Thursday, February 12, 2009

WB: Clinton reiterates vow to review policies on gays

From yesterday's Washington Blade...

Clinton reiterates vow to review policies on gays
Some changes at State may require congressional action

By CHRIS JOHNSON, Washington Blade

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her pledge to review inequities in her department’s treatment of gay employees, but for the first time, said some changes might require congressional approval.

Clinton made the remarks during a Feb. 4 employee meeting in response to a question posed by Ralan Hill, who identified himself as a Foreign Service officer who was poised to go to Paraguay with a same-sex partner. A transcript of the meeting was made publicly available.

Hill said the State Department “actively discriminates” against him by limiting “access to benefits routinely and customarily provided to other families.”

Clinton said in response that the issue was of “real concern” and that she viewed it as “an issue of workplace fairness, employee retention and the safety and effectiveness of our embassy communities worldwide.”

“We are reviewing what would need to be changed — what we can legally change,” she said. “A lot of things we cannot legally change by a decision in the State Department. But let’s see what we can determine is within our realm of responsibility, and we are moving on that expeditiously.”

Michelle Schohn, president of Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, said she was “really pleased” with Clinton’s response and joked that Hill “was not a plant” during the town hall meeting.

“She used words that indicate to me that she really understands the issues,” Schohn said, “talking about ‘workplace fairness’ and ‘retention’ and ‘safety and effectiveness of our embassy communities worldwide.’”

But Clinton’s remarks raise questions about which policy changes can be enacted through the State Department alone and which would require congressional approval.

Noel Clay, a State Department spokesperson, said the department has to look at GLIFAA’s requests carefully because “maybe there [are] some laws that prevent them from happening,” adding that he didn’t know which requests Clinton was referring to that required congressional approval.

Schohn confirmed that some of the changes requested by GLIFAA would require involvement from lawmakers.

“It’s going to take several fixes to achieve full equality,” she said. “There are things … that [Clinton] can change purely by changing the regulations within the department. And then there will be other issues, visa issues, things like that, that are going to have to be dealt with congressionally. And those issues are important to us, too.”

In December, GLIFAA provided then-President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team with a request for changes and noted that some required congressional involvement.

The changes requiring congressional approval could be enacted by passage of the Domestic Partner Benefits & Obligations Act, which would grant the partners of gay federal employees the same benefits available to the spouses of straight employees, and passage of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow a foreign national’s partner in the United States to sponsor their immigration to the country.

Passage of the DPBO bill is necessary for gay Foreign Service officers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to obtain a Separate Maintenance Allowance, which is granted to employees when the State Department determines that they cannot keep their family on post, GLIFAA’s paper says.

Approving this bill is also necessary for partners to receive dental and vision benefits as well as a cost of living allowance, GLIFAA states.

Getting UAFA signed into law would allow gay Foreign Service officers to serve “without visa worries for their partners” and for retirees to return to the United States with a partner they meet abroad, GLIFAA says.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was expected to reintroduce UAFA in the House this week. U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was expected to reintroduce the legislation in the Senate.

A version of the DPBO bill was not introduced in Congress by deadline, but in the last session, legislation was sponsored in the House by U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress, and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn).

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