Gay Rights on Fast Track at State Dept.

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com February 05 2009 1:00 AM ET

Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton told participants at a town hall meeting in
Washington, D.C., Wednesday that equalizing treatment of
the State Department’s LGBT employees and their
partners is being reviewed and “is on a fast
timeline” to be remedied.

“We are
reviewing what would need to be changed, what we can legally
change,” Secretary Clinton said. “A lot of
things we cannot legally change by a decision in the
State Department. But let’s see what we can
determine is within our realm of responsibility, and we are
moving on that expeditiously.”

Clinton’s
remarks came in response to a question posed by Ralan Hill,
a Foreign Service officer with a same-sex partner, who
noted that in an emergency situation abroad, the State
Department would be responsible for evacuating him but
would have no such obligation to his partner. The
department does, however, provide evacuation
assistance to heterosexual spouses of officers
stationed overseas.

“This is
an issue of real concern to me,” Clinton responded.
“And even though, as you pointed out, all of
our personnel share the same service requirements, the
partners in same-sex relationships are not offered the
same training, the same benefits, and the same protections
that other family members receive when you serve
abroad. So I view this as an issue of workplace
fairness, employee retention, and the safety and
effectiveness of our embassy communities worldwide.”

Clinton signaled
that she would review the inequities faced by LGBT
employees during her confirmation hearings, and momentum has
been growing ever since. Earlier this week U.S.
representatives Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), along with U.S. senators Russ Feingold
(D-WI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), sent a letter to Secretary
Clinton asking her to change the discriminatory
policies.

“The lack
of equitable treatment could force dedicated, intelligent,
and needed FSOs (Foreign Service officers) and
officials to make an unfortunate choice between
serving their country and protecting their
families,” read the letter. “The State
Department’s past inattention to these
disparities places it below parity with the best employment
practices used in the private sector, where the majority of
Fortune 500 companies extend employee benefit programs
to cover the domestic partners.”

Baldwin and her
colleagues singled out the following changes in State
Department policy regarding Foreign Service officers:


Inclusion in travel orders for same-sex domestic partners of
FSOs

• Access
to training, including all language classes, area studies,
and embassy effectiveness classes for same-sex
domestic partners of FSOs


Emergency evacuation and medevac from post when necessary
for same-sex domestic partners of FSOs

• Access
to post health units for same-sex domestic partners of FSOs

• Visa
support for same-sex domestic partners accompanying FSOs to
overseas postings, and for same-sex foreign-born domestic
partners accompanying FSOs to postings in Washington
or elsewhere in the U.S.


Preferential status for employment at post, comparable to
that enjoyed by eligible family members, for same-sex
domestic partners of FSOs 

Congressional
members sent a similar letter to former secretary
Condoleezza Rice last year, but the concerns fell on deaf
ears. Then–assistant secretary Jeffrey Bergner
sent a response stating that the department recruits
and promotes employees “without regard to sexual
orientation” and affords benefits to unmarried
partners of employees in accordance with the Foreign
Affairs Manual (at 3 FAM 4180). The letter failed to
acknowledge any inequalities faced by officers in same-sex
relationships.

Sources familiar
with the State Department say LGBT employees today are
more hopeful than they have ever been about the direction of
potential policy changes. Last week, 2,200 government
employees (gay and straight) working in foreign
affairs signed a letter advocating for
fair treatment of LGBT employees that was
hand-delivered to Secretary Clinton's office.

Michelle Schohn,
president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs
Agencies (GLIFAA), welcomed the support of congressional
members and said she firmly believed policy changes
are imminent.

 “We
are delighted that these members of Congress share our
concerns about the inequities facing gays and lesbians
in the Foreign Service,” Schohn said. “I
am confident that these are issues that the secretary
already takes seriously.”