Madame Secretary

“Gay rights are human rights.” With that declaration — and the team she has assembled at the State Department — Hillary Rodham Clinton has elevated the dialogue on LGBT rights around the globe.

BY Kerry Eleveld

January 10 2011 5:00 AM ET

HILLARY CLINTON AT WHITE HOUSE X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM Mills is striking and quick-witted but doesn’t seem enamored of either Washington protocol or hierarchy. She’s not here for prestige—she’s here to champion the cause of Clinton, who she believes is a model public servant. “If you are a student of who she has been, even from her beginning days coming out of law school, [you know that Clinton] starts from a frame of, ‘What maximizes each person’s opportunity to live up to their God-given potential?’ ” Mills says.

That sentiment has served as the foundation for Clinton’s work at the State Department. And the bond between Clinton and Mills—their laser-like focus, their common passion for advancing the cause of justice—has yielded what is arguably the Obama administration’s most progressive and productive agency on LGBT equality, one that has overhauled discriminatory personnel policies while championing gay rights internationally.

Optimizing conditions for LGBT employees and their families was a crucial step forward. Of the nearly 2 million federal workers in the United States, the State Department’s gay employees have perhaps the most at stake when it comes to domestic-partner benefits. Not only does working abroad make for a demanding career, but relocating one’s partner and family also creates added stress for the department’s roughly 13,000 Foreign Service members. The spouses of heterosexual employees based overseas have long been considered when it comes to expense allowances, housing, emergency evacuations, passport and employment assistance, and other benefits. But prior to Clinton’s tenure, same-sex partners received none of these benefits. As Mills notes, “There were a number of things here that looked very obvious as inhibiting the opportunity to get the very best out of people.”

A member of the agency’s LGBT employee group, Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, raised the issue of inequity during Secretary Clinton’s first employee town hall meeting in February 2009. Clinton responded that she had already asked her team for a review of the policies. “It’s on a fast time line,” she said. Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management and a 38-year veteran of the State Department, remembers the charge Clinton gave him: “Her instructions to me and to Jim Thessin, the deputy legal adviser, were, ‘Let us do everything that I in my powers can do to resolve this.’ ”

While federal employees with a same-sex partner are excluded from many benefits conferred upon their straight counterparts—a result of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act—the Foreign Service Act gives secretaries of State broad authority over passports, housing, shipping, transportation, and access to health facilities necessitated by living abroad. Kennedy, who also happens to be the senior officer assigned as the department’s leadership liaison to GLIFAA, performed a bureaucratic Houdini act to change the policy in a matter of months, managing to identify the fixes, push the paperwork through four separate bureaus, and vet it with the department’s lawyers. Thessin, Kennedy adds, “brought to the table as many of his lawyers as we needed in order to work this through.”

“That was very impressive, absolutely,” says Jon Tollefson, president of GLIFAA. “Given the way that everything else functions in a bureaucracy, this was full throttle.”

By May 2009 the department was ready to move on the changes—one month before President Obama signed an executive order conferring on all government workers a limited set of benefits not prohibited by DOMA, including sick leave to take care of a domestic partner. Obama further instructed each federal agency to review which internal policies could be made more equitable.

The State Department also aggressively revised passport regulations for transgender citizens, who were previously required to provide proof of sex-reassignment surgery in order to change their gender marker. Now trans people only need to provide certification that they are under a physician’s care for gender transition. At the time the new policy was announced last June, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, marveled at the expeditious change. “It came faster than I thought,” she said.

The change was particularly important for transgender individuals who live in states with antiquated driver’s license and identification rules; now they can travel both domestically and abroad with government-issued ID that accurately reflects their gender identity. It’s one of the most important advancements for transgender civil rights ever made at the federal level.

Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, says the issue had apparently been identified years earlier by a State Department bureau but suddenly became a priority when Clinton took office. “If you saw my in-box,” she says, “you would know that there’s 100 good ideas and initiatives in it, and sometimes it is encouragement from higher up that enables it to move from the bottom of the in-box to the top.”

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