Samantha Power

I Know You: Making LGBTI Rights Human Rights at the UN and Abroad - March 12, 2016

Samantha Power
March 12, 2016— Washington, DC
Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Convention
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Thank you, Chad, for such a generous introduction and for everything you do every day to promote human rights law. It’s a great honor to be here with you at such an important event. I’d like to open by telling you all about a conversation – actually, a phone call – that left a lasting impression on me. It was back in December 2011. I was working at the White House at the time, on the National Security Council. And we had organized a conference call to brief LGBTI advocates on a Presidential Memorandum that President Obama was issuing that day directed at all the agencies and departments in the U.S. government. As many of you know, that memorandum made the struggle to end discrimination against LGBTI persons a central part of our government’s efforts to promote human rights around the world – from fighting the criminalization of LGBTI status; to directing significant resources to empowering LGBTI groups abroad; to responding swiftly and meaningfully when governments have repressed LGBTI rights. At its essence, this government document was about weaving LGBTI rights into the DNA of our foreign policy and into the work we do to advance human rights and human dignity around the world – committing us not only to defend these rights within our own nation, but also to project them outside, to the rest of the world. It was – and it remains – a righteous and absolutely necessary commitment. [Applause.]

So there we were, on the call – several of us who worked on developing, with the President, this order inside the White House, together with LGBTI advocates from outside the government. I imagine some of you in this room were on that call, and those who were may remember that the mood was pretty jubilant.

And then a woman spoke up, who introduced herself as a lesbian mother of two children. She said that up to that day, she hadn’t really realized how boxed in she felt – “claustrophobic” was the word she used – knowing that there were so many parts of the world where she could not be herself. Places where she was afraid to travel with her family. Places where – if she walked along the street simply holding hands with her partner – she would be mocked, threatened, or even physically attacked. She said that for all the progress we were making here in the United States, recognizing that there was such a massive part of the globe that was in effect a “No Go Zone” for her and her family, was profoundly painful. No matter how much progress we were making here at home, she said, for as long as those places existed beyond our borders, real freedom and real equality would be elusive. And what President Obama did in this presidential memorandum is declare it our intention – it will take a long time – to end the “No Go Zones” around the world.

Now I began with that story because it captures the schizophrenic feeling that one can have often these days as an advocate for LGBTI rights working in this great country.

On the one hand, we can feel a clear shift underway in the attitudes of most Americans on this issue. To be sure – I don’t have to tell you – discrimination, hatred, and outright violence against LGBTI people persists in many parts of our country. And recently, we have seen some politicians blowing on the embers of fear and bigotry against LGBTI people – as well as other marginalized groups – in a cynical attempt to win more support for themselves. But we in this room do know – as I suspect also know these cynical politicians, who let polls guide their principles – that in the long term this LGBTI-baiting is a losing proposition in the United States of America. The trajectory of our country is unmistakable, and it points toward LGBTI equality. It is about time. [Applause.]

Yet on the other hand, when we look beyond our borders, we see many parts of the world where the tide seems to be turning in the wrong direction. And not just in countries with a track record of discriminating against LGBTI people, but also in some places where, until recently, LGBTI communities were at the very least tolerated – my least favorite word – if not treated equally. Consider what has happened over the last few months in the country of Indonesia – a country that prides itself on its diversity, and has drawn strength over the years from its traditions of tolerance.

Since late January, a series of ranking government officials have called for barring LGBTI groups from university campuses; turned away aid from a UN program that supports local Indonesian LGBTI organizations; and banned TV and radio programs that portray LGBTI people as “normal,” in order to protect children from “deviant LGBTI behavior;” while another official characterized the LGBTI rights movement as a national threat.

While a handful of Indonesian officials have taken a more moderate and constructive stance, the messages of intolerance by several senior officials have had real-life consequences for members of Indonesia’s LGBTI community, leading, for example, to the closing of a special boarding school for trans women, as well as to reports of increased harassment, attacks, and fear among local LGBTI groups.

