held to contrary beliefs or practices.
Such repressive actions, however, accelerated rather than retarded the expansion of liberty. Roger Williams, a former Puritan leader expelled from Massachusetts, founded the neighboring colony of Rhode Island on the concept of full religious freedom because, as he famously stated, “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” As part of his efforts to generate immigration to the new colony of Pennsylvania, founder William Penn circulated marketing material in Europe that emphasized full religious liberties as well as economic opportunities.
Ripples have washed outward over the centuries since then, sweeping more and more varieties of humans within the ambit of human rights and civil liberties, both at home in the United States and abroad. Progress hasn’t been automatic or easy, whether at home in the United States or abroad. Rather, it has been laborious work, usually vigorously opposed, and subject to controversy and backsliding.
This past week the Obama Administration took additional steps forward along the path of universal human dignity. The White House released a Presidential Memorandum on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a call to action at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva on the occasion of Human Rights Day, which annually commemorates the adoption on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the Presidential Memorandum, President Obama directed all US agencies operating abroad ”to ensure that US diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.” The Memorandum articulates specific steps to be taken, including expanding efforts to eliminate criminalization of homosexuality, protecting LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, creating a fund to support NGOs around the world working on LGBT equality, and requiring federal agencies to report back to the White House on progress in six months.
Secretary Clinton expounded forcefully on those policies, using the occasion of Human Rights Day “to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today,” the sometimes invisible LGBT minority. She addressed in a clear, detailed, powerful, and respectful way the political, cultural, religious, and moral arguments often made to support discrimination – and even excuse violence – against LGBT persons.
In calling on other nations to join in ”a global consensus that recognizes the human rights of LGBT citizens everywhere,” the Secretary emphasized the general lessons that history teaches us about civil rights:
“Progress starts with honest discussion. Now, there are some who say and believe that all gay people are pedophiles, that homosexuality is a disease that can be caught or cured, or that gays recruit others to become gay. Well, these notions are simply not true. They are also unlikely to disappear if those who promote or accept them are dismissed out of hand rather than invited to share their fears and concerns. No one has ever abandoned a belief because he was forced to do so.
“Universal human rights include freedom of expression and freedom of belief, even if our words or beliefs denigrate the humanity of others. Yet, while we are each free to believe whatever we choose, we cannot do whatever we choose, not in a world where we protect the human rights of all. Reaching understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.”
The Secretary is absolutely right. Candid, respectful conversation is necessary everywhere, including where the current status quo looks comfortable or is considered “sufficient” by those who gain political benefit from preserving degrees of discrimination. Having done better than most does not excuse silence or inaction. Being an imperfect work-in-progress does not remove one’s standing to speak and act. As the Secretary states succinctly,
“[W]hen any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines.”
A remarkable call to action, the Secretary’s speech is well worth reading or viewing, whatever one’s predisposition on the issues it addresses. No brief summary can do her words justice, and I urge you to take a look when you have a few moments. For now, I’ll leave you with two paragraphs that I found particularly compelling:
“Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.
“This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. 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.”