Dominique Hernandez holds up her fist painted in the colors of a rainbow, with a heart on her pulse, attends a vigil in memory of victims one day after a mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 13, 2016.
Dominique Hernandez holds up her fist painted in the colors of a rainbow, with a heart on her pulse, attends a vigil in memory of victims one day after a mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 13, 2016.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Now that Hillary Clinton has secured the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential race, her record as the United States’ top diplomat during President Barack Obama’s first term in office is likely to come under even more scrutiny than it did during the Republican presidential primary. All 17 contenders, including the winner, Donald J. Trump, were fond of asking, “What did Hillary Clinton accomplish as secretary of state?”

One accomplishment that has received scant attention is that she ushered gay rights onto the international stage. It is fair to say that without Clinton’s efforts, the global struggle for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people would not have proceeded as fast as it has in the past several years, nor would the United States be seen today as a global leader in that struggle. At the heart of these efforts was the 2011 United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, otherwise known as the UNHRC Gay Rights Resolution, an international agreement whose drafting and signing Clinton oversaw. With that document, and a sister UNHRC resolution of 2014 condemning anti-LGBT violence and discrimination, the UN has formally recognized gay rights as part of the international human rights regime.

Given Clinton’s thorny history with the LGBT community, her role as a global gay rights crusader is surprising and richly ironic. More important, Clinton’s championship of gay rights at the global level was not without its share of controversy and unintended consequences. To the delight of gay activists, under her influence at the State Department, gay rights diplomacy became a priority of U.S. foreign policy. But this came at the expense of making the lives of many gays and lesbians around the world less safe by triggering a massive backlash in several parts of the developing world, especially in Africa.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a speech during a campaign stop in Lynwood, California, United States, June 6, 2016.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a speech during a campaign stop in Lynwood, California, United States, June 6, 2016.
Mike Blake / Reuters

Clinton’s gay rights crusade began within the State Department, which she transformed into one of the most—if not the most—gay-friendly bureaucracies in Washington, both in terms of its policies and its administration. This signaled a radical makeover for the stodgy institution, which under Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Clinton’s predecessors in the George W. Bush administration, had seen little drive for gay equality. Largely beholden to the Christian right and social conservatives, the Bush administration was hostile toward LGBT people and issues. As president, Bush endorsed an amendment to the federal constitution banning same-sex marriage, and his political managers used same-sex marriage as a wedge issue during his reelection campaign in 2004 with the intention of mobilizing so-called values voters in swing states like Ohio.

When she arrived at Foggy Bottom, Clinton extended a host of benefits to LGBT employees, including family leave and diplomatic passports and medical coverage for gay employees’ partners and their children. “Like all families,” she argued, “our Foreign Service families come in different configurations; all are part of the common fabric of our post communities abroad.” She further directed the State Department’s equal employment opportunity office to “explicitly protect against discrimination of employees and job applicants based on gender identity” and pointed out that the policy changes would help the department recruit diplomats, since many international employers already offered such benefits. With Clinton’s blessing, USAID, a branch of the State Department in charge of administering U.S. foreign aid, began to target the LGBT population in its hiring practices and its grants-making process.

Bringing the world community around to the 2011 resolution asserting the human rights of LGBT people was an uphill struggle.
A more quiet revolution came through confronting the ugly history of anti-gay bigotry within the State Department. The darkest chapter of this story is the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, a massive witch hunt enabled by President Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450. It led to the firing of hundreds of employees throughout the federal government who were suspected of being gay. Homosexuality was deemed a security risk, an accusation fed by the suspicion that gay people were communist sympathizers. The order was not rescinded until 1995. In 2012, to make amends, Clinton recognized the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Association (GLIFAA) on the 20th anniversary of its creation. She thanked the organization for its “courageous actions in the face of historic discrimination” and added, “Just think about all the exceptional public servants—the brilliant strategists, the linguists, the experts—fired for no reason other than their sexual orientation.”

Last, but not least, Clinton extended official gay pride celebrations from State Department headquarters to American embassies and consulates around the globe, urging U.S. diplomats, especially those who were openly gay, to celebrate gay pride, even at the risk of offending their foreign hosts. Not by accident, during Clinton’s tenure at State, rainbow flags began flying at American embassies every May 17, in recognition of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. These steps paved the way for a big push in Obama’s second term to diversify the United States’ foreign service, including the appointment of six openly gay ambassadors to countries as diverse as Vietnam, Spain, and Denmark, and the creation of the post of gay czar to oversee international LGBT policy within the State Department.


Bringing the world community around to the 2011 resolution asserting the human rights of LGBT people was an uphill struggle. Plans for a similar resolution had been afoot for at least two decades. Standing in the way were, first and foremost, the aims of the resolution—to encourage states to allow gays to live their lives as they see fit by ceasing making homosexuality a crime. Seen through the Western experience, where gay rights, such as same-sex marriage, are now enshrined into law, the bill’s goals might seem modest. But they were a tall order for the 73 nations that still criminalize homosexual behavior, including 13 that apply the death penalty. And despite talk of increasing gay rights protections around the world, recent trends have cast doubt. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality. That same year, Russia enacted an anti-gay propaganda law that for all intents and purposes criminalizes homosexual behavior by banning gay symbols, gay pride parades, and even an acknowledgement of one’s homosexuality unless made in a negative light.

