In a speech marking Saturday's International Human Rights Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the United States would champion "one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time." The challenge: promoting and protecting gay rights worldwide.
Exactly what that means-and how it would work-wasn't clear, but some gay advocates hailed the speech as a landmark moment for U.S. advocacy of international gay rights-even during a year of severe abuses against masses of other minorities around the world.
Clinton's speech to UN delegates gathered in Geneva on Tuesday followed a memo from President Barack Obama directing all federal agencies involved in foreign affairs to "promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons." (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.) The White House called the memo the government's first comprehensive strategy to promote gay rights around the world.
Some ideas made plenty of sense: Both Clinton and Obama spoke about opposing violence and abuse against homosexuals in foreign countries, including places where gay people face beatings, imprisonment, or death.
But the United States already opposes such abhorrent violence against minority groups, including homosexuals, and it wasn't clear how the government would implement a new strategy for protecting gays. Obama called on U.S. agencies to improve or enhance efforts to oppose abuse of homosexuals and criminalization of homosexuality, but he acknowledged those efforts were already "ongoing." (The U.S. State Department did announce a $3 million fund to support groups working to fight abuse of homosexuals overseas.)
Also unclear: Why Clinton narrowly emphasized gay abuses at this moment, especially considering the widespread human rights abuses across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia this year. The Arab Spring revolutions brought severe government crackdowns on protesters in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The UN estimates at least 4,000 people have been killed in Syria alone.
It's also been one of the deadliest years in decades for Coptic Christians in Egypt. Meanwhile, more than 230,000 South Sudanese have fled violence and bombing by the Islamic nation of Sudan since July.
Though the U.S. government has addressed these abuses to varying degrees, Clinton didn't mention them during her Tuesday speech marking Human Rights Day.
And though Clinton's speech mostly focused on reprehensible violence and abuse of homosexuals, it carried other shades of advocacy: Clinton compared gay equality to struggles for racial equality and women's rights. And she asked delegates to put themselves in other people's shoes by asking a provocative question: "How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?"
Gay advocates in the United States responded to the speech by calling for advancing a homosexual agenda in America. Bill Browning of The Bilerico Project (a gay advocacy group) asked on The Huffington Post, "How can we leverage Secretary Clinton's speech and the administration's position to help our own citizens in places that can be just as bigoted and backwards as a Third World country?"
Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters and a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, wrote, "When you think of it, that speech would have worked perfectly here in the United States also, as it addressed so much of the right-wing craziness we have here, without even meaning to."
Whether or not Clinton and Obama meant their remarks for a U.S. audience-particularly ahead of a contested political season-gay advocate Dan Savage heard the message, and responded, "The check I was planning to write to Obama's reelection campaign just acquired another zero."