THE BLOG
09/29/2015 04:06 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

Ban Ki-moon: Leading By Example

In our recent blog Making History at the U.N., we told the story of openly gay Syrian refugee Subhi Nahas, who recently made history when he addressed the first ever meeting of the United Nations Security Council concerning the human rights of LGBT refugees. Today, we focus on the extraordinary support for LGBT equality coming from the head of the United Nations: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

On June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court issued its historic nationwide marriage equality decision, Ban Ki-moon was in San Francisco to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the UN's founding and to receive the Harvey Milk Honors Medal for "his unparalleled and unequivocal support of LGBT inclusive human rights across the globe."

In his speech at the celebration, Ban proclaimed the marriage equality decision to be a "great step forward for human rights in the United States." He recognized the broad importance of the ruling, explaining that "[d]enying couples legal recognition of their relationship opens the door to widespread discrimination" and that the Court's "ruling will help close that door ...." He also spoke passionately about the struggle of LGBT people all over the world:

Millions of people, in every corner of the world, are forced to live in hiding, in fear of brutal violence, discrimination, even arrest and imprisonment, just because of who they are, or whom they love....The abuses and indignity suffered by members of the LGBT community are an outrage -- an affront to the values of the United Nations and to the very idea of universal human rights. I consider the struggle to end these abuses to be a great cause on a par with the struggle to end discrimination against women and on the basis of race.

Ban has put his words into action and spoken the truth to those who need to hear it most. For example, at the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Ban gave a speech in Sochi in which he stood up against homophobia in Russia and elsewhere, and urged all people to "raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people.... We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face."

After Ban, early in his tenure, met with LGBT UN staff who were afraid to come out, he declared that he "would make the United Nations the best workplace in the world, where people living with different sexual orientation would have no obstacles, no discrimination." Under Ban's leadership, the UN extended to same-sex spouses the same benefits available to different-sex spouses, and a General Assembly committee rejected a Russian effort to thwart the move by a nearly 2-1 margin. In 2013, the UN Human Rights Office launched the Free & Equal campaign to combat homophobia and transphobia. In Ban's words: "I believe in leading by example."

In January 2015, the Secretary General traveled to India, where the Indian Supreme Court is currently rehearing a legal challenge to India's retention of British era anti-sodomy laws. Ban made his position clear: "I staunchly oppose the criminalization of homosexuality.... I speak out because laws criminalizing consensual, adult same-sex relationships violate basic rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination. Even if they are not enforced, these laws breed intolerance...."

On a 2010 trip to Malawi, Ban engaged in quieter diplomacy on behalf of LGBT people when in a private meeting he urged Malawi's president to release Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, two LGBT Malawians who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison after announcing their engagement. Upon the couple's release the next day, Ban publicly urged that "outdated penal code[s]" such as Malawi's "be reformed wherever [they] ... may exist." On other occasions, Ban has noted that most such laws "are not home-grown," but "inherited from former colonial powers."

Two years later, as part of 2012 Human Rights Day events, Ban declared: "It is an outrage that in our modern world, so many countries continue to criminalize people simply for loving another human being of the same sex." A year later as part of a 2013 International Human Rights Conference in Oslo, Ban recognized that the struggle for LGBT equality "is one of the great neglected human rights challenges of our time." He observed that opponents of change "may invoke culture, tradition or religion to defend the status quo." But that "[s]uch arguments have been used to try to justify slavery, child marriage, rape in marriage and female genital mutilation. I respect culture, tradition and religion, but they can never justify the denial of basic rights."

The 71-year-old Secretary-General was not born an LGBT civil rights activist but came to support the cause through "a journey." As Ban grew up in Korea in the 1950s and 60s, he was unaware of knowing any LGBT people. Noting the influence of Confucianism in Korea, Ban explained that "[s]exual orientation and gender identity were not issues we spoke about." But according to Ban, "I ... learned to speak out when I realized that people's lives are at stake. It is that simple."

Ban feels "enormous pride" in being "the first UN Secretary-General to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world." We are proud to have such a strong advocate leading the UN. In speaking out for LGBT rights, Ban has reminded the world that the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the proclamation: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Ban has emphasized how that declaration applies to: "All human beings -- not some, not most, but all." We agree.

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.