Comparing the importance of speaking up for human rights to the basic act of breathing, Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a historic speech to the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex (LGBTI) community at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco on Tuesday night.

A crowd of 500 people heard the Nobel Peace Prize recipient condemn the persecution of LGBTI people, apologise on behalf of his Church for ostracising gay people, and challenge China to improve its human rights record—all in the first ever direct address by the Archbishop to a large gathering of the LGBTI community in the United States.

Archbishop Tutu’s speech was the highlight of A Celebration of Courage, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s (IGLHRC’s) annual gala awards ceremony, where Tutu was presented with an OUTSPOKEN Award recognising his leadership as a global ally of the LGBTI community.

The importance of speaking out on human rights was also underscored by the context of the evening’s event, overlapping with a candle-lit vigil for Tibet in United Nations Plaza, and occurring only hours before anticipated protests as the Olympic touch journeyed through San Francisco on its way to Beijing, China, host of the next Olympic games.

In his 30-minute address, Archbishop Tutu said that for his part it was impossible to keep quiet “when people were frequently hounded…vilified, molested and even killed as targets of homophobia…for something they did not choose – their sexual orientation.”

In the face of this ongoing persecution, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient praised LGBTI people for being “compassionate, caring, self-sacrificing and refusing to be embittered.”

He spoke critically of his Church, adding,”I ask for your forgiveness for the ways in which the institutional church has often treated you, ostracised you, made you feel as if God had made a mistake in creating you as who you are.”

“How sad it is,” he said, “That the Church should be so obsessed with this particular issue of human sexuality when God’s children are facing massive problems – poverty, disease, corruption, conflict…”

“The Archbishop’s speech at this unique historical moment affirms that human rights apply to each and every human being – in South Africa, in the United States, in China, and around the world,” said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s executive director.

Saying that he supports the protests taking place along the Olympic torch route, Tutu also called on world leaders to boycott the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony in Beijing over China’s human rights record.

“Activists and governments alike should heed the Archbishop’s words. He is a moral luminary whose inclusive approach to human rights advocacy paves the way for a better world,” said Ettelbrick.

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