Thursday, May 29, 2008

Washington Blade: Baldwin challenges Rice over State Dept. policies

This article was in the May 16 Washington Blade, D.C.'s GLBT newspaper.

Baldwin challenges Rice over State Dept. policies
Decries ‘inequities facing gays and lesbians’

May. 16, 2008

The only open lesbian in the U.S. House of Representatives is continuing a correspondence with the U.S. State Department in a quest — that’s been fruitless thus far — to secure policy changes to benefit the same-sex partners of gay foreign service officers.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) last week replied to an April 17 letter from Jeffrey Bergner, assistant secretary of Legislative Affairs for the State Department. Bergner’s letter was a reply to an earlier letter Baldwin sent in February. Baldwin addressed both her letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Baldwin’s initial letter addresses what she called “basic and common-sense policy changes” that would eliminate “inequities facing gays and lesbians at the State Department.”

Baldwin cited partners’ inability to qualify as “eligible family members” in the department’s eyes, which would qualify them for safety training and language classes, access to health services, medication in the event of an epidemic, financial assistance in the event of an evacuation and help obtaining visas and help with employment opportunities, all of which the department grants to those it deems “eligible family members.”

In her first letter, Baldwin said she was greatly concerned and cited Michael Guest, the openly gay former U.S. ambassador to Romania, who ended his 26-year career in the Foreign Service in December citing what he considered unfair treatment of gay diplomats and their partners.

In a Blade phone interview this week, Baldwin said the letters tie into her broader work as lead sponsor of a House bill that, if passed, would secure domestic partner benefits for federal employees (it hasn’t been voted out of committee).

“I’ve long been interested in the fight for equality not just for LGBT individuals but also for LGBT families,” Baldwin said. “In a number of federal agencies, there are actions that could be taken short of needing to pass legislation because, of course, we know what a long, laborious process that can be. The secretary has significant latitude to address the issues.”

Bergner’s reply to Baldwin’s first letter said the department hires “without regard to sexual orientation” and that same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried partners are treated the same.

Baldwin’s follow-up conveyed to Rice that Bergner’s response “was unsatisfactory” and points out several matters in the first letter that Bergner failed to address.

The State Department did not respond to a request seeking comment.

But how realistic are Baldwin’s requests considering Rice’s boss, President George Bush, has indicated a likelihood to veto pro-gay legislation during his administration?

Guest said Rice, when pressed, made one concession, pointing to a Feb. 13 Foreign Affairs Committee session in which Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who co-signed Baldwin’s letters with Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), questioned Rice on the issue. Rice then made one training course available to same-sex partners.

“It can be effective for elected representatives to go to the secretary in the interest of safety, effectiveness, morale and workplace equity,” Guest, who’s now working on the still-forming Council for Global Equality, said.

“I hope in time the response will be better.”

Rice, who is unmarried, has declined to comment on her sexual orientation. Rice biographer and Washington Post correspondent Glenn Kessler discovered that Rice owns a house with another unmarried woman, filmmaker Randy Bean.

Though Guest said Rice had repeatedly declined to make allowances for gay State Department employees and their partners, the secretary has occasionally acknowledged gays and their partners, most notably during the swearing-in ceremony in October 2006 of openly gay Dr. Mark Dybul as U.S. Global AIDS coordinator.

Rice referred to Dybul’s partner, Jason Claire, and referenced Claire’s mother as Dybul’s “mother-in-law.”

Baldwin said she didn’t know if Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had been asked about provisions for gay employees and their partners in the State Department.

“We all know, of course that they’ve expressed strong support for same-sex couples,” Baldwin said, “and this is clearly a subset of those kinds of benefits.”

Staff in Baldwin’s office said letter exchanges are standard procedure for these kinds of requests. Elected officials typically find correspondence preferable to in-person meetings so there’s a paper trail.

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