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Biden: Protecting gay rights defines a nation as civilized

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WASHINGTON - Vice-President Joe Biden declared Tuesday that protecting gay rights is a defining mark of a civilized nation and must trump national cultures and social traditions as the Obama administration sought to mobilize a global front against anti-gay violence and discrimination.

Biden told a gathering of U.S. and international gay rights advocates that President Barack Obama has directed that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women around the world.

"I don't care what your culture is," Biden told about 100 guests at the Naval Observatory's vice-presidential mansion. "Inhumanity is inhumanity is inhumanity. Prejudice is prejudice is prejudice."

With anti-gay laws taking root in nearly 80 countries, Biden and other top White House officials met with religious, human rights and HIV health care advocates in a forum dedicated to promoting gay rights internationally.

Biden, who has emerged as a leading gay rights advocate within the Obama administration ever since he got ahead of the president in declaring his support for gay marriage, said that across U.S government agencies officials have been instructed to make the promotion of gay rights abroad a priority.

Where countries fail to move toward protections of LGBT people, he warned, "there is a price to pay for being inhumane." Among those at the evening reception were leading gay rights activists and the ambassadors from Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.

Earlier Tuesday, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice cast the protection of gays from global discrimination, abuse and even death as one of the most challenging international human rights issue facing the United States. Biden called gay rights "the civil rights issue of our day."

"To achieve lasting global change, we need everyone's shoulder at the wheel," she said. "With more voices to enrich and amplify the message — the message that gay rights are straight-up human rights — we can open more minds."

Rice cautioned that the effort is difficult because laws limiting gay rights in some countries enjoy strong popular support. But she said cultural differences do not excuse human rights violations.

"Governments are responsible for protecting the rights of all citizens, and it is incumbent upon the state, and on each of us, to foster tolerance and to reverse the tide of discrimination," Rice said.

Last week, the U.S. imposed visa bans on Ugandan officials who are involved in corruption and are violating the rights of gay people and others. Uganda passed a law in February that strengthened criminal penalties for gay sex and made life sentences possible for those convicted of breaking the law.

During his trip to Africa last year, Obama, while in Senegal, urged African leaders to extend equal rights to gays and lesbians. Senegal's president, however, pushed back, saying his country "still isn't ready" to decriminalize homosexuality. Seven countries have laws imposing death sentences for gay sex and Brunei is on track to becoming the eighth one.

Tuesday's forum was the latest administrative attempt by Obama to promote gay and lesbian rights both in the United States and abroad. Obama successfully pushed to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military and his administration stopped defending the Defence of Marriage Act years before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The law allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states and effectively barred same-sex married couples from receiving federal marriage benefits.

Earlier this month, Obama announced he will sign an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Last week, it also granted new benefits to same-sex couples, including those who live in states where gay marriage is against the law.

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