Sometime in December 2011, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on LGBT rights in recognition of International Human Rights Day at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. In it, she noted that
“…there is still, as you all know, much more to be done to secure that commitment, that reality, and progress for all people. 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. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.
“I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time.”
In many ways, it is this speech that exemplifies the focus that the US President Barack Obama’s administration gives to defend the human rights of LGBT people as part of the comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of the foreign policy of the US.
This, therefore, helps define localized efforts of US Embassies in various countries – in the Philippines, included.
As Clinton stressed then,
“…in our embassies, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with a range of partners to strengthen human rights protections for all. In Washington, we have created a task force at the State Department to support and coordinate this work. And in the coming months, we will provide every embassy with a toolkit to help improve their efforts. And we have created a program that offers emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people…”
According to Harry K. Thomas Jr., US Ambassador to the Philippines, focusing on LGBT rights is important simply “because LGBT rights are human rights, and… (having) a ‘non-lookist society’, that’s the goal, where people are not judged because of how they look, or their sexual orientation…”
Various US embassies all over the world are, of course, known for their annual celebration of Pride (the term widely used to refer to LGBT-related celebrations) month every June (in commemoration of the New York’s Stonewall Riots that started on June 28, 1969, and which is largely accepted to have helped spark the modern LGBT liberation movement). And though the same has been happening under Thomas’ leadership in the Philippines, with the hosting of an LGBT reception every June, the ambassador is first to acknowledge that focusing on the LGBT struggle need not be limited to a month.
“You can’t define the LGBT community by one month,” he said. “I think it has to be a whole year effort.”
As such, internally (within the US Embassy in the Philippines), and among others, “we hire and promote people regardless of their sexual orientation; (and) we make sure that our people are not teased or bullied within the embassy,” Thomas said.
Also, “clearly, we take opportunities not just now (during Pride month) to speak out”. For instance, in May (as the world observed the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17), the US Embassy in the Philippines came out with an editorial in a national daily to tackle anti-bullying.
The Obama administration, of course, launched a new Global Equality Fund that supports the work of civil society organizations working on LGBT-related issues around the world, with over $3 million as startup fund. Particularly in the Philippines, supported are: public discussions to highlight LGBT issues; 2013 LGBT National Dialogue (via USAID’s Being LGBT in Asia); LGBT national conference (via USAID); and an anti-bullying campaign (with TV host Boy Abunda).
LGBT Americans, of course, still face challenges, yet – said Thomas – changes have already started happening, such as the backing of Pres. Obama of same-sex marriage, as well as the allowing of LGBTs to openly serve in the military. “We hope that we will see these (same changes) in the Philippines,” Thomas said, “and I know that in time we will.”
For Thomas, to face the difficulties faced by LGBT people, “it is up to use to stand up and protect and assist people. It’s up to us to institutionalize (support of equal rights). It’s up to us to make sure nobody is bullied,” he said. As such, “we need to come together. I think if you let people be who they are, they’d be better persons, and you’d get the most from them. (So) allow them to be who they are.”
In her speech, Clinton stressed that “now, we must go further and work here and in every region of the world to galvanize more support for the human rights of the LGBT community. To the leaders of those countries where people are jailed, beaten, or executed for being gay, I ask you to consider this: Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same.”
And standing up for the dignity of all is the key lesson for Thomas. At the end of the day, “we are all human beings. We are all the same. That always has to be the point,” he said.
And as the LGBT struggle for recognition continues, his message to LGBT Filipinos is in finding strength. “I know it’s tough, but be strong. We are with you,” Thomas ended.