I am thrilled to be here tonight, to bring the support of the United Nations to a great human rights cause. And to say three things. On history, on complacency, and on solidarity.
First history: remembering the past, and honoring those whose bravery and sacrifice paved the way for progress.
I don’t need to tell you about Stonewall Inn 48 years ago, and the three nights which had such an impact for millions. Back in the sixties, gay relationships were illegal, and most LGBTQ Americans lived in fear of violence and discrimination. A situation still faced by LGBTQ communities in many places today.
The tremendous progress achieved by the American LGBTQ movement sends a powerful message of hope to LGBT, intersex and genderqueer people globally that social change is possible when we all take a stand, show up in force, and make our voices heard.
Second: we must not be complacent.
Yes, we’ve seen marriage equality sweep America, growing awareness of the need to protect gay and trans kids from bullying. But progress is rarely locked in. Just in the past 12 months we’ve seen ludicrous attempts to ban trans people from using the bathroom that matches their self-identified gender.
And even in the US, the feeling of progress isn’t shared by all. Some black queer and transgender communities in particular still continue to grapple with marginalization and do not feel the equality that many others feel. In Europe and Latin America, we have also seen major advances.
But there is also backlash, as leaders ramp up hateful rhetoric against gay and trans people for political profit. More than 70 countries still criminalize same sex relationships and several have increased punishments for being gay.
We have seen arrests, humiliation and floggings in Indonesia, and horrifying reports – albeit still unconfirmed - of gay men being tortured to death in Chechnya.
Just three days ago I met Russian LGBT activists in my office – extraordinarily courageous people – who are determined to continue the struggle, but are working now mainly to evacuate gays from the most dangerous areas.
Which brings me to my third point: solidarity.
Many LGBTQ people despair that they will ever feel safe or accepted in their own countries, even within their own families.
We must give refuge to those who are in immediate danger.
One of the greatest acts of human solidarity I have ever encountered in my life – one which chokes me up almost every time I talk about it – took place just last January.
When thousands of Americans spontaneously flocked to airports all over the country to protest and to defend the rights of desperate people caught up in the “Muslim ban”.
Those airport scenes sent an incredible message of reaffirmation about America and the power of solidarity.
It is not enough to change the law – important though that is. We also need to change people's hearts and minds.
This can only come from us all joining together – gay and straight, trans and cisgender, students and elders, business people and activists. And I can promise you that the United Nations will be standing by your side.
Yes, we are undeniably confronting a backlash against human rights. We certainly feel that at the UN, where powerful countries with a nakedly hostile attitude to human rights in general feel emboldened and are teaming up to oppose us at every turn. But we are determined to resist and to keep the struggle alive.
So join our campaign – the UN Free & Equal campaign – which is challenging negative stereotypes of LGBTQ people, and standing in solidarity with vulnerable communities on the front line of this fight around the world.
Free and Equal.