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Gay Ambassador Rufus Gifford: America’s First Handshake!

Rufus Gifford and husband
Courtesy of Rufus Gifford

The highest-ranking LGBTQ+ person ever to serve in the State Department, the new U.S. Chief of Protocol is every bit the savvy diplomat.

When I know I'm going to get the opportunity to speak to Ambassador Rufus Gifford, my mood perks up. Not only can Gifford carry on a lively conversation about any subject, particularly politics and diplomacy -- his specialties -- but his hearty laugh energizes the conversation.

"So Rufus," I began. "Congratulations on the new job! Now, should I call you 'Re-Ambassador or Ambassador Deux?'" And that sparked his infectious chuckle. "John, I still think we're waiting and working on what to call me," he jokingly replied.

Gifford will keep his title of ambassador. Early last year he was nominated by President Joe Biden to be chief of protocol at the State Department, an ambassador-level position. When I texted him soon afterward, he advised that we wait to speak until after his nomination was confirmed by the Senate. Little did we know that that confirmation wouldn't come until late December. Gifford had been waiting for 10 months. "Good things come to those who wait," I told him.

Gifford was sworn in on January 3 in Washington and is now the highest-ranking LGBTQ+ person ever at the State Department. Arguably, based on my humble opinion, Gifford's role is the second most important job at Foggy Bottom, ranking behind only Tony Blinken, who is secretary of State.

As chief of protocol, Gifford is President Biden's liaison to other countries and their leaders. To put it another way, when a world leader touches down in the U.S., the first hand they will shake, once they step off the plane, will be Gifford's, and he will be the first person to welcome them to America.

"I'm so excited to get back into diplomacy," Gifford told The Advocate. Previously, he was President Obama's ambassador to Denmark and in that role became something of a global celebrity based on his Danish reality series, appropriately titled I Am the Ambassador From America,which later was available on Netflix.

"I think with this new position, because of the time and place and the circumstances we're in right now, the stakes are immediately a bit higher," he explained. "After the previous administration and with all that's going on in the world, not only with our friends, allies, and adversaries, it's really important that U.S. diplomacy strikes the right tone."

Gifford pointed out that the job will be less about making policy, and more about "creating an environment that puts the United States in a favorable light. My goal is to help ensure that United States diplomacy is not only successful but thrives."

Officially, the chief of protocol, according to the State Department's definition, "seeks to advance the foreign policy goals of the United States by creating an environment for successful diplomacy. Our team extends the first hand that welcomes presidents, prime ministers, ruling monarchs, and other leaders to our country. By serving on the front lines of diplomatic engagement, we promote cross-cultural exchange and build new bridges of understanding between people and governments around the world."

"It's also a genuine honor to work for President Biden, who is incredibly experienced in the world of diplomacy, and has played a leading role in U.S. diplomacy during his career in the U.S. Senate and as a two-term vice president," Gifford added. "As a public servant, President Biden is the embodiment of humanity and compassion.

I threw out a story and a bit of a hypothetical to Gifford. In 1992, while working on the Hill, I had the opportunity to meet Boris Yeltsin, then Russia's president -- what you might call my brief experience in diplomacy. I told Gifford that I recalled Yeltsin was missing the thumb and index finger on his left hand. It was something a lot of people weren't aware of.

And I heard through a friend who worked at the White House that during that era that in one of Yeltsin's interactions with First Lady Barbara Bush, he was seated next to her at a dinner and was spreading caviar where his left thumb would have been; moreover, during one visit, a drunken Yeltsin was caught by the Secret Service coming out of Blair House in his underwear to retrieve a pizza he ordered. How would Gifford handle incidents like this?

Gifford laughed and said, "Well, first of all, I would make sure that no one in the media got wind of something like that. That would be a tough situation to navigate, but you'd have to be gracious, thoughtful, and firm."

"You want to make sure that the visiting head of state isn't put in an embarrassing situation, even if it is self-inflicted," he continued. "That will be one of the great things about my new job, is dealing with so many varied personalities and so many world leaders. It's really an overwhelming honor. And the U.S. is due to host the G7 in 2022, so that will be a particularly big and important task for us next year."

Caviar and pizza stories aside, I asked Gifford how he planned to deal and dialogue with the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has been leading the charge in his country to quash LGBTQ+ rights.

"My job is really not about me and is not focused on shaping policy, first of all," he said. "And there are others in our government whose job it is to confront the Russian government about their policies, and no one is more experienced in doing that than President Biden. I am 100 percent confident that the president can handle that part of the relationship."

Finally, how does Gifford feel about being an LGBTQ+ barrier breaker? "I think about the fact that so many gay women and men were not allowed to have positions like this in the State Department for so long," he said. "It really was a tragedy. And I also think about the fact that there have been many before me who paved the way, including James Hormel, who as ambassador to Luxembourg under President Clinton was the first openly gay ambassador. I'm so indebted to those men and women who fought for all of us and those who never got the opportunity to serve in our diplomatic corps, and that makes me want to work harder to make them all proud."

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