GENEVA - The Obama administration bluntly warned the world against gay and lesbian discrimination Tuesday, declaring the U.S. will use foreign assistance as well as diplomacy to back its insistence that gay rights are fully equal to other basic human rights.
In unusually strong language, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton compared the struggle for gay equality to difficult passages toward women's rights and racial equality, and she said a country's cultural or religious traditions are no excuse for discrimination.
"Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights," she said. "It should never be a crime to be gay."
Clinton's audience included diplomats from Arab, African and other nations where homosexuality is criminalized or where brutality and discrimination against gay people is tolerated or encouraged.
Many of the ambassadors in the audience responded with stony faces and rushed out of the room as soon as Clinton finished speaking.
President Barack Obama directed the State Department and other agencies to make sure U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote gay rights and fight discrimination. But there are no specific new consequences for poor performers, meaning the directive is more of a challenge to other governments than a threat.
In announcing the policy the U.S. did not point to individual countries with specifically poor records on gay rights, although an annual State Department accounting of global human rights has cited abuses against gays by such friends as Saudi Arabia.
The White House said Tuesday's announcement marked the first U.S. government strategy to combat human rights abuses against gays and lesbians abroad.
The speech in Geneva, home of the United Nations' human rights body, is also part of the Obama administration's outreach to gays and lesbians, a core Democratic constituency at home. Since taking office, Obama has advocated the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members - now accomplished - and has ordered the administration to stop defending a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
However, Obama has stopped short of backing gay marriage, saying only that his personal views on the matter are evolving. That position and a long delay repealing the military ban have left some gay supporters disgruntled.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney suggested that gay rights should not be a test for U.S. engagement abroad.
"I will be looking [at] foreign aid, whether it meets our national security interests and, number two, whether these nations are friends of ours and are willing to be friendly with us in ways when it matters the most," he said on Fox News Channel.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry went further.
"Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America's interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money," a Perry campaign statement said.
Clinton said she knows the United States has an imperfect record on gay rights, and she noted that until 2003 some states had laws on the books that made gay sex a crime. But there is no reason to suggest that gay rights are something only liberal, Western nations can or should embrace, she said. She said nothing about gay marriage.
"Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world," Clinton said. "Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality."
In her most direct challenge to nations with conservative cultural or religious mores, Clinton catalogued abuses such as targeted killings of gays, "corrective rape" of lesbians or forced hormone treatments. She likened the targeting of gays for mistreatment to "honor killings" of women, widow-burning or female genital mutilation, examples of practices the U.S. decries but has not penalized friends including Afghanistan for carrying out.
"Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition," she said. "But violence toward women isn't cultural; it's criminal."
She also compared the evolution of cultural attitudes toward homosexuality to the changing view of slavery.
"What was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights," she said.
The audience included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists who applauded loudly and whooped in approval when Clinton finished.
Some of the diplomats who were invited were unaware of the topic beforehand, and Clinton introduced her subject gingerly. She said she knew it was sensitive and cut against ingrained traditions and expectations.
"Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all citizens and persuading your people to do the same," she said.
In the memorandum issued in Washington, Obama directed U.S. agencies working abroad, including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to use foreign aid to assist gays and lesbians who are facing human rights violations. And he ordered U.S. agencies to protect vulnerable gay and lesbian refugees and asylum seekers.
"The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States' commitment to promoting human rights," Obama said in a statement.
Gay rights groups praised the order as a significant step for ensuring that gays and lesbians are treated equally around the world.
"Today's actions by President Obama make clear that the United States will not turn a blind eye when governments commit or allow abuses to the human rights of LGBT people," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy organization.