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An Unforgettable Night in Geneva

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Two weeks ago, Secretary Clinton delivered a landmark speech on gay rights at the United Nations' Palais des Nations in Geneva. It has been nearly 20 years since I first approached the State Department, asking them to help protect LGBT people around the world. I was grateful for their tenuous support then; I am overwhelmed by their whole-hearted support today.

As I sat in the 2000-seat hall listening to Secretary Clinton's speech, I was truly overwhelmed with emotion. I was not alone in wiping tears away during the speech. Many others from our delegation of U.S. and global activists -- State Department officials, too -- were equally touched by the secretary's words. When it was over, I had never been prouder as an American, as an activist, and as a lesbian. Hillary Clinton was at her best. And we were there as a delegation not only to witness that moment in history but because we were also an integral part of shifting U.S. policy to help get us there.

I remember the first time I went to the State Department in 1991 as the 20-something founding director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I really didn't know anything about the federal agency responsible for U.S. foreign policy, but I knew they published the "blue book," an annual compilation of every country's human rights conditions that impacted the real lives of asylum-seeking LGBT people from around the world. Those clients would visit or call our little offices in San Francisco, desperately seeking documentation to back up their claims of persecution at home, but when the INS reviewed those individual asylum cases, they weighed the State Department's annual report heavily. As an activist seeking to make known the truth about how LGBT people were really treated, I got on a plane to D.C. and convinced the State Department to issue its first cable to embassies instructing them to include sexual orientation in their reporting. I still have the fax of that cable that was sent to me by the George H. W. Bush-appointed official, but I didn't really understand then the journey that had begun in making America's human rights policy fully inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Fast-forward 20 years: today many important human rights organizations and governments joined IGLHRC in seriously addressing the human rights of LGBT people around the world. The Council for Global Equality, the organization I'm now affiliated with, was formed as a coalition of those groups, to ensure that the tools used in promoting American foreign policy are equally responsive to LGBT issues. We have been delighted with the partnerships that we've forged with our own government, and with the genuine progress our country has made so far in addressing LGBT human rights issues abroad. But still nothing compares to the power of words.

Secretary Clinton's speech consolidates the progress this administration has made already. But she also pushed our journey to a higher plane, with a new and carefully crafted agenda. She elevated the importance of this particular minority's rights by addressing them on Human Rights Day at the U.N. But instead of alienating world leaders by pointing out the many places in the world where violations are at their worst, she invited the world into a conversation about LGBT people, and she did so with immense understanding and compassion. She spoke with the humility of a leader from a country with an imperfect record and a long way to go toward full equality for LGBT Americans, but with the unequivocal understanding of right and wrong. She was personal and genuine and used the power of her position brilliantly as she invited everyone to join her on the right side of history.

It was during the enthusiastic standing ovation and shouts of appreciation after the speech when I really started to cry. Only a couple of hostile country representatives remained in their seats, fighting to ignore the excitement that consumed the chamber when she finished. But they could not miss the inevitable course that human history is taking -- and neither could we.

As a little footnote, those Bush-era human rights reports were nothing in comparison to today's annual State Department Human Rights Reports (which feature entire sections dedicated to LGBT issues in every country chapter). So in 1993 I made myself an appointment with Mike Posner, the director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) to ensure that their annual chronicling of the omissions in the State Department report would include the missing violations against LGBT people. Mike Posner went on to become Clinton's top human rights guy at the State Department, the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He and his staff were part of Clinton's delegation to Geneva, and he spent the day after the speech together with our delegation of about 30 prominent LGBT leaders from the U.S. and around the world to understand better the ways LGBT people are persecuted in Cameroon, Uganda, Moldova, Croatia, Jamaica, and elsewhere. As our journey continues, it is not an overstatement to say that activists around the world (this one included!) received a significant and inspiring shot in the arm from Hillary Clinton.