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We Did Overcome: Hillary's Landmark Speech

Lyndon Johnson's journey from the political precincts of segregated rural Texas to the moment in 1965 when he told the American nation "we shall overcome" was a long one, yet the great moments of advances in freedom are best seen in the changes, in the evolution of thinking. The long struggle for equality in sexual orientation doesn't hold the same century-long existential question for the country as a whole, but it has nonetheless been an accelerating freight train of social change in the last decade, a welcome success in the process of smoothing of the rougher, unfair, immoral edges of our society. And the fragrant, flowering success of the gay and lesbian rights movement has given us all proof in dark challenging times that there still exists a willingness in the American spirit to rethink ourselves, to stride into the future with purpose, and to pursue a more perfect union.

And last week, the Obama Administration provided its LBJ speech in that long struggle - and signaled its evolving commitment to linking gay rights to its wider human rights agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a non-supporter (yet) of full gay marriage and a one-time supporter of the Clinton White House Defense of Marriage Act, threw both her not inconsiderable personal international stardom and the full weight of U.S. foreign policy behind supporting equality for homosexuals - and more importantly, condemning those nations who turn a blind eye to anti-gay violence.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Republican reality show mess that passes for that sad, obstructionist party's nomination process, the speech didn't get the domestic media play it deserved. Yet it marked a high point of the Obama Administration, and showed the keen coordination that has become the extraordinary relationship between President Obama and Secretary Clinton, formerly bitter rivals. Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton formally declared the fight against discrimination against homosexuals a key priority of U.S. foreign policy.

"Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today," she said. "In many ways, they are an invisible minority."

Then she took dead aim:

“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights. It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”

In a word: bravo! It's hard to beat the reaction of Dan Savage (with his implicit political message) in HuffPo: "The check I was planning to write to Obama's reelection campaign just acquired another zero."

At Feministing, Easha Pandit praised the speech, especially its muscular and clear-eyed culture message.

I particularly value the connection of social justice issues to human rights language. It’s a powerful statement. This language and the leverage of American diplomatic efforts are vitally important, they give the issue visibility and legitimacy. I particularly appreciated Secretary Clinton’s call for the freedom of expression. She said,

“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave.”'

Pandit rightly pointed out that U.S. domestic policy still has a ways to go before both anti-gay violence and discrimination disappear from these shores, politely emphasizing the Obama Administration's own slow boat evolution. Yet radio host and gay rights activist Sandip Roy saw a clear lack of hypocritical nagging in Secretary Clinton's landmark speech.

But the most interesting (and un-American) part of the speech was that she didn't use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was "far from perfect." She didn't use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration's own record -- for example, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

She actually looked abroad for inspiration -- to South Africa, Colombia, Mongolia, and India:

"To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, 'If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.'"

That's noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don't usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on "Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi" instead.

Secretary Clinton's address in Geneva was strong, dramatic and historic. But it was also given more import with the release of a White House memorandum over President Obama's signature that explicitly ties the U.S. emphasis on human rights to gay rights in our foreign policy. While American foreign policy in general in far from a perfect expression of freedom and civil rights, this is a time for applause and good feeling. Compare Secretary Clinton's address and the sickening, gay-baiting pseudo-Christian political ad released this week by former GOP frontrunner Rick Perry and you'll glimpse the vast contrast between the team we have - and their potential successors. As Leslie Gabel-Brett of Lambda Legal said: "A vision of equality and human rights for LGBT people has taken hold, and the number and power of those who promote that vision is growing. It may be a heavy boulder up a steep hill, but many people are pushing history toward the full recognition of LGBT human rights under the law at home and around the world."

Is there a more noble goal for a superpower's foreign policy?

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