Another of the resolution’s main obstacles was the United States. In 2008, the Bush administration blocked it by allying with Russia, most of Africa, and the Arab world in arguing that the resolution would impinge on the ability of individual states to enact whatever policies they deem appropriate regarding homosexuality. Clinton, by contrast, relied on allies in Europe and Latin America, where gay rights are most developed, to see the resolution enacted. She also allowed developing countries to take the lead in drafting the resolution to allay concerns that the resolution was an act of cultural imperialism on the part of the developed West. Brazil, alongside South Africa, presented the resolution, which was fitting since the Brazilians had sponsored an earlier resolution calling for extending human rights protections to LGBT people.

What drove Clinton’s bold and decisive gay rights agenda at the State Department is something of an enigma.
When the resolution passed, Clinton delivered a major speech at UNHRC Geneva headquarters. She first recognized that “America’s record of LGBT equality is far from perfect,” and then said, “Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights . . . no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.” She condemned anti-gay discrimination and violence, and dismissed those who view gay rights as a Western invention. “Protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do.”

Clinton’s speech is today hailed as a landmark in the history of the LGBT movement. Its impact was especially notable across Latin America, where a gay rights revolution was already under way by the time of Clinton’s appointment as secretary of state. Esteban Paulón, head of the LGBT Federation of Argentina, noted in a 2015 article by The Washington Blade about the speech’s global influence, “A powerful voice like hers, at the time in her role as Secretary of State, has been historic for the global agenda of human rights of the LGBT people.” He added that Clinton’s words inspired Argentine activists to end all forms of LGBT discrimination. This goal appears to have been met with flying colors. Since 2010, Argentina, once a bastion of machismo, has enacted some of the world’s most progressive LGBT legislation; including laws legalizing same-sex marriage, allowing for a change in gender identification without permission from a judge or a doctor, banning “reparative therapy” intended to overcome same-sex attraction, and facilitating reproductive assistance to same-sex couples under the national health service.

Following her UNHRC speech, Clinton ordered all American embassies and consulates to work to improve the lives of gays and lesbians. In doing so, she made it official U.S. policy to promote the rights of LGBT people everywhere, including by speaking out about LGBT rights, confronting local policies and practices that harm the gay community, and promoting transnational ties among gay rights activists. To enable these and related work, Clinton created the Global Equality Fund, a private-public partnership that brings together governments, business corporations, private philanthropies, and civil society organizations. Since its inception within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in December 2011, the Global Equality Fund has spent more than $20 million on a wide range of activities, including enhancing the capacity that gay rights organizations to monitor the human rights violations of LGBT people, educational campaigns to fight homophobia, and HIV/AIDS prevention programs, making it one of the most important players in international LGBT activism.

A man carries a sign supporting both the Orlando shooting victims and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the 46th annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, following the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fl
A man carries a sign supporting both the Orlando shooting victims and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the 46th annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, following the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida U.S. June 12, 2016.
David McNew / Reuters

What drove Clinton’s bold and decisive gay rights agenda at the State Department is something of an enigma. Little in her long and tortured history with gay rights prepared the world (especially gay activists) for her apparently improbable turn. Among major American liberal politicians to have emerged in the late twentieth century, Clinton has been among the most reticent to embrace gay rights. As First Lady of the United States, from 1992 to 2000, Clinton supported many of her husband’s policies that are today considered unhelpful at best by LGBT Americans and downright homophobic at worst. Two policies stand out: the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, legislation that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages; and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), the compromise that allowed gays to serve in the military as long as they kept their homosexuality a secret.

Clinton was also late to embrace same-sex marriage. On this issue, she was more willing to follow public opinion than to shape it. During her 2000 Senate run from her adopted state of New York, and again in 2008, during her first run for the White House, she opposed same-sex marriage with arguments typical of foes of the gay community, such as the National Organization for Marriage. “Marriage has got historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is and has always been between a man and a woman,” she said in 2000 on the campaign trail in White Plains, New York.

It was not until March 2013, after leaving the State Department, and with an eye toward a second presidential run, that Clinton embraced same-sex marriage. In a video announcement for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, she noted that she supported same-sex marriage because “America is best when we champion the freedom and dignity of every human being.” By 2013, the politics of same-sex marriage had been turned upside down, with more than half of the public expressing support for it. This made it quite safe for most politicians to embrace it. Former President Bill Clinton had done so (along with issuing an apology to the gay community for DOMA), as had Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who signed New York’s same-sex marriage law in 2010. Little wonder that The Economist labeled Clinton’s change of heart on same-sex marriage “a farcically late conversion.”

