Hillary Clinton declares 'gay rights are human rights'
The US has publicly declared it will fight discrimination against gays and lesbians abroad by using foreign aid and diplomacy to encourage reform.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva that "gay rights are human rights".
A memo from the Obama administration directs US government agencies to consider gay rights when making aid and asylum decisions.
Similar policies already exist for gender equality and ethnic violence.
"It should never be a crime to be gay" Mrs Clinton said at the United Nations in Geneva, adding that a country's cultural or religious traditions was no excuse for discrimination.
Her audience included representatives from countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence.
Many ambassadors rushed out of the room as soon as Mrs Clinton finished speaking, the Associated Press news agency reported.
The announcement, cited by the White House as the "first US government strategy to combat human rights abuses against gays and lesbians abroad", is also being seen as part of the Obama administration's outreach to gays and lesbians ahead of the 2012 election.
The official memorandum does not outline consequences for countries with poor records on gay rights. But it allows US agencies working abroad to consult with international organisations on discrimination.
"Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world," Mrs Clinton said in Geneva. "Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality."
The new policy could pose awkward questions for US officials formulating policy towards some regular allies and regional powers.
In 2011, the state department's annual human rights report cited ally Saudi Arabia's abuses against gays. The country bans homosexuality outright.
Afghanistan also prohibits homosexual activity, and the same report found that authorities "sporadically" enforced the prohibition.
In the US, Republican presidential candidates criticised the administration's decision, with Texas Governor Rick Perry saying in a statement that "promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America's interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money".
Mrs Clinton acknowledged the US had its own mixed record on gay rights. As late as 2003, some states had laws that made gay sex a crime.
Earlier this year President Barack Obama signed into law a bill repealing the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" law and allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the US military.