Unfortunately, as you all know, this is far from an isolated case. In more than 70 countries around the world, same-sex activity or relationships are criminalized. One of those countries is the Gambia, where, under legislation adopted in 2014, the crime of “aggravated homosexuality” can be punished with life in prison. At a rally in the Gambia last year, the country’s president threatened that if his government caught men who were married to other men: “I will slit your throat.”

If we are unwilling to accept this world, an increasingly polarized world, in which one set of countries moves toward greater equality for LGBTI people, while the other moves toward greater discrimination and violence against LGBTI people, and if we believe that we will not be able to achieve true equality as long as there are vast “No Go Zones” for LGBTI people worldwide, then we must ask how we can draw upon the lessons we have learned and the tools we have to help our partners in the places where LGBTI people are still targeted by discrimination and by violence. Let me suggest two places we can do that.

First, we can find innovative ways to make people see that LGBTI rights are human rights at the United Nations. One way to do this is by shining a bright light on the places where LGBTI persons face the most horrific forms of persecution, such as the parts of Iraq and Syria controlled by ISIL and other violent extremist groups.

Even before ISIL’s rise, LGBTI people in the region suffered systemic threats and attacks, but the barbarity of ISIL’s crimes rise to another level. ISIL doesn’t just target LGBTI persons, it broadcasts its monstrous attacks on them for the entire world to see. Some of you may have brought yourself to watch the videos; ISIL marching gay men to the tops of buildings and throwing them to their deaths; ISIL parading a gay man through the streets and beating him; ISIL inciting a mob, which included small children, to stone a gay man to death.

Consider what happened to a young man that I will call Adnan. Adnan was living in a part of northern Iraq seized by ISIL. Even before the group took over, Adnan had suffered routine threats and attacks for being gay. In one incident, three men set upon him in the street, beat him, and then shaved his head. Another time, he was attacked and beaten so savagely that he nearly lost consciousness. The situation worsened when ISIL took over. The group began systematically hunting down people they suspected of being gay, torturing them, and forcing them to inform on other gay people they knew. One of Adnan’s closest friends was outed and executed. Then, a classmate at Adnan’s university who had joined ISIL began to call and threaten him. Not long after, members of ISIL showed up at his home, telling his parents that they had come to carry out “God’s punishment” against him. Fearing for his life, Adnan fled Iraq.

I share Adnan’s story not only because it illustrates the horror that LGBTI people are enduring to this day in the places controlled by ISIL, but also because Adnan was able to participate in the first-ever United Nations Security Council meeting dedicated to LGBTI rights. [Applause.] The United States co-chaired this meeting with Chile last August, a reflection of the growing leadership taken by Latin American countries on this essential issue. It tells you something about the terror that Adnan experienced that – long after escaping Iraq – he still was not comfortable using his real name, or even participate in the meeting via video conference, out of his concern that ISIL might somehow be able to find him. Instead, he provided his testimony by phone. “People who were able to flee like myself are living in constant fear…We are hated, and our suffering and death brings joy to people.” That is what the UN Security Council heard from Adnan.

Making LGBTI rights the focus of a meeting on the agenda of the UN Security Council for the first time mattered. It mattered because it reinforced that LGBTI rights are not a special category of rights, but rather, now – in the eyes of the Security Council – they must be seen as what they are, human rights. And by condemning the persecution of Adnan and other LGBTI people by ISIL, the Security Council made clear that it is wrong to subject people to violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity – just as it is wrong to subject people to violence and discrimination for any other immutable part of who they are.

Bringing LGBTI rights into the Security Council for the first time also allowed us to pose a broader question to other UN Member States – and this is where it’s truly important and truly lasting, in terms of its impact: If we agree that it is wrong when ISIL throws people off of buildings or stones them to death because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is it any less wrong when a government locks people up for the very same reason? Is it any less wrong when police refuse to investigate an act of violence, simply because the victim is an LGBTI person? Is it any less wrong when a person is denied a job or an education or health care, simply because of who they love? The severity of the abuse may vary, but the principle is the same: Treating people differently because of who they are is always wrong. [Applause.] That was the precedent set by the UN Security Council with its first meeting on LGBTI rights.