In part, Clinton’s eventual reversal on same-sex marriage might be explained by the fact that she was a member of the most pro-gay administration in U.S. history. Obama ended DADT; became, in 2012, the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage; and stopped defending DOMA in court, arguing that it was unconstitutional. (The Supreme Court agreed with him in June 2013, when it overturned DOMA, and in July 2015 when it found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.) But as the reporting of the time makes clear, to the extent that gay concerns animated Obama’s foreign policy, it was Clinton rather than Obama who was in the driver’s seat. CNN reported, “Clinton has always been a couple of steps ahead of President Barack Obama when it comes to gay rights. It’s a safe bet she persuaded him to jump on board and put the full force of the administration behind this new policy.”

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Clinton explained her own conversion on same-sex marriage as part of a broader evolution of Americans’ understanding of homosexuality. She also has cited her long-standing commitment to expanding notions of human rights. Indeed, her UNHRC gay rights speech echoed what is arguably her most famous speech: the one she gave at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, in 1995. With a single sentence, she managed to upset both the State Department and her Chinese hosts. She said, “Woman’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, once and for all.” On the way to Beijing, State Department officials pointedly warned Clinton to steer clear of mentioning China’s human rights record for fear that this would upset U.S.-Chinese relations. In short, there was probably less cynicism in Clinton’s shift to gay rights defender than her critics allow.


Clinton deserves much credit for making gay rights a priority in U.S. foreign policy. After all, it has been a long struggle to get these rights accepted in international circles, especially within the human rights community. There is no reference to sexual orientation in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for decades human rights organizations have kept the gay rights movement at arm’s length, fearing that an association with homosexuality would be detrimental to their cause, a cause traditionally focused on fighting political, not sexual, oppression. It is telling that Amnesty International began to focus on the plight of gay people only in 1995, when it published Breaking the Silence, an overview of anti-gay violence around the world.

But the onslaught of criticism leveled at Clinton’s gay rights crusade suggests that the issue of gay rights diplomacy is far from settled. On the right, Clinton has been accused of promoting what the conservative think tank the Family Research Council called the “radical ideology of the sexual revolution”; of alienating allies in Africa and the Muslim world and driving them into the eager arms of the Chinese, who place no demands whatsoever on gay rights; of putting human rights ahead of national security; and of obsessing over gay rights while ignoring what some consider more pressing moral issues, such the persecution of Christians across the Middle East. Left-wing critics warn of “pinkwashing,” or using gay rights to deflect attention from less laudable policies.

A more compelling criticism is that the rising profile of gay rights has not been the boon for the world’s gay population that many had hoped it would be. Although Clinton’s gay rights advocacy was welcomed in Europe and Latin America, in other parts of world it triggered a backlash. In 2009, the Ugandan parliament debated a bill that is widely regarded as the most aggressively homophobic legislation undertaken by any country in history. Purportedly intended “to protect the traditional family from internal and external threats,” Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act sought to expand the criminalization of homosexuality by granting lifetime prison sentences to those convicted of “the offense of homosexuality” and by making “aggravated homosexuality” a crime worthy of the death penalty. (The bill has been nicknamed the “kill-the-gays-bill.”) The bill also criminalized the actions of a person who “aids, abets, counsels, or procures another to engage in an act of homosexuality,” with prison sentences of up to seven years. Western threats of an economic boycott succeeded in forcing Uganda to shelve the bill. But it was a pyrrhic victory. The bill was enacted into law in 2014, save for the capital punishment provision. Parliamentarians in Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal subsequently used the Ugandan bill as a blueprint for enacting their own odious anti-gay laws.

Gay rights diplomacy has also put local gay activists in the crossfire—at times literally. The Ugandan gay activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death after being accused by a local tabloid of conspiring with foreign gay activists to corrupt Ugandan society. Less apparent is that, as The Atlantic reported in 2012, gay rights diplomacy has disrupted societies in many parts of the world where gays and lesbians lacked actual rights but did not fear losing their lives and/or their livelihoods. The article noted, “Liberia’s LGBT community is dismayed at how their world has been turned upside down by the good intentions of the West. For the most part, they had previously been able to live in peace—unaccepted to be sure, but underground and unmolested. They now wonder if the American plan to help them will leave them worse off.”

The travails of gay rights diplomacy speak to the unfinished business of determining how best to promote gay rights at the global level. Starting the global struggle for LGBT equality is one thing. Bringing it to fruition without harming those very lives it is intended to help is another. Clearly, boosting gay rights alone will not be enough. Clinton herself has noted that, for gay rights diplomacy to succeed, it must be pursued in concert with strengthening democracy, civil society, and the rule of law. Gay activists from around the world, especially from those parts of the world where gay rights progress is most urgently needed, hope that the White House will afford Clinton a bigger platform and a larger megaphone than she had at the State Department to put this idea into action.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now