State Department Falls Short on Gay Rights

by Peggy McGuinness

Professional life in the national security agencies is much better for gays and lesbians today than it was twenty years ago. The old rule that homosexuality would alone disqualify an individual from receiving a security clearance has been abolished. However, on a range of benefits and equal treatment — including adequate security training for same-sex partners — there is much room for improvement. At a time when talented and experienced diplomats are in demand more than ever, this story, recounted in the NYTimes editorial page blog, is distressing:

Before friends, colleagues and top officials in the State Department Treaty Room, Mr. Guest took Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who was not present) to task for failing to treat the partners of gay and lesbian foreign service officers the same as the spouses of heterosexual officers. And he revealed — with eloquent sadness, not anger — that this was the reason for his departure.

“Most departing ambassadors use these events to talk about their successes . . . But I want to talk about my signal failure, the failure that in fact is causing me to leave the career that I love,” said Mr. Guest, 50, whose most recent assignment was dean of the leadership and management school at the Foreign Service Institute, the government’s school for diplomats. “For the past three years, I’ve urged the Secretary and her senior management team to redress policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees. Absolutely nothing has resulted from this. And so I’ve felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner — who is my family — and service to my country. That anyone should have to make that choice is a stain on the Secretary’s leadership and a shame for this institution and our country,” he said.

Among the inequities cited by Mr. Guest and other gay diplomats: unlike heterosexual spouses, gay partners are not entitled to State Department-provided security training, free medical care at overseas posts, guaranteed evacuation in case of a medical emergency, transportation to overseas posts, or special living allowances when foreign service officers are assigned to places like Iraq, where diplomatic families are not permitted.

I know many talented gay and lesbian members of the Foreign Service, and have seen how difficult it is for those with life partners (and no hope of a legal marriage protected under federal law) have struggled under the limitations of State Department policies. With the current approach affecting the security of diplomats here and overseas and forcing talented FSOs to leave the service, it is time for State and Congress to work together to change personnel policies. As the Times notes:

Treating gay public servants by different standards than apply to everyone else is unacceptable, especially at a time when all American diplomats and military personnel are being called on to serve — sometimes repeatedly — in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s also foolhardy since the two conflicts have put such strain on American resources that personnel shortages are commonplace. The government should be doing everything in its power to retain its best and brightest, beginning with treating them equally.

3 Responses

  1. One aspect of this that might be looked into is the extent that the work of the partner is part of the evaluation of the Foreign Service Officer. Back in the 1950’s when my dad started in the Foreign Service and on into the 60’s part of the evaluation of a Foreign Service Officer was how the spouse (usually the wife) acted in being the “hostess with the mostest” on post. One of the results was a class action by foreign service officer wives in the 80’s seeking compensation. A judgment was rendered that they were entitled to pensions. My mother is one of those spouses that received one of those pensions.

    There may be some kind of implied in fact employment contract point to be examined here to take advantage of contracts principles in this area as has been done in other areas of the law to recognize the situation of gblt couples.

    Rules such as unjust enrichment might be relevant for the benefit conferred by these persons on the government by their unpaid service.

    That the foreign service is behind the times is one of the results of the leadership reaction to these types of relationships. My sense in watching my dad’s career was that as the wind changed at the top, so the rules below were more open or more constricted. Rice’s view in this administration is thus not surprising.

    I guess the key would be for a GBLT person to volunteer to be the Deputy at the Embassy in Iraq provided their partner was given equal rights in the system. That might help focuse the attention of the system on these needs.

    These things take time but I hope people do not lose all hope.



  2. Ben-

    Thanks for the comments. I hadn’t heard about the pension lawsuit. Very interesting. One clarification on spousal evaluations: It was ALWAYS the wife who was part of the annual review of an FSO because, prior to the ealry 1970s, a woman who got married had to resign the service.


  3. This is indeed disgusting. I know many talented gay professionals in both the legal and foreign policy communities who would gladly serve their country abroad if only their partners were entitled to the same protections as those of straight Department of State employees. Our country continues to lose out on so much talent and so many opportunities because of these archaic policies.

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