Monday, December 03, 2007

Unequal Treatment at the State Department

This today in the NYTimes blog. I am sorry to see Ambassador Guest go, but having left a career I loved and joined State because of the treatment partners receive, I understand his decision.

December 3, 2007, 2:20 pm
Unequal Treatment at the State Department
By The Editorial Board

Retirement ceremonies for career American diplomats tend to be predictable, decorous affairs reflecting the skills of envoys who have spent years perfecting the fine art of defending often indefensible Washington policies abroad. But when Michael Guest, a former ambassador to Romania, closed out his quarter-century career recently he did what few people do — displayed uncommon courage and threw a rhetorical hand-grenade into his own party.

Before friends, colleagues and top officials in the State Department Treaty Room, Mr. Guest took Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who was not present) to task for failing to treat the partners of gay and lesbian foreign service officers the same as the spouses of heterosexual officers. And he revealed — with eloquent sadness, not anger — that this was the reason for his departure.

“Most departing ambassadors use these events to talk about their successes . . . But I want to talk about my signal failure, the failure that in fact is causing me to leave the career that I love,” said Mr. Guest, 50, whose most recent assignment was dean of the leadership and management school at the Foreign Service Institute, the government’s school for diplomats.

“For the past three years, I’ve urged the Secretary and her senior management team to redress policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees. Absolutely nothing has resulted from this. And so I’ve felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner — who is my family — and service to my country. That anyone should have to make that choice is a stain on the Secretary’s leadership and a shame for this institution and our country,” he said.

Among the inequities cited by Mr. Guest and other gay diplomats: unlike heterosexual spouses, gay partners are not entitled to State Department-provided security training, free medical care at overseas posts, guaranteed evacuation in case of a medical emergency, transportation to overseas posts, or special living allowances when foreign service officers are assigned to places like Iraq, where diplomatic families are not permitted.

According to Aaron Jensen, president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, gays comprise about 5 percent of the current force of 12,000 foreign affairs officers and there are roughly 350 same sex partners.

But the issue goes beyond the gay community, because elderly parents and adult children living with foreign services officers are also denied such benefits.

“This is not about gay rights . . . It’s about equal treatment of all employees, all of whom have the same service requirements, the same contractual requirements,” Mr. Guest — who was the first openly gay diplomat to be confirmed as ambassador and take his partner on his overseas posting — said in his farewell speech.

The good news is that unlike the military, which subscribes to a counterproductive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forces gays to pretend to be otherwise, the State Department does not consider open homosexuality a firing offense. And Mr. Jensen says the State Department is a much more tolerant workplace for gays than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

“In the past, there was quiet toleration. Now, it’s accepted,” Mr. Jensen says. “But it’s fair to say there’s been no focus on equality of benefits for gays and lesbians and their families in the State Department.”

Clearly, there is a need for reform. Some changes would require congressional action; others Secretary Rice could implement by fiat. Mr. Guest told The Times that he has heard nothing from her, even after his speech.

Treating gay public servants by different standards than apply to everyone else is unacceptable, especially at a time when all American diplomats and military personnel are being called on to serve — sometimes repeatedly — in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s also foolhardy since the two conflicts have put such strain on American resources that personnel shortages are commonplace. The government should be doing everything in its power to retain its best and brightest, beginning with treating them equally.

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