"Openly Gay Amb. Who Resigned Under Bush: State Dept. May Establish Same-Sex Benefits Within Weeks"
Last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) introduced the two-year Foreign Relations Authorization Act. One of the provisions he included was to end the workplace discrimination against gay State Department employees, whose partners are excluded from the benefits provided to spouses and children of officers serving abroad. Here is the language from the legislation (right).
However, yesterday, Berman dropped the provision. He explained that he struck it because he felt “confident that this would be taken care of by the Administration.” According to an e-mail sent by an LGBT community leader who was familiar with yesterday’s proceedings, Berman received a call from John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management, who promised that the benefits issue would be addressed through regulatory changes.
Another person who spoke with Berman before yesterday’s hearings was Amb. Michael Guest, the first publicly gay man to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as a U.S. ambassador and a strong advocate for expanding partner benefits — such as medical access and security training. In 2007, Guest resigned because he was frustrated by the State Department’s unwillingness to redress the discrimination against LGBT employees. Today, ThinkProgress spoke with Guest, who said that he believed there would be changes for LGBT employees at the State Department within weeks:
GUEST: So when I went to the hearing and he [Berman] asked me in advance to come back, he explained communications that he had had that led him to believe that there was every expectation that there will be movement. And I take him at his word and have to assume that he would not have been told the things that he’s been told without them being true. So I’m quite confident that there will be action and I simply hope that it will be very soon.
Q: Did you get a sense of the timeline at all? Would it be the next year, the next few months, weeks even?
GUEST: I think on the latter end. I think it will be more in the question of weeks, certainly not years. I mean, if it were a question of years, I would have pushed back because I feel for the gay and lesbian foreign service officers who are about to enter the transfer season.
Guest added that he never felt any discrimination while working at the State Department and believes that employees there would have no problem with benefits being extended to same-sex partners. Indeed, a poll earlier this year found that 71 percent of foreign service officers support “official recognition and benefits for same-sex domestic partners of Foreign Service members.”
Guest expressed frustration at former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s lack of willingness to do anything on this issue:
GUEST: [C]ertainly in terms of leadership skills, I found her lacking. She spoke very frequently about discrimination she witnessed as a child, and I don’t want to take away from that at all. [...]
But I don’t understand how she couldn’t see that this was also an issue of discrimination. She really was not attached to the building, she had a very small circle of people around her, and she served up the President. She didn’t act as the leader that the State Department needed for its workforce.
Guest also said that the Obama administration’s movements on LGBT issues so far has been “pretty sparse.” “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working on say, economic stimulus and ending the war — those are important issues for all Americans,” said Guest. “But the President himself has said, ‘Hey, we can do more than one thing at once.’ And I don’t accept that we can’t move forward on this area.” Listen to portions of ThinkProgress’s interview with Guest here:
Q: I know that yesterday you went to the hearing with Chairman Berman and he spoke to you beforehand and explained that the provision was being removed. And I was just wondering what he said to you and what his explanation was for why it was being taken out?
GUEST: Well, I don’t want to get into the specifics of that private conversation. I thought it was very gentlemanly, very nice of him to ask me to come back. I’d been working with the Committee for some time on this language, specifically because the State Department had not yet acted. And of course, the issues at the State Department were what caused me to leave the State Department — leave my career. And I thought — and still believe — there is a very clear path toward executive order action that will remedy them. So when the State Department hadn’t moved, that’s when I started working with the Committee to have these provisions inserted.
So when I went to the hearing and he asked me in advance to come back, he explained communications that he had had that led him to believe that there was every expectation that there will be movement. And I take him at his word and have to assume that he would not have been told the things that he’s been told without them being true. So I’m quite confident that there will be action and I simply hope that it will be very soon.
Q: Did you get a sense of the timeline at all? Would it be the next year, the next few months, weeks even?
