Friday, March 07, 2008

Michael Guest: Member of Household Policy: Failing Our Families

Below is a guest editorial in the current issue of the Foreign Service Journal by Ambassador Michael Guest:

Member of Household Policy: Failing Our Families

Last November I left the Foreign Service, frustrated by the State Department’s continued failure to revise Member of Household policy to reflect the needs of today’s diplomacy and to support the families who accompany us in our duties abroad.

Certainly I never felt ostracism from any of my colleagues, Foreign or Civil Service, over the fact that I am gay. I very much miss being part of the State Department team, and I miss serving my country in meaningful and tangible ways. My partner felt the same sense of mission that I did, even moving to a more portable career — in no small part to support me in my chosen profession.

But let’s be clear. MOH policy is strikingly out of date with today’s workplace dangers, realities and needs. And by not taking action, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her senior management team are putting lives at risk. They’re impairing the effectiveness of our diplomatic platforms. They sanction workplace inequalities, in spite of the equal service requirements we all share. And they stand against the principles of equality, fairness and respect for diversity on which Americawas founded — principles America’s diplomats are charged with promoting

A Catch-22

The creation of “Members of Household” as an official categorywas announced in a Dec. 26, 2000, cable from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in one of her final acts. The designation embraces a wide range of individuals: aging parents, adult children and unmarried partners, both straight and gay. All MOHs are allowed to accompany their loved ones to any overseas posting where spouses and children are able to reside with Foreign Service employees.

Current policy essentially gives ambassadors leeway, within heavily drawn limitations, to make modest accommodations for Members of Household in our overseas diplomatic communities. Variations abound from post to post; in all cases, though, MOH treatment is vastly inferior to that accorded “Eligible Family Members.”

If this administration took its management duties seriously, it would have instituted a thorough review of MOH policy at some point within its seven years in office. Some long-overdue revisions should be applied to all MOH categories. For instance, common sense would surely dictate that all Foreign Service community members be required to take the Security Overseas Seminar, so they can learn how to avoid terrorist threats and intelligence traps. Yet incredibly, Members of Household are not even allowed to enroll for that training, no matter how many spaces are open in the classroom.

Digger Comments:
MOHs are allowed, as of the cable issued February 25 and posted to this blog on February 27, to enroll in Security Overseas Seminar.

While all MOHs deserve greater consideration, my particular focus has been on the unequal treatment accorded gay and lesbian employees and their partners. After all, parents who are more than 50-percent financially dependent on a Foreign Service employee can be added to travel orders. Adult, non-dependent children might be expected to carry their own weight in a grown-up’s world. And while some (including me) believe it unwise for personnel policies to force marriage on a young, untempered relationship, straight couples at least have the option of marriage, by which they can obtain the spousal benefits that MOHs are barred from receiving.

In contrast, gay and lesbian employees are caught in an impossibly unfair Catch-22. Though they cannot marry, their partners are, like spouses, core family members. The department’s choice to make marriage the fulcrum on which training, protections and benefits are bestowed thus discriminates against a group of employees who have no recourse, yet whose service commitments are identical in every way to those of their straight colleagues.

Real Impact

Consider the real impact of the department’s outdated MOH policy.

Security. Partners aren’t offered the protections that diplomatic passports afford. They aren’t guaranteed access to embassy medical facilities, even in places where State’s own medical professionals consider local facilities inadequate. Under current rules, Members of Household would not be given Tamiflu in an avian flu outbreak, thereby inviting vulnerability into our households. And in places where dangers and uncertainty are facts of life, the government offers gay and lesbian employees no assurance that their families, too, will be evacuated in hostile situations or imminent danger.

Effectiveness. Partners of ambassadors and deputy chiefs of mission aren’t allowed to sit in otherwise vacant Foreign Service Institute seats to learn the informal community leadership roles expected of them — a deficit that’s detrimental not only to them and to us, but to the communities they’re expected to serve. Partners aren’t taught the language and culture of the country in which they, as much as spouses, will cast impressions of America through their daily interactions. Without spouse-equivalent priority for post employment, partners can’t compete fairly for jobs for which they may be ideally qualified — depriving missions of the talent match they should be seeking.

Service equity. When gay and lesbian employees answer the call to duty in Iraq and elsewhere, their partners don’t receive the separate maintenance allowances that spouses receive. Are our service and our families’ sacrifices of lesser value? Although State now generously reimburses the transportation of pets to and from post, gay and lesbian employees’ partners must pay their own way — a telling suggestion that the department values domesticated animals more than it does our family members. Similarly, visa support for partners is not offered.

As ambassador to Romania, I was interrogated by a Republican Hill staffer as to whether my partner’s socks and underwear were carried to post in my household effects shipment or his luggage. And this was in the days after 9/11, when my focus needed to be on our nation’s security needs. Should anyone have to endure such demeaning treatment?

Diversity. Although Sec. Rice and other senior department leaders say they value diversity, their inattention to these matters renders that claim hollow at best. No one, of course, would suggest that the discriminatory workplace policies I’ve described compare even remotely in scope or magnitude to the discrimination that she so often recounts having witnessed in Birmingham, Ala., as a child. But these policies nonetheless are discriminatory — and all the more so because the only remedy offered (marriage) is not available to gay and lesbian employees. Why is discrimination, in any form or degree, tolerated in the institution that this Secretary leads?

A Leadership Deficit

Those who lead our public institutions are accountable for addressing problems that impede the safety, effectiveness and morale of their organizations. If they truly care about keeping talent, they should want to catch up with America’s private sector, which is so far ahead of the federal government in these matters.

For three years, a succession of senior State Department “leaders” have told me that I’m absolutely right to call for revisions to MOH policy, but that the issues are complex. Recently, they’ve taken to pointing out that the department doesn’t discriminate in hiring and promotions. What a clever dodge! That’s never, in fact, been charged. Rather, it’s State’s discriminatory treatment of a group of employees that’s at issue, as rights and protections are being accorded to families on the basis of a criterion that gay and lesbian employees can in no way meet.

As the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D - Calif.,chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Dec. 19, 2007, with specific reference to the Foreign Service: “There is no rational explanation for a same-sex domestic partner to be treated as a second-class citizen. … These dedicated men and women serve their country, yet our government does not honor the basic rights of the benefits they have earned for themselves and their families.”

The State Department’s failure to address these issues reflects, quite bluntly, a seventh-floor leadership deficit. It’s time for the department to step up to its leadership responsibilities to colleagues who give our country their best, yet who are denied the equal and fair treatment promised by the flag under which they serve.

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