And as LGBTI advocates know well – know better than me – “firsts” matter. That is the lesson taught to us by Edie Windsor and of the state of Massachusetts. It is the lesson of Lawrence v. Texas, and – this one’s for the history nerds out there – of Kathy Kozachenko, 1974 City Council seat in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Okay, I looked that up. [Laughter.]

Let me tell you some other precedents we have set at the United Nations on LGBTI rights. Together with our partners, in 2011, the United States helped secure the passage of the first-ever UN resolution on LGBTI rights, at the Human Rights Council, expressing grave concern about the violence and discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. This led the UN to produce its first-ever report documenting the state of LGBTI rights around the world in December 2011, which was followed by another resolution in 2014, and a second report in June of 2015.

Now I know resolutions, reports – this may sound a little wonky, a little bureaucratic. But the reports have played a crucial role in documenting the widespread and systematic abuses that LGBTI persons endure worldwide. Let me just read to you a few lines from the June 2015 UN report’s conclusion: “the overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions. These constitute serious human rights violations, often perpetrated with impunity, indicating that current arrangements to protect the human rights of LGBT and intersex persons are inadequate.” When the UN not only documents these abuses, but calls out the perpetrating governments by name, that gives us an important tool to try to press them to change.

Not a single one of the advances we have made in weaving LGBTI rights into the fabric of human rights at the UN has come without a fight. And even where we have succeeded in locking in advances, countries have quickly set about trying to roll them back. I imagine this may sound somewhat familiar to those of you who have been working to advance LGBTI rights through the courts here in the United States.

Consider what happened in March of last year, when Russia launched an effort to try to overturn a 2014 decision by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to extend benefits to the families of all UN employees, including individuals in same-sex marriages. Now, as I mentioned earlier, there are more than 70 countries around the world that criminalize same-sex activities or relationships. And there are many countries beyond those 70-plus nations where LGBTI rights are not considered human rights – or rights period. As a result, some said that we, the United States, should not bother trying to push back on this effort to repeal this rule because we were so greatly outnumbered within the UN membership of 192 countries. Others questioned why we should expend so much energy to preserve a benefit that was benefiting very few families.

We saw it differently – I believe you, too, saw it differently. We recognized that if we accepted that LGBTI rights didn’t need to be treated like human rights within the UN’s own house, how in the world could we go to specific individual Member States and tell them that they needed to treat LGBTI rights any differently? We could already see the headline if we lost: “UN Strips Benefits for LGBTI Families.” Imagine that headline? And, just as important, what kind of message would it send to our LGBTI colleagues if we weren’t willing to fight for their equal rights?

We knew that we had to put everything into this fight. And we did, working that vote as hard as any vote we have worked since I became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. We divided up 192 UN Member States – besides ourselves – among our ambassadors, committing to reaching out to every single country and pressing them to keep the benefits in place, to vote “no” on what Russia was attempting. For weeks, we kept a running tally of our count. And when countries wouldn’t take our calls, we buttonholed them in the General Assembly Hall, at the Security Council, or even in the bathrooms. [Laughter.]

We used every tool in our toolkit. And U.S. ambassadors around the world in capitals kicked into overdrive. We called in chits. And even when we suspected we’d gone from being behind to gaining a majority, we kept working. In the end, out of 193 countries in the United Nations, only 43 countries voted with Russia. Think about that. That means at least dozens of countries that criminalize same-sex activities or relationships within their own borders did not vote to strip benefits from LGBTI families at the UN. As a result, to this day, all families of UN workers are entitled to equal benefits – as they should be. [Applause.]

Let me give one more example of how we in the U.S. government practice what we preach when it comes to advancing LGBTI equality. I have two teams – one is my beloved Boston Red Sox – thank God I’m not in New York [laughter.] – and the other is my team at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Only one of those teams can I brag about consistently [laughter.] – only one of those teams did not finish 15 games out of first place in the American League East last year.

