LGBT issues are often confined to domestic political debates, but the Obama Administration has taken the fight for those rights global. In an address at American University’s School of International Service, Ambassador Susan Rice touted the administration’s efforts to defend and expand LGBT human rights around the world.
Rice is in a strong position to promote that message. She’s currently President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, and she formerly served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Earlier, Rice worked on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs from 1997-2001.
SIS co-sponsored this event with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Human Rights First. SIS Dean James Goldgeier, who previously worked with Rice at the NSC, made introductory remarks and relayed student questions via Twitter. AU alum Sarah McBride, now national press secretary at HRC, helped organize the forum.
Signs of Progress
In a speech delivered with conviction, Rice started out discussing a Ugandan LGBT activist named Frank Mugisha. While he attended a pride week event, police raided the venue and physically assaulted trans people. Mugisha was handcuffed and thrown into a police truck. U.S. officials and diplomats got involved in a response, and Rice tweeted a photo she had taken with Mugisha during an earlier visit.
“Our message was unmistakable: The United States government cares. Within 24 hours, Frank and the other activists were released,” she said. “When a gay civil society activist from a foreign country can be heard at the highest levels of the U.S. government, that itself is progress.”
She detailed a number of Obama Administration initiatives on this issue. Rice praised the work of Randy Berry—the State Department’s first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons—who attended the SIS event.
Rice lauded advances made by multilateral institutions, including efforts she helped lead as UN ambassador.
“When a UN committee voted to eliminate any mention of LGBT individuals—from a resolution condemning the extrajudicial killing of vulnerable people around the world—I said, ‘Hell no!’” she recalled. “We battled to restore the reference to sexual orientation, and once again, we won.”
She also emphasized the enormous strides made for gay rights in the U.S. Not long ago the State Department would pay for a diplomat’s pet expenses while traveling to an overseas post, but would not aid the diplomat’s same sex partner.
“Under President Obama, LGBT federal employees and their families now enjoy the same benefits as their co-workers,” she stated.
Worth Fighting For
Rice also tied LGBT rights to U.S. interests and national security.
“If we reduce the disparities that can lead to instability and violence, we increase our shared security. Countries do better across every metric when they tap the talents of all their people,” she noted. “Advancing equality is both morally right, and strategically smart.”
During the Twitter Q&A, a student asked how the U.S. can promote certain values on the world stage without seeming imperialistic.
“What we are demanding is not that every individual or every country in the world share our culture or share our laws,” she said. But “we cannot criminalize lawful, peaceful, nonthreatening human behavior, out of hate. That is not consistent with universal values.”
Leading in a Complex World
Throughout her address, Rice exuded optimism. But she stressed that there is plenty of room for improvement.
“There is no question that we still have a long distance to go. But we can be proud of the fact that the steps we’ve taken towards a more perfect union, and a more just and equal world, are indeed real,” she argued.
At one point, she pivoted to discuss future goals. “The United States must continue to integrate LGBT rights into our government and foreign policy. That includes creating a more diverse national security workforce,” she said. “Without embracing people of every sexual orientation and gender identity, we’re leading in a complex world with one hand tied behind our backs.”
Closer to Home
Rice described the Obama Administration’s work within the context of American history. “The story of America is one of striving to fulfill our ideals, and always gradually expanding the circle of inclusion,” she said. “It stretches from Selma to Stonewall, to frontiers yet to come.”
And several times during her address, she invoked her own personal experiences. “As the daughter of proud citizens who suffered the indignities of Jim Crow, I never forget that I stand here today because those who came before me pried open doors that had long been shut to people who look like me,” she said.
She explained how the human rights issue still hits close to home. “I’m hopeful when I think of how my own son and daughter are part of a generation in this country that embraces LGBT rights as obvious and uncontroversial,” she noted.
As someone in an interracial marriage, Rice remembered people’s reactions when she started dating her now-husband almost 35 years ago.
“Interracial marriage was ‘unnatural and immoral.’ Stop me if that sounds familiar,” she said, drawing a comparison to LGBT rights. “We have largely won that first fight, and we will win this one.”