Legalize gay!

Last Tuesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton (yes, I’m talking about Hillary again) made a groundbreaking speech on behalf of LGBTQ human rights that caused reverberations around the world. Never before has such a high-level government official delivered such a bold and powerful statement calling for the unabashed support of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. Clinton kicked off her speech with a brief history lesson:

“At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

She continued by linking gay rights to human rights with this statement:

“Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human.”

Later, she poses a direct challenge to anti-LGBT cultural and religious values practiced throughout the world:

“. . . [W]e came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.”

And, towards the end of her speech, Clinton issues an impassioned call to end passive discrimination and oppression:

“The LGBTQ community needs allies. Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message.”

I’d say that this was an historic moment in modern world history.

But I’d actually like to focus on one specific part of her speech that I thought was particularly notable (which I haven’t really seen discussed anywhere else – and I’ve been paying attention, believe me).  The statements that caught my attention were these: “But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.” Whether Clinton is well-versed in theory and research in social psychology, or whether she has especially astute powers of observation, is a question that’s up for grabs. However, what I find notable is that her words echo almost exactly the ideas of Gordon Allport, psychologist and author of the classic 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice. Her comments also reflect the findings of cognitive-developmental theorist Lawrence Kohlberg, famous for his research on moral development. Both of these scholars concur that laws shape our moral compass – not the other way around.

Allport makes a distinction between stateways (legislation, court rulings, and other public policy efforts) and folkways (culturally-driven attitudes, beliefs, and worldviews), suggesting that social and cultural norms are most powerfully affected by stateways. When we pass laws, we create a new norm. And as a rule, people tend to shy away from non-normative behavior. In fact, our collective human desire for law and order is reflected in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. According to Kohlberg’s research, most people tend to rely on an “authority and social order maintaning orienatation” (as opposed to some universal set of ethical principles) when making moral judgments. In other words, people use laws, rather than an internal set of guiding principles, to make decisions about weighty moral issues. So if we want people to support LGBT human rights, we need laws and policies – both domestically and internationally – that guide that support.

Of course, there are laws, and there are laws. What happens when governmental law conflicts with Biblical law? Frankly, I think this conflict is at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s own evolving attitudes regarding same-sex marriage probably reflect this dissonance. Ideally, Biblical law and laws passed by government entities would support reflect one another – but obviously that’s not always the case. It’s an issue I explore in my book, Backdrop, in some detail, and I’d like to explore it further in a future blog post. Stay tuned.   

To watch (or read the text of) Hillary Clinton’s speech, delivered December 6, 2011, go to

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Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, Uncategorized

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