If you serve in another government’s mission at the UN, and you are interacting with my team at USUN in any way, you are going to be working with LGBTI people. Whether it is the individual who receives you when you come into our office – the face of our mission – or the person who is negotiating a sanctions package across the table from you, or the person who drafted the Security Council resolution that you and another country find yourself trying to edit – these individuals play an indispensable role in everything we do at the UN. And our government would be nowhere near as effective without them.

One of the smartest, savviest political counselors I have ever met, Curtis Ried, is here today. And I want to give Curtis another round of applause. [Applause.] Now, as you’ve heard, he’s moved on to what he thinks are greener pastures at the National Security Council, and he now holds several briefs – but one of which is the National Security Council’s LGBTI rights portfolio. That is what American diplomacy looks like to the world in 2016. It’s its own job.

If it seems obvious to point out the crucial role that LGBTI people play in every part of our mission, remember this: every day at the UN, we interact with delegations from countries where being out as an LGBTI person disqualifies individuals from serving in government. Only a few decades ago, that was the case in the United States as well. When people from these missions work with the United States at the UN – when they observe the superlative contributions that LGBTI people are making alongside their colleagues, day in and day out – these individuals, these governments, see firsthand what their governments and societies are losing out on by not treating LGBTI people equally. It’s as compelling an argument for LGBTI equality as America can make.

But before we pat ourselves on the back too much, we need only take one look at the map to remind ourselves of the sprawling LGBTI “No Go Zones” that cover so much of the globe. If countries are brazen enough to try to strip away LGBTI rights at the UN – in the city that gave us Stonewall and Pride – imagine what they are willing to do in their own countries.

So if my first point is that we have to work LGBTI rights into the DNA of human rights at the United Nations – my second point is that we must be willing to take this conversation to the parts of the world where discrimination and violence against LGBTI people is more entrenched. And by we – I mean, of course, both the U.S. government as well as civil society groups like the Human Rights Campaign and its partners.

That is what President Obama did when he traveled to Africa last July. Approximately half of the 70-odd countries in the world that criminalize same-sex relationships are in Africa. And even before the President set off on the trip, our policy of promoting LGBTI rights produced a little tension.

In Nairobi, for example, a landlord reportedly expelled gay tenants by saying, “Go wait for your Obama;” at an anti-LGBTI rally in the city, protestors chanted, “We do not want Obama and Obama. We do not want Michelle and Michelle.” Even in the mainstream in the United States, some said the president should not mention LGBTI rights in public, because it might jeopardize our relationships with African governments, or because it risked being interpreted as trying to force our values on other countries.

Let me just read you – what many of you probably remember – just what President Obama said during a press conference in Nairobi with Kenya’s President Kenyatta, in response to a question from a reporter on LGBTI rights. President Obama said: “I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation …When you start treating people differently – not because of any harm they’re doing anybody, but because they’re different – that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen. And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. And as an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law.” I am so proud to work for a president who would deliver that message. [Applause.]

And that is also the message the president sent by appointing our nation’s first Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons – a position that the Human Rights Campaign and its partners lobbied hard to create. We are so grateful for the HRC’s efforts. I hope you will make it your business to ensure that whoever it is who takes over the White House next January maintains this position, and gives the special envoy the support that he or she needs to carry out this crucial job effectively. And we are, as you heard, extremely fortunate to have Special Envoy Berry with us here today. Randy has been tremendous and tireless – he has traveled to 42 countries around the world, and he is making a huge difference. [Applause.]

Whether it is President Obama, Special Envoy Berry, or any of our ambassadors or other diplomats in the field, our approach in advocating for these rights is not to force an agenda on others, or to tell governments and civil societies that they have to do everything just as we’ve done it – that’s a caricature of our position. Rather, the approach is to start always by listening to our local partners, to those who are standing up for these rights in communities where the odds are so stacked against them – hearing from them how we can most effectively empower them to lead their own efforts to equality, always guided by the simple principle that it should never be too much to ask for everybody’s basic human rights to be respected; and that no one should be subjected to violence or discrimination just because of who they are.

