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Mara Keisling

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Transformative Human Rights Day

Posted: 12/10/11 06:36 PM ET

Today is International Human Rights Day, celebrated in commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN in 1948. This year, as in each of the preceding handful of years, we see a long, muddy road ahead, but also traction in our work for the human rights that we have been guaranteed (yet denied) by the Declaration for half a century and by the American Constitution for centuries.

This year on Human Rights Day there is significant good news to celebrate -- transformational good news. The Obama Administration, further expressing and advancing its commitment to human rights for transgender and all LGBT people, put forth two important statements that represent the most significant recognition to date by an American President of Trans people's rights as human beings. 

The president's memorandum and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech at the U.N. in Geneva were remarkable, urgently needed acknowledgements that transgender people are people. They expressed on behalf of the United States of America through the largest of megaphones that trans people in the U.S. and around the world are people. As the secretary exclaimed, "Like being a woman, like being a racial religious tribal or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human." This is still a radical notion in parts of the world including among some in our country.

It is a truly monumental thing that there is now a stated U.S. government policy for protecting and promoting the human rights of transgender people abroad. Articulated as an ongoing strategy for U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance programs to promote human rights abroad, it is nonetheless impossible to miss the domestic context in which this is framed and which it will impact.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged with humility and understatement that the American domestic record for LGBT people has been "far from perfect." It is undeniable that trans people in the U.S. continue to face structural and individual discrimination, disrespect and violence that, each day, causes a million tragedies of human, economic, emotional and physical crisis and devastation. Clinton is right that we still have far to go to make the United States a fully safe and fair place for us. 

Still, conditions here are undeniably moving in the right direction in many ways and have been significantly accelerated by this administration. Policies for accessing accurate and consistent federal identification documents like passports have been updated. Transgender federal employees are now protected and other employment protections are advancing quickly. The Department of Health and Human Services is working to include trans people in federal health surveys so we can better understand how to address the health disparities trans people face. The Veterans Administration now explicitly guarantees trans vets access to the healthcare they deserve. The Social Security Administration has stopped outing transgender people to their employers with gender no-match letters. There are other advancements like these making transgender life in America fairer, and many other agencies are working to make programs and society more survivable for us.

The biggest advancement we have seen under this administration deserves special note here. For the first time in American history, we have a Presidential administration that is willing to hear transgender people as we articulate for ourselves how the federal government can be repaired to stop dangers and injustices we all face every day. A November briefing at the White House on ending violence against transgender people may be partially symbolic, but is importantly indicative of the willingness to hear our issues and the advancement of our rights. 

This advancement of rights domestically is actually enhanced by having a foreign policy that promotes our human rights abroad. Whenever the humanity of trans people or any people is diminished anywhere, it diminishes the humanity of trans people and everyone everywhere. The United States will now leverage our diplomacy and moral suasion to advance and protect human rights for trans people abroad. That impacts us here, and can dramatically impact trans people abroad, who often live in even more dire circumstances. This expression by the president and the secretary of ttate of recognition of our humanity by the U.S. will make advancements in other places more possible, proving and allowing more and more that Transgender people are people. That is a really big deal for us here and everywhere.