A new State Department policy took effect Monday requiring U.S.-based employees of international organizations and foreign missions who are in same-sex relationships to marry their partners in order to qualify the partner for a spousal visa.
This applies to organizations including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund — where many staffers are from countries that do not offer legal marriages to same-sex couples or recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. That means they “face a stark choice: enter a relationship that could result in prison time back home, or abandon their relationship for their career,” NBC News reports.
This reverses a policy the State Department put in place in 2009, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, allowing same-sex partners to obtain a spousal visa, also known as a G-4 visa. At that time only a few countries and a few U.S. states had marriage equality. It did not offer the same visa eligibility to unmarried opposite-sex partners, who had the option of marrying in any country. While the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage nationwide with the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, and the list of foreign nations with marriage equality has expanded, there are still many, many countries without marriage rights for same-sex couples. And many discriminate against LGBTQ people and even criminalize same-sex relationships.
A letter announcing the policy’s reversal was distributed July 20 and obtained by the Washington Blade soon afterward. “Consistent with internal Department of State policy changes, partners accompanying officers and employees of international organizations or seeking to join the same must be married in order to be eligible for a derivative G-4 nonimmigrant visa or to seek a change into such status beginning October 1, 2018,” it says.
Same-sex partners who currently hold the visas must submit documentation of their marriage by December 31 if order to retain their visas, the letter continues. “After December 31, 2018, unless such individuals are able to obtain separate authorization to remain in the United States through a change of nonimmigrant status with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, they will generally be expected to depart the country within 30 days,” it says. “However, on or after October 1, 2018, partners of officers and employees of international organizations applying for a visa renewal in the United States must be married in order to qualify for a derivative G-4 visa.”
The letter does not say if the marriage has to take place in the U.S. or in another jurisdiction. But the State Department says the new policy is based on the fact that marriage is now available to same-sex couples in the U.S.
“Starting Oct. 1, 2018, members of the U.S. Foreign Service must be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses,” a State Department official told the Blade via email. “This is based on changes to U.S. law recognizing same-sex marriages. Therefore, the Department will likewise require that, as a general matter, officials from other governments and international organizations be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses for purposes of visa issuance and privileges and immunities.”
“In order for opposite sex couples to enjoy the benefits and privileges of a diplomatic spouse, they must be married,” the email continued. “The same is now true for same sex couples.”
LGBTQ rights supporters see many problems with the new policy, which they say is yet another attack on LGBTQ people by Donald Trump’s administration. “If that’s how you advance equality between same-sex and opposite sex partners, then we have an enormous problem on our hands,” David Pressman, who held a diplomatic post in President Barack Obama’s administration, told NBC News. The policy is a “creative and cynical way to use the expansion of equality at home to vindictively target same-sex couples abroad,” he added.
Fabrice Houdart, a U.N. human rights official, told the network, “The problem with the new policy is that it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that LGBTI people still face a very challenging global environment.” Marrying, he said, is “something that is, in a way, more significant than entering a same-sex partnership for reasons that are not related to practical reasons, but reasons like: staying in the closet at home or facing gigantic penalties at home for being in a same-sex relationship.”
It would be difficult, he said, for many people from poor countries to obtain a tourist visa to visit the U.S. in order to get married. “Those being affected will be the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, the poorest,” he said.
James “Wally” Brewster, a gay man who was U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Obama, told the Blade Tuesday that the new policy “will limit quality leaders from around the globe from working here in international organizations. The argument of treating it the same as opposite-sex relationships is either a smoke screen or another example of how this administration is blind to the facts. Either way. the physical and legal damage many would face in their countries where it illegal to be married is real.”
The Democratic National Committee also denounced the policy. “The policy of granting visas to the same-sex domestic partners of foreign diplomats helped make the U.S. a leader for LGBTQ rights and freedoms,” said a statement issued by Lucas Acosta, the DNC’s LGBTQ media director. “Now the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to roll back progress and make it harder for LGBTQ people to serve their countries. With same-sex marriage legal in only about 10 percent of U.N. member countries, LGBTQ diplomats could be forced to leave their posts or their partners. Instead of providing moral leadership on LGBTQ rights and freedoms, the Trump administration is essentially subjecting diplomats to the same discriminatory, anti-LGBTQ policies that they face in their own countries. The Trump administration must reverse this discriminatory action.”
The Human Rights Campaign released a statement opposing the policy as well. “This is an unconscionable, needless attack on some LGBTQ diplomats from around the world, and it reflects the hostility of the Trump-Pence administration toward LGBTQ people” said HRC government affairs director David Stacy. “It is unnecessary, mean-spirited, and unacceptable. The White House must immediately go back to a policy that is fully inclusive and takes into account the dangers faced by LGBTQ foreign diplomats, U.N. employees, and their families.”