Friday, January 30, 2009

WB: Hillary's Chance to Deliver

This story was in today's Washington Blade.

Gov’t workers ask Clinton for policy change

Chris Johnson
Friday, January 30, 2009

About 2,200 Foreign Service officials co-signed a letter sent this week to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to address inequities in how her department treats its gay and straight employees.

Those who signed the letter, delivered by Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, said that they “are troubled that our families are not all treated equally and with the same respect.”

The letter notes that the partners of gay Foreign Service officers are not included in travel orders, not eligible for federal health care insurance, not entitled to emergency evacuation and not eligible for more than basic language training — unlike the spouses of straight Foreign Service officers.

The letter also notes that while the State Department covers various travel expenses for officials moving overseas, including the cost of moving a pet, the department doesn’t reimburse travel costs for a partner.

Noel Clay, State Department spokesperson, confirmed that Clinton received the letter and said she is “currently reviewing the concerns addressed in the letter.”

When Clinton was asked about some of the inequities by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) during her confirmation hearing earlier this month, she said she would “take a hard look at existing policy,” and that her “understanding is other nations have moved to extend that partnership benefit.”

Michelle Schohn, president of GLIFAA, said her organization sent the letter to Clinton because “we felt that it was important to bring to her attention the inequities that are faced by gay and lesbian Foreign Service officers.”

“What we have found most often with our colleagues is not that people agree with the discrimination … but they just don’t know that it’s taking place,” Schohn said.

Schohn was optimistic that Clinton “will want to be fair” in how she treats employees, but said she did not receive an immediate response from the State Department regarding the letter.

Schohn said she would bring up the issue with Clinton during a meeting with the secretary and the heads of the State Department’s affinity groups, but a day for the meeting had not yet been scheduled.

The discrepancies in how the State Department treats its gay and straight employees received to media attention in 2007 when former U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest, who’s gay, retired in protest.

Following the retirement of Guest, who was not immediately available for comment, the State Department granted the partners of gay Foreign Services officers access to some training, but no other changes have since been made.

The Blade also had an editorial today on the issue:

Hillary’s chance to deliver

Friday, January 30, 2009

SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Clinton enjoyed widespread gay support during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination and now she has the opportunity to reward a constituency that embraced her so enthusiastically.

This week, more than 2,000 government employees sent Clinton a letter asking for equal treatment of same-sex partners by the government. Partners of Foreign Service workers are not entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of straight workers. The disparity in treatment prompted a public protest by Michael Guest, the former ambassador to Romania, who retired in 2007 to call attention to the issue.

Guest told the Blade in December 2007 that he spent the previous three years urging then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to change policies that provide more benefits to pets than to partners of gay Foreign Service officers.

“I decided that if for three years I haven’t been able to get them to do anything about these problems and if I’m going to have to go overseas, then I might as well just pull the plug and start looking for a new line of work,” Guest said. “Because I’m not going to take my partner overseas without them fixing the problems, and they’ve shown no inclination of fixing them.”

There are a range of benefits denied to gay partners, some of which could prove life threatening. The State Department, for example, provides training classes to wives or husbands of Foreign Service officers in how to recognize a terrorist threat or a possible trap by foreign intelligence agents. Those classes are denied to gay partners. The State Department also pays for all travel expenses for spouses, children and family pets, a benefit not extended to domestic partners. Most disturbingly, emergency evacuation services are not available to gay partners of workers who might need to flee a foreign country.

The letter to Clinton was drafted by Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and asks the new secretary of state to rectify the disparate treatment with an order from her office.

During her confirmation hearings, Clinton indicated a willingness to review department policies toward gays.

“I think that we should take a hard look at the existing policy,” she said. “My understanding is other nations have moved to extend that partnership benefit.”

It was hardly a firm commitment to change and the policies of other nations should have no bearing on a U.S. decision to do the right thing in this regard. Isn’t America supposed to lead the world in matters of equal rights?

Clinton made many laudable commitments to gays during the campaign. She is now in a position to act and should do so without delay.

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