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US President Barack Obama has paid tribute to equal marriage and LGBT rights progress in a powerful farewell speech in which he called upon Americans to carry on the “fight” for human rights.

Obama – who became the first sitting US President to publicly declare their support for equal marriage in 2012 – was speaking ahead of his successor Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony on January 20.

During an emotional speech he told an audience in Chicago: “We cannot withdraw from global fights to expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights, no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem. That’s part of defending America.”

Over the last eight years the United States has seen the repeal on a ban on gays in the military, the extension of federal anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity, the end of discrimination in healthcare provision, and presidential support of efforts to end abusive gay ‘conversion’ therapy against children.

The Obama administration also made conscious efforts to promote LGBT rights internationally, appointed a Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, and, perhaps most importantly, ended the federal government’s legal defence of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), paving the way for the Supreme Court’s historic decision to legalise equal marriage in all 50 states in 2015.

“If I had told you eight years ago… that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens – you might have said our sights were set a little too high,” Obama said.

“But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”

Related: What will a Trump presidency mean for LGBT people?

The outgoing President also made a poignant plea for acceptance, highlighting that his administrations’s steps towards equality will only go so far when ti comes to protecting equality.

“But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change,’” he said.

“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’’

Watch Barack Obama’s full farewell speech below:

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