The Obama administration is announcing a wide-ranging effort to use U.S. foreign aid to promote rights for gays and lesbians abroad, including combating attempts by foreign governments to criminalize homosexuality.

In a memorandum issued Tuesday, President Barack Obama directed U.S. agencies working abroad, including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to use foreign aid to assist gays and lesbians who are facing human rights violations. And he ordered U.S. agencies to protect vulnerable gay and lesbian refugees and asylum seekers.

"The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States' commitment to promoting human rights," Obama said in a statement.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is also expected to speak about the announcements in Geneva later Tuesday.

The White House said Tuesday's announcement marked the first U.S. government strategy to combat human rights abuses against gays and lesbians abroad.

The order also directs U.S. government agencies to use foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance non-discrimination, and work with international organizations to fight discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Obama's announcement is part of the White House's outreach to gays and lesbians, a core Democratic constituency. Since taking office, Obama has advocated for the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members and ordered the administration to stop enforcing a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

However, Obama has stopped short of backing gay marriage, saying only that his personal views on the matter are evolving.

Gay rights groups praised the order as a significant step for ensuring that gays and lesbians are treated equally around the world.

"Today's actions by President Obama make clear that the United States will not turn a blind eye when governments commit or allow abuses to the human rights of LGBT people," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy organization.

The presidential directive applies to all U.S. agencies involved in foreign aid, assistance and development, including the Departments of States, the Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security.