Remarks by Ambassador Butenis for LGBT Leadership Workshop
June 17, 2012
I want to thank Rosanna Flamer Caldera for the invitation to join you today. I appreciate so very much the work that Equal Ground and other organizations are doing to support the cause of the LGBT community in Sri Lanka. This workshop of Future LGBT Leaders Unite is important for our efforts to promote equal rights and I am honored to be with you today.
We at the U.S. State Department have made a determined effort to advance a comprehensive view of human rights that includes the elimination of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That is something we are doing worldwide, and it is also true here in Sri Lanka.
We produce an annual Human Rights Report and that includes a section on how LGBT persons are treated in every country. For Sri Lanka, in this last report we noted:
“In addition to pressure, harassment, and assaults by police, there remained significant societal pressure against members and organizations of the LGBT community. There were no legal safeguards to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. There were reports that persons undergoing gender reassignment procedures had difficulty in amending government documents to reflect those changes.”
We do have a long way to go since under the law homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka and punishable by a jail term of up to 10 years. We have conveyed our concerns regarding LGBT rights to government leaders, and we undertook a number of projects in support of the LGBT community, including sponsoring conferences and programs with partners like Equal Ground. We will continue to support organizations in Sri Lanka that work to improve the lives of members of the LGBT community, because gay rights are human rights, and the elimination of hatred and fear is something that benefits all Sri Lankans, gay and straight alike.
I think about our own experiences in the United States. We’ve come pretty far in my country, though discrimination has not been eradicated by any means. Many laws explicitly targeted at homosexuals have been struck down throughout the country by courts and legislatures. Gay marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia, and developments suggest that at least two other states could legalize gay marriage soon. The tide of public opinion is turning so that poll after poll shows that a slight but growing majority of Americans support gay marriage.
Not very long ago an overwhelming majority of Americans considered homosexuality a crime, or a mental illness or perversion. But attitudes have shifted and today even opponents of gay rights will acknowledge that the LGBT community has the right to live free of harassment and discrimination. It’s still possible to see a person’s life damaged by being outed - being disowned by their families, rejected by friends, or subject to police intimidation and even brutality.
Progress can seem slow and hurtful especially to a young person struggling to come to terms with his or her place in society, but the attitude that Americans today embrace towards the LGBT community is one that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. And for many in the LGBT community, there is hope that things will only get better in their lifetimes.
One successful campaign around the world is the anti-bullying program, called “It Gets Better”. We can all agree that whatever one’s personal belief about homosexuality, there is absolutely no justification for physically assaulting, verbally abusing, or emotionally traumatizing our young people because of their sexual orientation or for any other reason. But there remain a great number of young people in every country who need a helping hand, and who need to know that there are not alone and that they have no reason to be ashamed of themselves. So I hope that each and every one of us will recommit ourselves to building a future in which every person – every, single person can live in dignity, free from violence, free to be themselves, free to live up to their full potential whatever their sexual orientation.
As many of you know, I will be finishing my assignment and leaving Sri Lanka very soon. While there are many wonderful memories I will take with me, I often think most of those individuals, those organizations that are working quietly everyday to make Sri Lanka a better place. It has always been a pleasure for me to work with you in supporting these efforts to promote a greater understanding and greater tolerance on LGBT issues. So I thank you once again for your work and wish you the best of luck during this workshop and as you continue to promote this vital cause.