(CNN) -- In what the U.S. State Department is calling a "historic step," the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution Friday supporting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
The resolution, introduced by South Africa, is the first-ever U.N. resolution on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons.
It passed with 23 votes in favor, 19 opposed and three abstentions amid strong criticism of South Africa by some African nations.
Suzanne Nossel, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, told CNN, "It really is a key part in setting a new norm that gay rights are human rights and that that has to be accepted globally."
"It talks about the violence and discrimination that people of LGBT persuasion experience around the world," she said, "and that those issues ... need to be taken seriously. It calls for reporting on what's going on, where people are being discriminated against, the violence that is taking place, and it really puts the issue squarely on the U.N.'s agenda going forward."
Divided opinion continues among some countries about whether the time has come to take up gay rights in the U.N. forum, Nossel said, "so this resolution is really significant as far as gaining widespread support for doing just that."
The State Department lobbied intensively for the resolution, and Nossel said the United States was pleased to see African leadership, from South Africa in particular, as well as strong support from South America, Colombia and Brazil.
The resolution also will commission the first-ever U.N. report on the challenges that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people face around the globe. Nossel said the Obama administration hopes it will "open a broader international discussion on how to best promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons."
In March the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a statement, supported by 85 countries, on gay rights called "Ending Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity." Friday's vote "marks a victory for defenders of human rights," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "It sends a clear message that abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity must end."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made gay rights a key focus of the State Department's human rights agenda, expressing her view that "gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights."
At a gay pride event this month at the State Department, Clinton said, "Men and women are harassed, beaten, subjected to sexual violence, even killed, because of who they are and whom they love. Some are driven from their homes or countries, and many who become refugees confront new threats in their countries of asylum. In some places, violence against the LGBT community is permitted by law and inflamed by public calls to violence; in others, it persists insidiously behind closed doors."
Nossel told CNN, "it's not like discrimination or violence are going to end overnight" because of the U.N. resolution, "but now ... when there are proposals in parliaments or legislatures around the world to illegalize gay activity or repress people because of their sexual orientation, opponents can point to this and say, 'Hey, the U.N. has spoken out, there is a resolution that rejects this squarely.'
"That is the way these international norms are built," she said. "It's not from scratch. On women's rights, on minority rights, it builds up over time. So this is really a critical beginning of a universal recognition of a new set of rights that forms part of the international system."