A State Department event on Wednesday captured the remarkable changes in how LGBT citizens are winning acceptance and fair treatment in our country – and how American diplomatic muscle is persuading other countries to follow that same path.
On Wednesday, the State Department celebrated the 20th anniversary of GLIFAA, an organization representing the interests of LGBT employees of foreign affairs agencies. As late as the 1970’s, being gay was considered a security risk – reason enough to stop a career. Even after that practice ended and GLIFAA was formed, the life of gay diplomats was hardly “gay.” Gay and lesbian employees sometimes found themselves in less desirable jobs; their day-to-day behavior often drew heightened scrutiny; often they found an uncomfortable fit at starched and formal diplomatic events, including American ones; their family members received none of the benefits that straight families enjoyed.
These issues are part of GLIFAA’s history of course: more to the point, they are history, full stop. At Wednesday’s event, speakers traced the arc of that history in human terms. David Buss, GLIFAA’s founding president, spoke of the loneliness he felt as an out-gay employee in the 80s – how indeed he had been forced to come out to his family, in order to keep his job. Secretary Clinton asked Tom Gallagher, the Department’s first out-gay employee, to stand: he was the Department’s earliest gay pioneer, having the courage to live his life openly in those difficult 1970’s. She asked the same of the Council’s own Michael Guest, our country’s first out-gay, Senate-confirmed ambassador, who left his career over the Department’s unequal treatment of gay families and then worked in the Obama Administration’s Transition Team to chart a path to their resolution.
Time-wise, their stories are bookends to a story of remarkable change at the Department – change that should be credited, in full, to the personal leadership of the Secretary and her Counselor, Cheryl Mills. But the visuals of GLIFAA’s celebration were equally striking, and equally telling. Merely holding the event in the marble-columned Benjamin Franklin Room – State’s top-floor formal reception room, where vice presidential diplomatic dinners are held and new ambassadors traditionally are sworn in – crystallized just how far GLIFAA has come. So, of course, did the unprecedented presence of a sitting Secretary of State, surrounded by a bevy of political appointees from a cross-section of foreign affairs agencies and the Office of Personnel Management.
Senior policy leaders like Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, USAID Deputy Administrator Don Steinberg, and Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy were there. So was openly gay Congressman David Cicilline, on the dais beside Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Baer, State’s senior-most openly gay official in Washington. But in a way the most striking change was the audience itself, so heavily laced with assistant secretaries, current and former ambassadors, and deputy chiefs of mission – a stunning representation of the Department’s career leadership level in a building where, only a few years back, addressing gay, lesbian and transgender workplace inequalities was a political tar-baby that no one’s senior-level career could afford. And those senior officials mingled with future leaders of the Department, including a young Foreign Service officer heading out to his first post, who introduced himself as both a new Foreign Service officer and a “new man,” and who was clearly proud to be representing our country as a transgender American.
Beyond workplace fairness issues, the event served to highlight how remarkably LGBT issues are now interlaced in U.S. foreign policy constructs – a development at the heart of the Council for Global Equality’s mission. Secretary Clinton referred to her historic speech on LGBT rights in Geneva last year as something that hardly was special (of course it really was) but simply integral to the values we hold as a people (and of course it was that, too). Don Steinberg and Dan Baer spoke, respectively, of tweaked and torqued priorities in our foreign assistance programs and diplomatic outreach, both of which now lift up LGBT populations, and draw attention to the place of LGBT rights in any society’s democratic development. At the reception that followed, audience members offered their own stories of how American diplomacy is making a difference on LGBT acceptance and understanding across the globe. From Albania to Indonesia to much of Latin America, diplomacy is being bent to align more fully with our country’s founding values of equality and fairness and freedom – values that inspired, indeed, GLIFAA’s own founding.
The Council for Global Equality salutes GLIFAA for these enormous achievements in workplace equality, and the Obama Administration for its clear leadership in empowering so many of these achievements. We take pride in knowing that our country’s diplomacy now follows a more principled north star – and indeed in knowing that LGBT diplomats now can follow their calling, to the credit and full benefit of our country.