Analysis

What Biden Can Learn From Hillary Clinton’s Landmark LGBT Speech

When tackling big, global problems, expect pushback—but keep going.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people from around the world in a speech during International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people from around the world in a speech during International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people from around the world in a speech during International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011. J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AFP via Getty Images
By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ten years ago this past week, my colleagues and I were hard at work with then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton debating, drafting, re-drafting, and refining a speech. On Dec. 6, 2011, in anticipation of International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, Clinton delivered that speech in front of a packed auditorium at the United Nations office in Geneva’s Palais des Nations. We had kept the topic secret—giving it the anodyne title “Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights,” drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—because we didn’t want to scare off any foreign ambassadors who might not attend if they knew its specific content.

The address started with several minutes of requisite thank yous and the context for the event. By the time the audience heard the line “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights,” echoing the famous 1995 pronouncement then-First Lady Clinton made in Beijing about women’s rights, there was no escape for the scores of ambassadors that filled the first few rows.

Within days, the 30-minute speech had been viewed over a million times on YouTube—which, while not impressive for today’s YouTube stars, was unprecedented for a speech by a U.S. secretary of state. Even we were surprised by its reach and impact. We knew it would be edgy to give a major speech on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in an international forum; what we hadn’t realized was how quickly the mere act of doing so would make the topic less edgy. Almost immediately, we heard from other governments, from Norway and Sweden to Brazil and Argentina, asking, “How can we work on this together?”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people from around the world in a speech during International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people from around the world in a speech during International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from around the world in a speech during International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011. J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AFP via Getty Images

Ten years ago this past week, my colleagues and I were hard at work with then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton debating, drafting, re-drafting, and refining a speech. On Dec. 6, 2011, in anticipation of International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, Clinton delivered that speech in front of a packed auditorium at the United Nations office in Geneva’s Palais des Nations. We had kept the topic secret—giving it the anodyne title “Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights,” drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—because we didn’t want to scare off any foreign ambassadors who might not attend if they knew its specific content.

The address started with several minutes of requisite thank yous and the context for the event. By the time the audience heard the line “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights,” echoing the famous 1995 pronouncement then-First Lady Clinton made in Beijing about women’s rights, there was no escape for the scores of ambassadors that filled the first few rows.

Within days, the 30-minute speech had been viewed over a million times on YouTube—which, while not impressive for today’s YouTube stars, was unprecedented for a speech by a U.S. secretary of state. Even we were surprised by its reach and impact. We knew it would be edgy to give a major speech on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in an international forum; what we hadn’t realized was how quickly the mere act of doing so would make the topic less edgy. Almost immediately, we heard from other governments, from Norway and Sweden to Brazil and Argentina, asking, “How can we work on this together?”

This past week, U.S. President Joe Biden convened representatives of over 100 governments, civil society, and international organizations in the virtual Summit for Democracy tasked with tackling corruption, countering authoritarianism, and defending human rights—including the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) people. As such, it’s worth considering how past United States-led efforts to promote global change have fared.

The most important measure of the summit may be whether it catalyzes the emergence of overlapping constellations of actors interested in giving more than lip service to a particular piece of the agenda. Biden will have succeeded if, in the weeks to come, governments reach out to the White House and the U.S. State Department about dozens of sub-points on the summit agenda and ask, “How can we work on this together?”

Looking back over the 10 years since Clinton’s speech suggests a few lessons to keep in mind: Speeches and summits can set direction and rally supporters, but they must be followed with changes in bureaucracies, resource allocation, and strategies. Tackling a multifaceted problem—such as human rights abuses against LGBTQI people or international corruption—requires working with urgency while also expecting that wins will appear incremental as they are notched, only adding up to something bigger over the course of years. And expect pushback—but keep going.


Thousands of people take part in the 2011 Europride parade by the colosseum in Rome on June 11, 2011.
Thousands of people take part in the 2011 Europride parade by the colosseum in Rome on June 11, 2011.

Thousands of people take part in the 2011 EuroPride parade by the Colosseum in Rome on June 11, 2011. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

When Clinton gave her speech in December 2011, efforts were already underway to direct and strengthen U.S. government engagement on behalf of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Two months after taking office in 2009, the Obama administration signed onto a U.N. declaration acknowledging that human rights “apply equally to every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” reversing previous U.S. policy. Later, every U.S. ambassador received a cable from Clinton instructing them to treat the human rights of LGBT people as part of their responsibilities to advance human rights, and the State Department made it possible for transgender people to have their gender reflected on their passports, among other changes.

Then-President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum in support of advancing LGBT rights on the same day as Clinton’s speech, and together the two documents gave an organizing framework to those working on behalf of the U.S. government overseas. During the remainder of the administration, U.S. policy, programs, and organization continued to ramp up.

But in a number of countries, a backlash was brewing. Some—including colleagues at the State Department—saw this as an indication that the administration’s policy was too forward-leaning. But while any backlash was regrettable, it was also unsurprising: as LGBTQI people and rights became more visible, both their defenders and their oppressors sprang into action.

The visible work of the United States and other democracies on these issues, and especially the progress of activists and advocates on the ground, was inevitably going to provoke some backlash because it was demanding change—in some cases, successfully. As U.S. lawyer and labor activist Nicholas Klein put it (in a quip often mistakenly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi): “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” In most places around the world, LGBTQI people are somewhere in the second or third part of this trajectory.

But though some pushback was unavoidable, these changes have also intersected with revanchist forces specific to this moment in world history.


Over the last 15 years, the world has witnessed a worsening democratic recession. The principles underpinning liberal democracy—including universally recognized human rights and the rule of law—have been in retreat. The first two decades of this century saw corrupt leaders in a number of democratic or semi-democratic countries turn their sovereign states into instruments of power for accruing and protecting their families’ and cronies’ private wealth.

