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It's Not Gay Rights; It's Human Rights: Clinton Breaks Down the Wall

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Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit is due.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have given some boilerplate remarks about the importance of human rights on International Human Rights Day in Geneva. She could have taken the opportunity to take some swipes at Iran or the Taliban.

But instead she gave a speech that made everyone sit up and notice:

"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."

She was talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

It was landmark because it made the very simple point that gay rights are part of human rights -- an argument that sounds obvious but which has been repeatedly denied by countries around the world.

But the most interesting (and un-American) part of the speech was that she didn't use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was "far from perfect." She didn't use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration's own record -- for example, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

She actually looked abroad for inspiration -- to South Africa, Colombia, Mongolia, and India:

"To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, 'If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.'"

That's noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don't usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on "Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi" instead.

By singling out the Delhi High Court judgment at a time when it is being challenged in India's Supreme Court, the United States just raised its stature. Gay activists in India might bask in the sunshine of that unexpected plaudit, but they should also take a moment to learn something from her speech.

Too often the fight for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people gets bogged down in the same arguments.

We don't need the West dictating its values to us. This is against our Indian values. It's illegal, immoral and against the Indian ethos, said the BJP's senior leader, BP Singhal. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev claimed that it offended the "structure of Indian value system, Indian culture and traditions."

Clinton took that issue head-on:

"Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do."

But then she went further. She said that gay rights are human rights, and that you cannot do to gay people what you would not do to other humans. You cannot just hide behind the veil of culture, value systems or tradition. There cannot be a "women exception" or a "Dalit exception" or a "gay exception" to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then it's not universal at all.

Take women's rights. Terrible things have been done to women in the name of cultural tradition:

"This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women, like honour killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn't cultural; it's criminal."

It's not that honour killings do not happen, but it's harder to excuse them as just part of culture. But homosexuals still exist outside that circle of protection. A gay man can be hanged in Iran for being gay. Fifty-two men can be picked up in a boat party in Cairo and thrown into jail. Robert Mugabe can call homosexuals in his country "pigs and dogs" with impunity. We are much readier to hold homosexuals to a different standard because we regard homosexuality as unnatural, not part of our culture.

Therefore, activists expend a lot of energy to make gay rights make sense in their cultural context. That makes sense. It's important for us to argue for something that looks like it's homegrown and not imported from New York or Amsterdam. It's vital for us to research and reclaim our own gay and lesbian history, as Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai did in their book Same-Sex Love in India. But while the fight for equal rights can and should be local, the issue is universal. As the declaration states:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

Clinton showed in her speech that ultimately there must be a line in the sand before it turns into the quicksand of cultural relativism. Some things are just not negotiable. Otherwise, you slowly strip the "universal" out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the detriment of us all. In Geneva she reminded us that whether you are fighting for gay rights in Washington, D.C. or at the Supreme Court in Delhi, it's actually not about gay rights at all. Because as long as you are fighting for gay rights, you are fighting for special rights.

This fight is actually about human rights. Period.

A different version of this blog post first appeared on Firstpost.com.