Co-sponsored by France and the Netherlands, the declaration was signed by all 27 European Union members, as well as Japan, Australia, Mexico and three dozen other countries. There was broad opposition from Muslim nations, and the United States refused to sign, indicating that some parts of the declaration raised legal questions that needed further review.
"It's disappointing," said Rama Yade, France's human rights minister, of the U.S. position - which she described as in contradiction with America's long tradition as a defender of human rights.
According to some of the declaration's backers, U.S. officials expressed concern in private talks that some parts of the declaration might be problematic in committing the federal government on matters that fall under state jurisdiction. In numerous states, landlords and private employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the federal level, gays are not allowed to serve openly in the military.
Carolyn Vadino, a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N., stressed that the United States - despite its unwillingness to sign - condemned any human rights violations related to sexual orientation.
Gay rights activists nonetheless were angered by the U.S. position.
"It's an appalling stance - to not join with other countries that are standing up and calling for decriminalization of homosexuality," said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
She expressed hope that the U.S. position might change after President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.
Also denouncing the U.S. stance was Richard Grenell, who until two months ago had been the chief spokesman for the U.S. mission to the U.N.
"It is ridiculous to suggest that there are legal reasons why we can't support this resolution - common sense says we should be the leader in making sure other governments are granting more freedoms for their people, not less," said Grenell, who described himself as a gay Republican. "The U.S. lack of support on this issue only dims our once bright beacon of hope and freedom for those who are persecuted and oppressed."
More than 50 countries opposed to the declaration, including members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, issued a joint statement Thursday criticizing the initiative as an unwarranted attempt to give special prominence to gays and lesbians. The statement suggested that protecting sexual orientation could lead to "the social normalization and possibly the legalization of deplorable acts" such as pedophilia and incest.
The declaration also has been opposed by the Vatican, a stance which prompted a protest in Rome earlier this month.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Roman Catholic Church opposed the death penalty and other harsh repression of gays and lesbians, but he expressed concern that the declaration would be used as pressure against those who believe marriage rights should not be extended to gays.
A new Vatican statement, issued Thursday, endorsed the call to end criminal penalties against gays, but said that overall the declaration "gives rise to uncertainty in the law and challenges existing human norms."
The European nations backing the declaration waged their campaign in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Dutch foreign affairs minister, Maxime Verhagen, said countries that endorsed that 1948 document had no right to carve out exceptions based on religion or culture that allowed discrimination against gays.
"Human rights apply to all people in all places at all times," he said. "I will not accept any excuse."
He acknowledged that the new declaration had only symbolic import, but said it marked the first time such a large number of nations had raised the cause of gay rights in the context of General Assembly proceedings.
"This statement aims to make debate commonplace," he said. "It is not meant to be a source of division, but to eliminate the taboo that surrounds the issue."
Although the declaration's backers were pleased that nations on six continents had signed it, there were only two from Asia and four from Africa.
- Get more L.A. breaking news, weather, traffic and sports
- Have a news tip? Send your tips, video, or pictures