Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on world leaders for the first time Tuesday to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians, announcing that the United States would use diplomacy and $3 million in aid to help expand the rights of gay people around the world.
In a speech to mark Human Rights Day, which is celebrated Saturday, Clinton declared that protecting the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is "now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time" and compared it to the battles for women's rights, racial equality and religious freedom.
Speaking at the United Nations' human rights body in Geneva, she noted that obstacles to gender equality in much of the world "rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural and religious beliefs."
"Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it," Clinton said. "Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world."
She challenged other governments to join U.S. efforts against gender discrimination hours after President Obama directed U.S. agencies working overseas to help combat the criminalization of sexual orientation and to enhance efforts to protect gay and lesbian refugees and asylum seekers.
Clinton announced the launch of a Global Equality Fund to assist civil organizations that promote equal rights for gays abroad. She said the U.S. had committed more than $3 million to start the fund.
The initiative builds on the Obama administration's effort to promote the rights of gays and lesbians at home. The Pentagon this year dismantled its ban on gays serving openly in the military, and Obama recently directed the federal government not to defend a law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
Single-sex marriage is banned in most states, and harassment and discrimination against gays persist in many communities.
"I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect," Clinton said. "So I come here before you with respect, understanding and humility."
A senior State Department official in Geneva said Clinton "was very intent on making [her speech] respectful in tone but firm on principle."
"She came not to wag a finger, but to really invite a conversation," the official said.
Clinton likened the religious and cultural explanations for abuse of gays to the reasons given to justify "honor killings, widow burning or female genital mutilation."
"Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition," Clinton said. "But violence toward women isn't cultural. It's criminal. Likewise with slavery; what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights."