A Very Good Day for Human Rights

Sometimes a confluence of events makes us see how big the changes are that are taking place in our world. Just as President Obama released a memo directing all federal foreign policy and aid agencies to "promote and protect the rights of LGBT persons" and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was giving a historic speech to a U.N. audience in Geneva in which she declared that "being LGBT does not make you less human ... [a]nd that is why gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights," a federal appeals court in Georgia upheld a ruling that it is unconstitutional for the government in this country to fire a transgender worker because it disapproves of her gender expression.

This week's events stopped us in our tracks as we saw our history continue to unfold. 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.

Secretary Clinton's speech was remarkable and inspiring. We are grateful to her and President Obama for seeking to translate their vision into action. And we cannot lose sight of the facts that most recently led to these announcements: terrible violence and discrimination against LGBT people here and around the world, and efforts by some countries and American states to further persecute LGBT people and even criminalize our identities, our speech and our lives. It is dangerous to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in many parts of the world and many parts of this country. We have a lot of work still to do.

Secretary Clinton made clear that her message was intended not only for other countries but for our country, as well. "Until 2003 ... [sex between people of the same sex] was still a crime in parts of our country," she said. "Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home."

Her reference to 2003 is about the year that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the remaining state sodomy laws in Lambda Legal's historic case, Lawrence v. Texas. That victory, of course, was not easily won, as the Supreme Court had only 17 years earlier upheld the right of state governments to treat lesbian and gay people as criminals in the disastrous Bowers v. Hardwick decision. Our courts do not always get it right, but the doors of justice remain open so that we can continue to make our case for equality.

Secretary Clinton also said, "To LGBT men and women worldwide: wherever you live and whatever your circumstances... please know that you are not alone." Lambda Legal's client Vandy Beth Glenn was fired three years ago by the Georgia state legislature because her employer did not like the fact that she was transgender. She fought back, and this week a federal appeals court upheld our Constitution and protected her rights. Her victory clears the path for others; she shares this success with many and does not stand alone.

The best thing the Obama administration can do now is to set a better example in the United States to support our community here and give more power to our voice abroad: let's enact a federal statute protecting all LGBT people against discrimination and end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. Let's also stop tearing apart binational same-sex couples and grant asylum to LGBT and HIV-positive people facing violence and persecution in their home countries. It is time to get these things done.

LGBT people and all our allies, here and around the globe, are not alone in fighting for equality; we are a strong and growing community of ordinary people and powerful leaders committed to justice. We stand together on the right side of history.