In the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden has made a name for himself by being an outspoken LGBT ally. He was ahead of the game (and President) on marriage equality, and called LGBT rights the equality fight of our time. This week he spoke out again, and what he said was another game-changer.
Biden, in a speech made to a gathering of international rights advocates at the Naval Observatory’s vice presidential mansion on Tuesday, spelled out how the United States is now pushing to advocate for LGBT rights around the globe. He also said in startlingly clear terms that the United States will no longer make compromises to culture or tradition when it talks about these important human rights issues.
“I don’t care what your culture is,” Biden is quoted as saying. “Inhumanity is inhumanity is inhumanity. Prejudice is prejudice is prejudice.” He also went on to warn that for states that do not move toward greater LGBT rights, “there is a price to pay for being inhumane.”
The Obama administration has made absolutely no secret of its desire that U.S. embassies and officials posted abroad help advance LGBT rights. Indeed, this can be traced back to President Obama’s 2011 memorandum entitled the “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons,” in which the President made a raft of promises including to combat the criminalization of LGBTs abroad.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton also made a number of strong LGBT rights statements during her tenure, perhaps most notably her speech to the UN in 2011 in which she said “And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights. 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.”
However, rarely before has the administration’s position been put as starkly as Biden put it this week. In fact, few if any other governments around the world have dared to be so uncompromising when it comes to the topic of LGBT rights and how it squares against views of culture and tradition. Fortunately, we know that this is more than just rousing speechifying, though.
For instance, last week Secretary of State John Kerry announced new sanctions to certain aid programs Uganda relies on, citing the country’s anti-homosexuality law which now, among other things, makes it a crime to even know a homosexual and not report them. Ugandan officials replied with their usual bluster that they would not be intimidated but at the same time acknowledged that this is a blow to the country’s food and financial security.
Taken together, Biden’s statements and the administration’s actions represent a strong declaration of LGBT advocacy and signals to the 80 or so countries that currently criminalize homosexuality, like Brunei and Nigeria, or are persecuting LGBTs via backdoor criminalization, like Russia, that the United States will not allow them to hide behind the lie that discrimination against LGBTs is simply something that tradition demands.
This also coincides with the Obama administration publishing a fact sheet on the many ways in which it is committed to helping LGBTs living in foreign countries, including coordinating with local and regional foreign human rights groups to provide on-the-ground assistance, promoting health outreach to at-risk groups like LGBTs, and redoubling efforts to make sure that LGBT asylum and refugee claims are handled in a timely and sympathetic manner.
Just as Biden’s speech is important on the international front, it is also a signal to state administrations and lawmakers within the United States that “traditional values” can’t be used as a means to persecute LGBT people. When there are number of special interest groups pushing legislation, for instance, for the right to refuse to serve LGBT people in the service and healthcare sectors, for the right to refuse recognition to same-sex civil marriages, and the right to disregard nondiscrimination legislation, this kind of strong statement cannot be ignored — and the Right isn’t ignoring it either.
Various religious and religious far-right sites are vociferously protesting what they see as Biden having just attacked Christianity. Of course this isn’t what happened. Biden is simply saying that tradition, religious or otherwise, cannot be a justification for discrimination. Yet, the Right knows that Biden’s words signal even more starkly that the administration will not back down on its LGBT rights advocacy at home or abroad. As such, expect to hear Biden’s words quoted for a long time yet.