By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com September 27 2008 12:00 AM ET
Richard Grenell spent most of his days as spokesperson for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations putting out fires for the Bush Administration and battling to keep issues like human rights in Burma and Zimbabwe in the public spotlight. But after working for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. for more than seven years, his final media push was publicizing a more personal struggle that he fought internally with the State Department.
Grenell, the longest-serving spokesperson for the U.S. Ambassador whose final day was Friday, September 26, started inquiring nearly four years ago about having his partner, Matt Lashey, listed in what’s known as the United Nations’ Blue Book, a reference guide of contact information for different member states of the United Nations as well as diplomatic personnel and their spouses.
Though Grenell and Lashey met in New York and have been together six years, they cannot legally marry in the Empire State. “It is not an option for us in New York, but hopefully someday soon it will be,” he says. “In my mind, and in Matt's mind, this is it. We’re married.”
Since the White House regularly included Grenell's partner by name on invitations to official events and parties, Grenell hoped the State Department would follow suit. He began by approaching the department appointee tasked with submitting additions and deletions for the Blue Book with his request -- the first step in a long line of dead ends. When the next edition printed and his partner’s name wasn’t listed, Grenell took it as “a mess-up.” He made several more failed attempts to have Lashey added before being told that “it was a U.N. issue, not a State Department issue.”
“I decided to investigate on my own,” says Grenell, “find out who was in charge of the Blue Book at the U.N.” That led him to the Protocol and Liaison Service, the department that prints the material, where a representative informed Grenell that “the U.N. takes whatever information is given to it by member states and prints it -- they make no evaluation of the correctness of the information.”
Indeed, the inside cover of the Blue Book states: “This publication is prepared by the Protocol and Liaison Service for information purposes only. The listings relating to the permanent missions are based on information communicated to the Protocol and Liaison Service by the permanent missions, and their publication is intended for the use of delegations and the Secretariat.”
Initially, Grenell took a measured behind-the-scenes approach to the situation, but his appeals grew more pointed this past spring.
“What put me over the edge was a friend and colleague who met her spouse after I was already with my partner -- they got married and subsequently were put into the Blue Book in a matter of days,” he says.
After numerous inquiries, Grenell eventually received an e-mail from Thomas Gallo, a U.S. Mission administrator, on July 25, stating, “It has been our practice to include only spouses, when requested by the employee, in our Blue Book updates, because the Blue Book description states that it lists ‘spouses’ and because the Department of State Foreign Affairs Manuel, under the heading of Members of Household (MOH), indicates that the Mission may not request privileges, immunities or exceptions for MOH.”
Privileges and immunities are a certain set of rights and protections afforded to employees of different member states of the United Nations while working in their capacity as a diplomatic envoy. But Grenell takes issue with the reasoning that the Blue Book listing bestows any sort of special status. “I could go down the road and have the legal discussion about diplomatic immunity and legal spouses if we were talking about privileges and immunities,” explains Grenell, “We are not talking about P & I. We are simply talking about a reference book the U.N. prints. I find it very hard to believe that anyone would be adversely affected by printing Matt’s name.”
Grenell replied to Gallo’s e-mail reiterating that the Blue Book is nothing more than a reference and adding, “I want my partner listed in it. I am formally requesting this and I want a legal opinion. Please do not delay this so that we miss the deadline.”
The legal opinion came via e-mail on July 31 from State Department attorney Richard Visek, who shelved the discussion of privileges and immunities and turned his sole focus to the legal definition of “spouse” as it was designated by the Defense of Marriage Act. “The word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife,” Visek wrote, citing U.S. Law, 1 U.S.C. 7. He concluded the e-mail, “In interpreting the term ‘spouse’, the mission should adhere to the definition under U.S. law. We also understand that this is consistent with past practice.”
Legal opinions aside, Grenell believes the last line of that e-mail is perhaps most telling. Noting that he would have been the first known person to have his same-sex partner listed in the Blue Book, Grenell says, “I think the status quo is the enemy here. It is, We’ve never done it before; and you’re dealing with bureaucrats who can't think outside the box.”
Grenell exchanged several more e-mails with John Bellinger, the State Department’s top legal advisor, but nothing came of them.
Contacted by The Advocate, State Department spokesperson Noel Clay reiterated, “The department over the years has not included domestic partners because they are not spouses.”
After several years of inaction, Grenell decided to go public. “Some people are going to yell at me, because it's been a quiet fight,” he says. “I think a lot of people’s style is to do a quiet fight.”
As a registered Republican and a Bush appointee, Grenell has not always had an easy time waging quiet wars. He was publicly “outed” on an LGBT activist website two years ago, though Grenell says he was out to almost everyone who knew him. The main complaint leveled against him at the time was the fact that the U.S. had recently joined with Iran in a U.N. committee vote to deny accreditation to two international LGBT organizations. Accreditation, or consultative status, allows non-governmental organizations (NGOs) access to U.N. proceedings, conferences, and the right to propose agenda items.
The most common sticking point for granting consultative status to LGBT organizations, says Grenell, is whether they have any ties to the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Due to the organization’s controversial nature, groups seeking legal recognition from the U.N. must reject NAMBLA outright. “We needed an unequivocal separation from NAMBLA in order for these groups to go forward,” he says.
LGBT activists and human rights groups were outraged by the January 2006 vote, but after one of the organizations -- the International Lesbian and Gay Federation of Denmark -- changed course and distanced itself entirely from NAMBLA, the U.N. approved it for accreditation later that year along with two other LGBT NGOs. The U.S. voted in favor of all three accreditations. The following year, the U.N. approved two more LGBT NGOs for consultative status.
Despite the scrutiny, Grenell is proud of his work on facilitating LGBT accreditations and touts a couple of other accomplishments as reasons why it’s important to have LGBT people working on both sides of the aisle. He helped secure two former U.S. ambassadors to the U.N., John Danforth and John Bolton, to give keynote speeches at Log Cabin Republican conventions. “It wasn’t difficult at all, I just went and asked,” he says, “but it was the personal relationship.”