GUEST: I think on the latter end. I think it will be more in the question of weeks, certainly not years. I mean, if it were a question of years, I would have pushed back because I feel for the gay and lesbian foreign service officers who are about to enter the transfer season. Actually, the transfer season for State Department usually starts around in May. Most of jobs are transferred between May and September to coincide with school year for kids and so forth. So most of the jobs come open in that time period. So if they don’t move now, there will once again be people that are treated unfairly. And I think it’s important that we move as rapidly as we can to resolve discrepancies that unfairly affect the lives of gay and lesbian people, including in this area. [...]
Q: And so if the State Department does extend these benefits, what are some things that foreign service officers and State Department employees would begin to see immediately?
GUEST: Well, there’s a whole range of issues that amount to unfair discrimination for lesbian and gay employees at the State Department. Partners are not allowed to take security trainings — Secretary Rice did amend that to say on a space-available basis — but in general, otherwise they’re not allowed to take security training to learn how to recognize possible terrorist threats or counterintelligence traps. They’re not allowed to take language training, they’re not allowed to take area training to understand the region that they’re moving to. They’re not allowed to take effectiveness courses, such as the courses given to the spouses of deputy chief of mission and ambassadors to help them be effective in formal community leadership roles that they play.
They’re not allowed access to embassy medical resources on an equal basis as spouses and other family members, which is particularly bad in so many countries around the world where there is no adequate medical care and the only thing you can do is go to the embassy clinic. They’re not allowed to be medically evacuated if there’s some sort of emergency that really requires you to leave country to seek medical treatment that’s not available in the country. They’re not allowed to be evacuated from embassies if there’s political insurrection or some kind of uprising. They’re not paid plane transportation to and from posts, even though our pets are paid for transportation. I mean, the list just goes on and on.
So all of these things, if the decision comes down to change them by changing the definition of what a family member is — because that’s how it’s codified in State Department regulations — then they will be entitled to them. And my understanding is that would be effective immediately as soon as the regulations are changed. So I hope that someone has done the business of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and preparing the regulations to be changed, effective the moment a decision is announced. [...]
Q: Do you get the sense that most foreign service officers support benefits for partners — same-sex partners?
GUEST: Oh yeah. State Department foreign service officers are used to traveling around the world and living in different cultures where there are different understandings about how life is organized. I think people in the foreign service tend to pride themselves on being objective and nuanced in their understanding of cultural issues because that’s part of our business. And so we understand that these issues are cultural in part both overseas and at home. There’s also this sense of tolerance and acceptance in the State Department of people from all different religious and cultural and other backgrounds and certainly I never felt any discrimination on the same-sex issues at State from the body politic — from my colleagues — and I don’t know of any colleague that wasn’t supportive of the need to have benefits for partners. So I would be very surprised if there was anyone in the community who says this is wrong. They just need to have action at the top.
Q: So why do you think Condoleezza Rice never made any movement on this issue?
GUEST: You know, I don’t know. I’ve spoken about Secretary Rice before and I won’t judge her for her overall tenure at the State Department; I think historians will do that. But certainly in terms of leadership skills, I found her lacking. She spoke very frequently about discrimination she witnessed as a child, and I don’t want to take away from that at all. Myself, I’m from the South, and I know what the South was like in my growing-up years, in terms of racial discrimination. So I don’t take anything away from her in that regard.
But I don’t understand how she couldn’t see that this was also an issue of discrimination. She really was not attached to the building, she had a very small circle of people around her, and she served up the President. She didn’t act as the leader that the State Department needed for its workforce. [...]
[Obama's movement on LGBT issues is] pretty sparse. I really can be done and more should be done, and I know there are a lot of issues on the President’s plate. I know there a lot of issues on the congressional plate. But these are issues related to the fundamental constitutional rights related to a whole class of American citizens. So I really do think that it’s time to pull back and say, “What is government about? We’re supposed to be helping people and not putting all the issues before it.”
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working on say, economic stimulus and ending the war — those are important issues for all Americans. But the President himself has said, “Hey, we can do more than one thing at once.” And I don’t accept that we can’t move forward on this area. I do understand — or at least I’ve been told — that there is an effort underway to move on a number of these things, but I really want to see the President speak to it, and I really want to see Congress — congressional leadership — speak to it also.