San Francisco

26 June 2015

Secretary-General Remarks at the UN Free & Equal Lunch [as delivered]

I am truly honoured by this lunch and by your recognition by this medal.

It really gives me another opportunity to motivate myself, and commit myself much more than before to work for free and equal rights of everyone.  I am especially thrilled to be with you on today of all days -- a day we celebrate not only the birth of the United Nations but marriage equality for all Americans.  Truly, this is a day for the history books!

When I woke up this morning knowing that there would be a historic decision by the Supreme Court I was not sure what kind of decision it would be. Fortunately, time passed three hours ahead of me so I was immediately able to see the news. Then I had an ABC interview today [this morning] and I thought, what should I say? So this is what I said. […] I just wanted to repeat what I said and I wanted to tell you.

I welcome the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that paves the way for gay and lesbian Americans to have their relationships legally recognized, no matter which part of the country they live in.

I have been a strong believer in equality, and in the equal worth and dignity of LGBT people. Denying couples legal recognition of their relationship opens the door to widespread discrimination.

This ruling will help close that door and marks a great step forward for human rights in the United States. I join the LGBT community and its million of allies in celebrating this historic decision. Thank you.

Since arriving in San Francisco last night, I have been constantly reminded of the remarkable connections between this city and the United Nations.

Few other cities, places, embody as proudly as San Francisco the values of diversity, equality and inclusion.

It was from this building, some 40 years ago, that Harvey Milk helped to set in train America’s gay rights revolution – a revolution that continues to this day not just in this country but around the world.

The measures he advocated here – including new laws to protect people from discrimination – are the same measures that, today, we advocate to Governments everywhere.

The arguments he made – about not just “tolerance” but true inclusion and acceptance – are the same ones we use today as we work to convince the world’s Governments to embrace, protect and value all their people – including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, I have been travelling to many countries and where there was discrimination, I talked to Heads of State or Government. Sometimes, I have been successful.

One day, for example, in -- I just forgot the country and the name -- I talked to the president quietly. There was [a] gay couple that was put in prison for many years. It became big news in the world. So I told him, “this is a violation of human rights principles; can you release them? I’m not going to say publicly but if you release them, I will welcome your decision. He said that I don’t agree with your point but since you are the Secretary-General of the United Nations, saying and asking for that, I will consider what I can do”.

I thought that it would take about two or three months for his decision. Then, when we were having a joint press conference, he announced, “I’m pardoning this couple, right now.” Then they were set free on the same day. It was Malawi. This President unfortunately passed away and his brother is now President, and he made the immediate decision and he set them free. I was successful.

But in some other countries, when I raise this issue, of course, we have some confrontational dialogue. But they listen to my appeal, and I will continue to help those who are being discriminated.

I still have a year and a half to go before I stand down as UN Secretary-General, and we still have a great deal to get done before then.

But I know already, that when the time comes to look back on my tenure, I will feel enormous pride in the fact that I have been the first UN Secretary-General to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world.

For me, as for many people who have come to this cause later in their lives, it has been a journey.

Growing up in Korea in the 1950s and 60s, I didn’t know anyone who was LGBT – or, at least, I didn’t know I knew anyone.

Sexual orientation and gender identity were not issues we spoke about.  They were taboo, at that time. Korea as you know is heavily influenced by Confucianism.

I eventually learned to speak out when I realized that people’s lives are at stake.  It is that simple.

Millions of people, in every corner of the world, are forced to live in hiding, in fear of brutal violence, discrimination, even arrest and imprisonment, just because of who they are, or whom they love.

Today, I stand with them.  With the bullied teen rejected by his parents.  With the homeless transgender woman denied healthcare and employment.  With the young couple jailed and tortured simply for loving one another.  With the activist arrested for daring to stand up for human rights.

The abuses and indignity suffered by members of the LGBT community are an outrage – an affront to the values of the United Nations and to the very idea of universal human rights.

I consider the struggle to end these abuses to be a great cause on a par with the struggle to end discrimination against women and on the basis of race.

I am proud of our work to repeal discriminatory laws and to open people’s hearts and minds to change.

In 2013, the UN Human Rights Office launched a unique campaign against homophobia and transphobia: the Free & Equal campaign. 

When I first became Secretary-General, I knew that there was many staff who were living, hiding themselves, who were very afraid of coming out. Then I invited some of them. Of course, when the Secretary-General invites, they should come. They all came in a group and we wanted to take a photo but they said no, no photo, we don’t want to take a photo.  They were the first people [who] refused to take a photo with the UN Secretary-General. There are so many people who want to take a picture.

Then I asked, “why are you afraid of taking a picture?” Because they did not want to be exposed and known to other people. So I told them I would only keep [the picture] for my record and I would just give it to you only, personally. So we took a picture and I kept my promise without letting them be exposed or known.

Then I declared that I would make the United Nations the best workplace in the world, where people living with different sexual orientation would have no obstacles, no discrimination. That was highly praised at the time. Then next year, they came with a calendar, 6-page calendars, with their photos in the calendars, every month. So they feel very proud.

I am an unwavering champion of this campaign and I invite you to become champions too.

The fight for justice cannot wait – as Harvey Milk knew well.  We will do our best to revere his legacy by working every day for the rights of LGBT people everywhere.

Thank you for the honour of this medal, and for the work that each of you is doing to advance the ideals of freedom and equality for all.

Let us work together to make this world better for all, where everybody’s human rights and human dignity will be respected and promoted.

I am committed to that. Thank you very much for your leadership and commitment.

Thank you.