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.”