Of course, it cannot only be the U.S. government leading these efforts. And that is why it is so crucial that groups like HRC take the expertise you’ve built over decades to train advocates in other countries who are facing daunting obstacles. I’m talking about trips like the one that Ty Cobb and Jean Freedberg – who direct HRC’s Global Program – led last November to Mozambique, where they helped plan a campaign to help a respected human rights group win the accreditation they’ve been seeking from the government for the last seven years. Where are you, Ty and Jean? [Applause.]

In learning about their trip, one of the most uplifting stories was of the meeting they held with key LGBTI leaders at the U.S. embassy in Maputo, where HRC’s delegation talked about the evolution of the movement for equality here in the United States, and heard about the challenges that leaders are facing on the ground in Mozambique. That a conversation like that can be proudly hosted at a U.S. embassy, under an American flag, with the U.S. ambassador not only hosting, but participating and voicing support is what President Obama’s Memorandum on LGBTI rights is all about – it’s in the DNA. And you are one of our country’s strongest exports, we need you out there doing more of this. It is one thing for LGBTI groups to read about your efforts from afar – they are amazed, they are inspired – it’s another thing altogether to hear firsthand from you about how far you’ve come. It gives people in tough places hope that “it actually gets better,” and lessons in how to make it so.

Let me conclude.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought a group of 17 UN ambassadors to see the musical Fun Home. [Applause.] Now, I imagine that many of you have read the graphic novel or seen the play, but for the few of you who have not, it tells the story of how a young girl, Ali, comes to realize that she is gay, and eventually comes out to her family. The story revolves around Ali’s relationship with her father who, we learn, is also gay, but who has lived his entire life in the closet.

There’s a beautiful scene in the play where we see Ali realize, for the first time, that she’s attracted to women. She’s sitting in a diner with her dad, when in walks – in her words – “an old-school butch. [Laughter.] Short hair. Dungarees. Lace up boots. And her keys – oh her ring of keys." [Laughter.]

And Ali, who can’t be older than eight or nine at the time, breaks out into song. Let me read you – not sing – a few verses:

I thought it was supposed to be wrong

But you seem okay with being strong

I want –

You’re so –

It’s probably conceited to say

But I think we’re alike in a certain way…

Do you feel my heart saying hi?

In this whole luncheonette why am I the only one

Who sees you’re beautiful –


I mean…handsome…

I know you

I know you

I know you

After the performance, the other ambassadors and I had an opportunity to sit with the cast and the producers to talk about the show. And whether the ambassadors came from progressive countries on LGBTI rights, or countries where discrimination against LGBTI people is still rampant, so many of them spoke about the impact of that scene. The ambassador from El Salvador put it this way, speaking to the cast: “I wondered why I could be nearly two hours so involved, suffering with you, laughing with you, when nothing really special happens onstage. What is the message? To me it is very clear. You were telling us: ‘Look, you are me. We are together and we are the same.’” Awesome. [Applause.]

I think the reason that scene in Fun Home resonates so deeply with people is that, when you watch Ali experience her first crush, you identify with her. It is innocent. It is pure. Even if she knows it is “supposed to be wrong,” she knows it is right. That is who Ali is. It is her heart speaking, saying hi, for the first time. And she’s beautiful.

“I know you,” Ali says, recognizing something in that woman. “I know you.” And we know Ali. In that moment, we see ourselves in her. We see in her our moms, our sisters, our daughters. Our dads, our brothers, and our sons. All of them. Anyone who has ever had a simple crush, whose heart has spoken.

Looking out at the parts of our country – and especially all the other parts of the world, the “No Go Zones” – where LGBTI people are still treated differently for who they are, it can be easy to feel disheartened. But what Ali reminds us of in that scene in Fun Home – and what every one of those ambassadors from 17 different countries saw when she sang that song – is that if we show anyone up close who LGBTI people really are, even the people who “thought it was supposed to be wrong,” they will see that they are just like us. Human beings, with the same hearts. Human beings, entitled to the same rights – rights that all of us must fight for.

I know you. I know you. I know you.

Thank you.

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