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White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights

by Marianne Duddy-Burke

On June 24, 2014, the White House sponsored its first Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights, and I was honored to represent DignityUSA in that gathering. The Forum brought together approximately 275 LGBT leaders from the fields of human rights, business, faith, and law, Obama administration officials, U.S. diplomatic staff, ambassadors from several mostly northern European countries, and some noted LGBT activists from Uganda, Nigeria, Russia, and China. The goal was to hear updates on the Administration’s LGBT rights priorities, and to provide concrete suggestions on how to further address this issue, which has been made central in U.S. diplomacy and foreign investment. 

The day opened with a welcome from Gautam Rhagavan, the White House Liaison to the LGBT community, followed by a panel of human rights activists from the U.S., Russia, and Uganda talking about the advances and setbacks in LGBT human rights, and about the effectiveness of current U.S. approaches. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, addressed the Administration’s accomplishments and goals, both domestically and inter- nationally. Ambassador Susan Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, gave a passionate keynote address that demonstrated her personal commitment to LGBT equality, and her ability to situate this issue in broader global concerns.

In working groups, participants were asked to identify specific actions the Administration should take, or stop taking, to further the goal of expanding rights for LGBT people globally. I was part of a Faith Leaders group that included an Anglican bishop from Uganda, people who have helped to train World Bank staff on LGBT issues, Muslim LGBT activists, and many other rich perspectives. Each session had a pre-assigned reporter who brought the group’s recommendations back to a final plenary session. In that plenary, I was able to raise the question of how efforts to expand religious exemptions or “respect for culture and tradition” in hiring or funding impacted LGBT people’s access to jobs and critical services. This got a lot of discussion. The Forum closed with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes summing up how this information will be carried to various departments and considered for action.

The Forum was followed by a lovely cocktail reception and light dinner at the Vice President’s residence. Both Dr. Biden and the Vice President gave eloquent and personal speeches affirming their, and the Administration’s, commitment to LGBT equality. I was struck by two things: the number of people at the gathering that the Bidens clearly knew personally and were very fond of, and the stories the VP told about his Catholic father teaching him and his friends to respect gay people when he was very young.

This was a historic and eventful day that I truly believe will have reverberations in many parts of the world. I am very, very proud that DignityUSA was a part of it.