It was difficult to believe my eyes. I was looking at an invitation saying "The Secretary of State requests the pleasure of your company for the 20th anniversary celebration of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies," to be held in the State Department's legendary Benjamin Franklin reception room.
The words "gay" and "secretary of state" in an event invitation would have been unthinkable even five years ago, let alone for an event in the Benjamin Franklin room. So it's no surprise that Hillary Clinton is a true hero for gay U.S. diplomats, whose organization, GLIFAA marked the anniversary on Nov. 28.
When GLIFAA was founded in 1992, "you could be fired for being gay," Clinton said. "Just think about all of the exceptional public servants, the brilliant strategists, the linguists, the experts fired for no reason other than their sexual orientation," she added. "Think of what our country lost because we were unable to take advantage of their hard work, expertise and experience."
Clinton has earned her hero status throughout her tenure. Less than five months after taking office, she issued an order granting diplomatic passports, access to medical care and U.S. government jobs overseas, as well as other benefits, to same-sex partners of Foreign Service members. "Domestic partners of federal employees have for too long been treated unequally," she said in June 2009. "This change is the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do."
Clinton's emphasis on defending and promoting gay rights as part of U.S. diplomacy will likely have a lasting place in her legacy. In a groundbreaking speech before hundreds of stunned old-school diplomats from around the world at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2011, she declared that "gay rights are human rights," and that being gay "does not make you less human."
At the GLIFAA event, Clinton paid tribute to the first openly gay career diplomat, Tom Gallagher, who she said came out in the early 1970s, risking his career. She also acknowledged Michael Guest, the first openly gay ambassador to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Guest was ambassador to Romania during the George W. Bush administration.
Several gay diplomats tell their stories in the new book "America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy."
In 1984, Jan Krc was a 27-year-old officer who had just completed his first Foreign Service tour in Belgrade, when the security office at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in Washington, where Krc was on staff, summoned him for what turned into a nine-hour interrogation, he said.
The office had received information that Krc was gay, he was told, and "pressured" him to sign a statement that he had engaged in sexual relations with other men. His next assignment in South Africa was canceled, and his security clearance was limited to Washington, which ended his Foreign Service career, and he became a Civil Service employee. The reason he was not simply fired, he said, was the lack of wrongdoing -- officers were not required to report relations with locals unless they became serious, with long-term prospects.
While life for gay diplomats and their partners has improved dramatically in the last few years, not all issues have been resolved, they said. The biggest hurdle to truly equal rights in the Foreign Service remains the federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Clayton Bond, whose husband Ted Osius is also in the Foreign Service, said the law does not allow same-sex couples with children to have one family insurance policy. Bond and Osius hoped to adopt, and "if that effort is successful, we would still have to have two policies, which would be more expensive," Bond said. "This is not right. So there is still quite a bit that needs to be done for equal rights, but it requires the repeal of DOMA."
American partners of gay diplomats who are not in the service themselves are at least formally recognized by the State Department, which issues them diplomatic passports -- whether their host countries give them diplomatic visas is another issue. That is not the case, however, with partners who are not U.S. citizens. Because of DOMA, they are not eligible to apply for citizenship -- a right still reserved only for heterosexual foreign spouses.
Kenneth Kero-Mentz, the current president of GLIFAA, has a German husband, David. When they arrived at the embassy in Sri Lanka a few years ago, the security office told the couple that, if something were to happen to David, the embassy would do nothing to help him, because he was not an American and did not have a U.S. diplomatic passport.
Kero-Mentz, who has also served in Brazil and Iraq, said he would be very careful on what posts he bids when it is time to go overseas again. "It will have to be a First World post, because I don't think David can manage another developing country, especially one where homosexuality remains criminalized," he said.