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Rufus Gifford: This Gay Man Is the Face of America to World Leaders

Rufus Gifford

Gifford, chief of protocol at the State Department, is the first point of contact for foreign leaders -- and "a fly on the wall for some of the most important conversations," he says.


To foreign leaders conducting official business with the U.S., Rufus Gifford is the face of America -- or, at least, the first face they see.

As chief of protocol at the State Department, Gifford is the first point of contact for those leaders. It's one of the highest-ranking positions in the department, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It makes Gifford, who is gay, the top-ranked out official at State, and it's ambassador-level.

Ambassador is a position Gifford's familiar with. He was U.S. ambassador to Denmark from 2013 to 2017, and he became something of a celebrity there as the subject of a prime-time documentary series. That's also where he got married to veterinarian Stephen DeVincent in 2015. He's held other impressive jobs, having been national finance director at the Democratic National Committee, worked in Barack Obama's and Joe Biden's presidential campaigns, and run for Congress. But he continues to be awed by his current post.

"It's an amazing opportunity," he says. "I'm a fly on the wall for some of the most important conversations. It's an honor and a privilege."

Gifford was confirmed to the position last December, and he's been busy since then. "The last few months have been remarkable," he says. In March, he traveled with President Biden to Brussels, Belgium, where Biden addressed European Union leaders. He then accompanied Biden to Poland, a country hosting many refugees from the war in Ukraine.

Soon afterward, it was on to Korea and Japan, both of which have relatively new leaders, then back to Europe for the G7 summit, a meeting of the leaders of the world's seven most advanced economies. There were also summits for Latin American and Southeast Asian countries and a visit to the Middle East.

Back home in June for Pride Month, he hosted a Pride reception at Blair House, the presidential guest house in Washington, D.C. Gifford and Jessica Stern, the State Department's special envoy for advancing LGBTQ+ rights, addressed the gathering.

Gifford was impressed by the turnout at the reception. "What was wonderful was that we had representation from all parts of the world," including some countries that aren't LGBTQ-friendly, he says. The attendees from those countries might not tweet about being there, but they showed up because they believe in equality, he notes. "I was a bit naive that we'd only see those countries that are publicly outspoken," Gifford says.

The State Department promotes LGBTQ+ rights around the world in many ways, such as through Stern's work and the department's administration of the Global Equality Fund, a public-private partnership that makes grants and offers technical expertise to organizations and individuals working for the rights of LGBTQ+ and intersex people in many nations. But simply having a gay man as the first point of contact for international leaders is important too, Gifford says.

"Representation matters," he says. Anyone Googling his name, he notes, will see that he's married to a man. "I will wave the rainbow flag whenever possible," he says.

He points out that less than 30 years ago, an out gay man or any other known member of the LGBTQ+ community couldn't have worked in the State Department, as the government denied security clearances to this population. President Bill Clinton ended such denials by executive order in 1995.

"We have to remember that we have made great progress over the past several decades," Gifford says.

That's important to remember, he adds, when there are forces threatening to roll back that progress, both in the U.S. and around the world. "Very often we exist in a world where we're two steps forward, one step back," he says. As to why there are so many threats at this time, he says. "I do think there's been a degree of complacency that's popped up after the victories we've seen. The moment that you think you have won this debate, that's the moment you start going backwards."

LGBTQ+ people have a champion in President Biden, he says, and the State Department is promoting the values of the Biden administration around the world. And while it's not the department's job to influence domestic policy -- that's left to other agencies -- "we do need to be role models for young people around the country," Gifford says.

Biden is also a champion for good relationships with other nations, Gifford says, a welcome change from the previous administration. "We really have a president who wants to invest in these human relationships once again," he says. "He understands that human connection matters as much as anything else." Young leaders from around the world, particularly women, give Gifford hope as well.

Asked what he sees himself doing next, Gifford, who recently turned 48, prefers to focus on what he's doing now. "I love this space," he says. "I love this work." He's "grounded," he says, by his husband and their dogs and their home, but he continues to be thrilled by his job and the people he interacts with. "You pinch yourself every opportunity," he says.

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring, The Advocate's copy chief, has spent much of her journalistic career covering the LGBT movement. When she's not fielding questions about grammar, spelling, and LGBT history, she's sharing movie trivia or classic rock lyrics.
Trudy Ring, The Advocate's copy chief, has spent much of her journalistic career covering the LGBT movement. When she's not fielding questions about grammar, spelling, and LGBT history, she's sharing movie trivia or classic rock lyrics.