The tenure of these leaders tends to follow a familiar arc. They come to power—some in free and (mostly) fair elections—promising to deliver economic benefits, to right the wrongs of their predecessors, and establish order and honor for their country. Then, having taken power, in the next few years they begin to dismantle and co-opt institutions, such as the free press or the judiciary, and install cronies in key positions. Corruption and abuse of power worsen. People grow disenchanted.

At some point, the leader realizes they’ve lost enough popular support to make their position precarious. They can’t increase support by doing better at governance (that would mean turning off the cash machine they’ve converted the government into), so they look for other ways to stir up and harness popular sentiment. Two of the most common are war and attacking members of minority groups.

The rhetoric Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian President Viktor Orban, and former Tanzanian President John Magufuli have used to vilify LGBTQI people and reject the international community’s demands to respect LGBTQI people’s human rights is inextricably linked to those leaders’ efforts to defend their own corruption and reject international scrutiny of their behavior. The backlash from those in positions of power is rarely only about homophobic or transphobic attitudes; it is often connected to a desire to escape accountability for corruption and other criminal behavior.

From Poland to Malawi to China, the rights of LGBTQI people and their advocates have become political flash points in a broader struggle. Even when the leaders themselves don’t overtly participate in anti-LGBTQI rhetoric, other political actors have used the LGBTQI rights issue to co-opt support for their own objectives.

Witness Putin’s attempt to tarnish the European Union’s reputation among conservatives in Georgia and Ukraine by attaching the EU to LGBTQI rights. Putin’s real goals have nothing to do with LGBTQI rights; rather, he wants Georgia and Ukraine to remain vulnerable to Russia and knows closer ties with the EU would mitigate some of that vulnerability. He can’t offer a compelling positive vision for closer relations with Russia (just as he can’t offer Russians a real vision for their own future in the kleptocratic authoritarian society he presides over) so he exploits homophobia and transphobia to accomplish his geopolitical aims.

When political actors opportunistically denigrate LGBTQI people, this grants permission for societal violence, such as Chechnya’s anti-gay pogroms) and can lead to specific laws and policies that target LGBTQI people, such as the creation of so-called “LGBT-free zones” in Poland. At the same time, LGBTQI people are often canaries in the coal mine: The recession of one group’s rights foreshadows expanding repression of the rights of others.


Transgender Army veteran Tanya Walker speaks to protesters in Times Square in New York City on July 26, 2017, near a military recruitment center as they show their anger at President Donald Trump's decision to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military.
Transgender Army veteran Tanya Walker speaks to protesters in Times Square in New York City on July 26, 2017, near a military recruitment center as they show their anger at President Donald Trump's decision to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military.

Transgender Army veteran Tanya Walker speaks to protesters in Times Square in New York City on July 26, 2017, near a military recruitment center as they show their anger at then-U.S. President Donald Trumps decision to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The pursuit of progress for LGBTQI people around the world must take account of the geopolitical moment. While there was a time in recent memory when many hoped for a general, if not a linear, trajectory of progress on the expansion of democratic governance and human freedom in the world, it is clear that, at least in the medium term, there are more challenges than opportunities.

Indeed, the backdrop for Biden’s Summit for Democracy is the growing recognition that the next decade is likely to be more about defending democracy than advancing it. Thus, we must also ensure progress is not rolled back where it has been achieved. (The Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama administration policy allowing transgender service members to serve openly in the U.S. military is a good case in point. The Biden administration acted quickly to remove the ban, but who can predict what a future administration might do?)

Earlier this year, Biden issued a presidential memorandum on advancing LGBTQI people’s human rights, restoring and updating the policy guidance to those working on behalf of U.S. government agencies overseas. In addition to prioritizing the protection of those vulnerable to violence and imprisonment, including by focusing on operational challenges with refugee and asylum processing (which the Biden memo helpfully does), there is an opportunity to incorporate the administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class” theme to work on behalf of LGBTQI human rights.

This is both a framing and a substantive point. On framing, the United States and likeminded partners should of course not shy away from making the case for the basis for LGBTQI rights in international law and should continue to support efforts to explicitly recognize those rights at the United Nations and relevant regional organizations.

However, in addition to these legal and moral arguments, policymakers should think about how to make the case for LGBTQI rights in more practical terms, such as by emphasizing the economic and other advantages societies accrue by not letting discrimination suppress talent and productivity. In doing so, they should seek to circumvent the authoritarians who opportunistically use homophobia to cover their own pilfering from their people. Democratic leaders can make the point that rights protections for workers, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQI people can make societies more productive by making them fairer.

Advocates and policymakers alike can recognize that there is quite a lot of space between not getting killed, beaten, or imprisoned for being gay or transgender and enjoying full equality with relevant legal protections for employment, housing, and health care. The United States and its partners should do more to identify effective tactics to support those in that in-between space, including by focusing on programs that help LGBTQI people find employment and advocate for their rights to fully participate in their economies.

In the United States, the federal government has driven changes in employment practice by mandating nondiscrimination policies for federal contractors. The U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies that make investments overseas should require more robust nondiscrimination commitments from recipient entities. Targeted training programs could also help prepare LGBTQI people (and other minority workers) for workforce participation. And when the United States and other advanced democracies negotiate trade agreements with less developed countries, negotiators should highlight the importance of human and civil rights protections to achieving free and fair trade.

Finally, we must understand that universal human rights are central to the case for political liberalism. Even in societies where old prejudices endure fairness has resonance, and in our efforts to deal with the pressures of geopolitics we should not forget the power of universal principles. History, alas, has not ended. And as we experience the return of history, we should remain vigilant; because it is often those members of minority groups who are most vulnerable, and most likely to become history’s victims.

Daniel B. Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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