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Diplomatic Ties

Diplomatic Ties


Michael Guest, the former American ambassador to Romania, retired from the Foreign Service in November because of the State Department's unequal treatment of gay diplomats and their partners. In this exclusive Advocate sit-down, Andrew Noyes talks to Guest and his partner about what led to their decision--and why their union was more important than Guest's career.

Michael Guest remembers the day he fell in love with the Foreign Service. It was 1976, and the South Carolinian was interning on Capitol Hill. He attended a State Department seminar where a man in a plaid suit, he recalls one brisk December afternoon, "talked about this fascinating opportunity to travel the world, represent America, and change things for the better." That was all Guest needed to hear -- he was hooked. The political aspirations he had harbored since childhood suddenly fizzled, and he decided diplomacy would be his career.

And when he met his partner, Alex, 12 years ago, Guest fell just as hard, just as fast. Unfortunately, their romance would eventually lead to the end of Guest's diplomatic career. His tenure had included posts in Geneva, Hong Kong, Moscow, and Prague -- and in 2001, when President Bush appointed him as ambassador to Romania, Guest became the first openly gay man to be confirmed by the Senate to such a post. (Just two years earlier, after a contentious battle in the Senate, President Clinton had managed to install gay philanthropist James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg only by pushing his appointment through during a congressional recess.) But after 26 years of stellar service, Guest decided in 2007 that he could no longer tolerate the State Department's unequal treatment of gay employees and their partners who are abroad. Unlike married heterosexual spouses, Alex (who did not want his name or profession revealed because of the nature of his employment) and other same-sex partners of Foreign Service officials are denied everything from diplomatic visas to transportation allowances to cultural and security training. So last November, in an unprecedented move, Guest bid farewell to his State Department family for the sake of his own family.

It was not an easy decision, as he tells me in his and Alex's handsome 1885 Washington, D.C., row house, which the couple have painstakingly restored themselves over the last decade. In their cozy downstairs parlor, filled with souvenirs from Guest's tours of duty -- upstairs, a guest bedroom, dubbed the "Romanian room," contains pottery and other objects exclusively from that country -- the two men candidly discuss, over tea and freshly baked cookies, their high-profile journey.

The Advocate: What was life like before you met Alex? Had you pondered the State Department's policies pertaining to same-sex couples? Guest: The first half of my career I was completely focused on work. I was the guy you could count on seeing in the office at 11 o'clock at night. I loved what I was doing, and I didn't mind the long hours. I found it refreshing and energizing to be working on something that mattered -- but I never thought of partner issues. Somewhere deep down I never thought I'd have a partner.

So you were in for a big surprise when you wanted to bring Alex with you to Prague, where you were posted in the late 1990s. Guest: I found out all the limitations! You don't see a list, [but] you can make one. The department never had the honesty to sit down and say "Here it is" -- to lay it out in black-and-white. I put it all together by asking a lot of questions.

Several years later, when you were tapped to serve as ambassador to Romania, Alex was onstage beside you during your swearing-in--and Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized him during the ceremony. That caused quite a stir.Guest: I had a lot of Foreign Service officers, colleagues, and friends who had advised me not to have Alex on the dais with me. They said to keep him out in the crowd because it would harm my career. I said, "Look, he's giving up his job, he's moving to Bucharest, he's supporting me. How could I not acknowledge him?" Sure, a certain glass ceiling was broken, but more importantly, it was the right thing to do. I was unprepared for the reaction that it got, because in my mind it was so right and so normal.

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