News & Politics

State Department Finally Mends Exclusionary Policies

After years of lobbying, the partners of gay State Department employees are being extended some basic rights.
Ordinarily, the swearing-in ceremony of the newest U.S. ambassador to Romania wouldn't be a headline-grabber.

But the courageous insistence that day in September 2001 of Michael Guest, the first openly gay American to be confirmed by the Senate to be an ambassador, that his partner be acknowledged by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell underscored that the moment was anything but ordinary.

To his credit, Powell did respectfully acknowledge Guest's partner, who went on to live with Guest in the ambassador's residence in Bucharest.

But, sadly, the State Department didn't follow up with much-needed changes in actual policy, even though Guest lobbied for years. Command of the State Department changed hands -- those policies remained the same.

Because he was ignored when he tried to sound the alarm that, for example, the exclusion of gay partners from safety classes puts them at serious risk, Guest decided to end his 26-year career. Fittingly, at his retirement ceremony in late November, Guest again made headlines.

"It's irrational that my partner can't be trained in how to recognize a terrorist threat, or an intelligence trap," said Guest, 50, whose last job was dean of the department's Leadership and Management School. "It's unfair. ... Why serve in dangerous or unhealthful places if partners' evacuations and medevacs are at issue? ... This is not about gay rights. Rather, it's about the safety and effectiveness of our communities abroad."

Guest says that the prospect of being sent on another assignment abroad forced him to choose between standing up for his partner of 12 years and serving his country.

His farewell bombshell triggered demands for change from Capitol Hill.

Four House members, including gay Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge her make overdue changes.

As the lawmakers point out, partners of gay Foreign Service officers don't get to use embassy health services. They wouldn't, for example, get protection from avian flu. What's more, when a U.S. embassy gets evacuated, gay partners must pay to escape the crisis.

Gay partners aren't included in the intensive language training that other family members receive before overseas postings. And they don't get the preferential treatment given other family members who apply for consulate or embassy jobs.

The lawmakers also expressed concern that partners are barred from the security classes given spouses of heterosexual Foreign Service officers.

But on Feb. 25, just days after the lawmakers contacted Rice, Foreign Service Director General Harry K. Thomas Jr. announced he was "extending access to security training" to "members of household" -- an elastic State Department term that includes gay partners -- because "they can be at risk" and making them more savvy about dangers "can positively contribute to our collective safety."

A frustrated Guest says that step is too little, too late. "It's unconscionable that the administration has not done that until now," said Guest, currently working on a new project to get the United States to address anti-gay human rights abuses abroad. "My partner is my family. That is very basic. And that is why the changes need to be made."

The State Department is the civilian face that America shows the world. Making that face more gay-friendly will benefit our entire nation, not just the partnered gay Americans sacrificing so much to serve abroad.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.
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