Mandela Lecture: Obama affirms shared humanity of all, including LGBTQ people

Former US President Barack Obama made sure to include LGBTQ people in his historic Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, in Johannesburg, South Africa on Tuesday.

The lecture, delivered to mark the centennial of Madiba’s birth, was themed “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World”. It focused on bridging divides, working across ideological lines, and resisting oppression and inequality.

In the 90 minute speech, Obama affirmed Manedela’s belief that “some principles really are universal – and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.”

He continued: “More than a quarter century after Madiba walked out of prison, I still have to stand here at a lecture and devote some time to saying that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect. I would have thought we would have figured that out by now.”

Obama, who is partly of Kenyan decent, also addressed continued claims, especially by African leaders, that LGBTQ rights are not legitimate human rights but some foreign imposition on the continent.

“…we also have to actively resist – this is important, particularly in some countries in Africa like my own father’s homeland; I’ve made this point before – we have to resist the notion that basic human rights like freedom to dissent, or the right of women to fully participate in the society, or the right of minorities to equal treatment, or the rights of people not to be beat up and jailed because of their sexual orientation – we have to be careful not to say that somehow, well, that doesn’t apply to us, that those are Western ideas rather than universal imperatives,” said Obama.

“Again, Madiba, he anticipated things. He knew what he was talking about. In 1964, before he received the sentence that condemned him to die in prison, he explained from the dock that, ‘The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.’ In other words, he didn’t say well, those books weren’t written by South Africans so I just – I can’t claim them. No, he said that’s part of my inheritance. That’s part of the human inheritance. That applies here in this country, to me, and to you. And that’s part of what gave him the moral authority that the apartheid regime could never claim, because he was more familiar with their best values than they were.

“What was true then remains true today. Basic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be embraced by the English, and by the Indian, and by the Mexican and by the Bantu and by the Luo and by the American. It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion – that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognise common hopes and common dreams. And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it ensures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people,” said Obama.

“Madiba knew that we cannot claim justice for ourselves when it’s only reserved for some,” he added. “Madiba reminds us that: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.’ Love comes more naturally to the human heart, let’s remember that truth.”

Obama was the most LGBTQ-affirming president in American history. He called for LGBTQ equality in the US and around the world, supported same-sex marriage and acted to change discriminatory laws in his country. Current US President Donald Trump has since sought to reverse much of the progress initiated by his predecessor.

You can read a full transcript of Obama’s Nelson Mandela Lecture here, or watch it below.

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