Former United Nations Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to advancing LGBT rights at home and abroad in a speech at American University on Wednesday. In the speech, Rice proposed ways that the United States could continue to stand up for the dignity of LGBT people across the world, including through President Obama’s promise to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if it includes an amendment that would strip away protections for LGBT federal workers.
Rice said that, despite America’s imperfect record on LGBT rights, the country can still stand for what is right by continuing to integrate LGBT rights into its foreign policy, institutionalize efforts to stop discrimination, speaking out when they see human rights violations or injustices in other countries, and working with civil society leaders to improve the lives of LGBT people in those countries. As an example of that, Rice cited the introduction on Tuesday of a new rule of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that prohibits contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“When the United States can encourage another nation to do the right thing, together we are ‘bending that arc of the moral universe, ever so slightly, towards justice,'” Rice said, paraphrasing a famous saying by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The story of America is one of striving to fulfill our ideals, and always gradually expanding the circle of inclusion,” Rice said. “It stretches from Selma to Stonewall, to frontiers yet to come. As President Obama said, ‘Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.’
“Whether we’re talking about race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, this fight for equal rights is what our history and values demand,” she added. “It is also fundamentally within our interest. If we reduce the disparities that 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 cited various examples of how the United States has undertaken actions — both “morally right and strategically smart” — to advance LGBT equality at home, including the expansion of a federal hate crimes law, opening up military service to LGBT individuals, legalizing same-sex marriage, changing federal policies to allow LGBT people to obtain security clearances, serve in the federal government, and have their partners treated equally to the spouses of their heterosexual counterparts. She also praised the United States for defending the rights and dignity of LGBT around the world in key votes at the United Nations.
Rice hailed the positive changes made on behalf of LGBT rights in other countries, including a drop in the number of countries that criminalize homosexuality from 92 to 75, a number she characterized as “still far too high but directionally correct.” She cited examples of other countries that have made their own advances in LGBT rights, including Nepal, whose constitution is the first in Asia to officially ban all forms of discrimination against LGBT people. But she also warned that any advances can also result in a backlash, citing, as examples, the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, the introduction of “bathroom bills” and other legislation that seeks to condone discrimination against LGBT people, and the killing of suspected homosexuals in territories controlled by ISIS.
“Day by day, we are overturning discriminatory laws, changing hearts and minds, and ending what Harvey Milk called ‘the conspiracy of silence,'” she said. “Yet as President Obama has warned, ‘Progress is not inevitable. History does not just move forward, it can travel backwards.'”
Yet Rice also expressed hope that progress on LGBT rights will eventually be attained, even though there is much more work to be done. She cited her own interracial marriage as as example of something that, 24 years ago, when she first wed her husband, was something that was not always considered socially acceptable.
“That fight for equality was just, and so is this one,” she said. “We have largely won that first fight, and we will win this one. … Let us renew our efforts to battle discrimination in all its guises and embrace diversity in all its forms, until every one of us is truly treated equally, no matter who we are, where we live, or who we love.”