You may have seen the article today in the Washington Blade regarding the Department's considering phasing out the Same-Sex Domestic Partner Benefits program in response to the Supreme Court's Windsor ruling overturning part of the so-call Defense of Marriage Act. If not, you can read it here. You can read the first of what I fear will be many negative responses to the article here.
I know there may be two of you at this point who don't know who I am, but I will tell you that I was President of GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and now LGBT+ in Foreign Affairs Agencies) when Secretary Clinton took office. On her first day in office, I, along with my vice president, hand carried the petition signed by our colleagues asking that same-sex partners be given as many of the rights as their married opposite-sex colleagues as the law allowed. My board and I drafted the document outlining the changes she could make with the stroke of a pen to improve the lives of her LGBT employees and their families. Those changes included the creation of the SSDP program that was enacted while I was in office and is what they are considering phasing out now.
And I think they should phase it out.
I am no longer on the GLIFAA board, but I am still friends, in some cases close friends, with those who are currently serving this important organization. And I have to respectfully agree to disagree with them on this issue. In fact, as GLIFAA president, I assured the Under Secretary for Management that when we had equality under U.S. law, that GLIFAA's members would want no more than to be treated the same as their opposite-sex colleagues. And that this would mean the end of the SSPD program.
I think the current board should keep that promise.
Yes, there are challenges for officers who do not wish to marry. They are the same challenges faced by our straight colleagues. There have always been those who did not wish to marry for whatever reason, and the price they paid for not making that legal commitment was that the government did not see reason to pay the many costs associated with spouses, such as plane tickets, medical evacuations, etc. Every single A-100 orientation class has had at least one officer who realized that they weren't going to get those benefits without marrying their opposite-sex partner and so did so usually before their training ended. At the time when we got the benefits of the SSDP program, it was because those benefits were not available to us even if we were legally married in one of the few states that allowed it at the time. Now they are. It was never the intention of the Department to create a "marriage light" program.
And yes, there are Fortune 500 companies that offer such benefits. But we don't work for them. We work for a budget strapped government recently placed in the hands of a fiscally conservative majority. New benefits are simply not going to happen.
And yes, I am certain there are people who are afraid for their relationship status to be know to their families. I am certain that fear is real and justified. But the danger is not in the marriage license but in the relationship itself. Aren't being allowed to live with a Foreign Service Officer, getting airfare paid by the USG, including for R&R, and getting a diplomatic passport with an endorsement explicitly state the relationship to the diplomat even bigger red flags than a license that some foreign diplomat could decide to request a copy of?
And in fact, there are straight colleagues facing similar dangers. There are in the Department Muslims and Christians dating each other and living in real fear that their families will discover their relationship and disown them or worse. There are certainly families who still do not believe in interracial marriages. And people find a way to make those relationships work or they don't. But it is still the relationship, not the license, that causes the danger. And as a friend pointed out to me today, what might Dr. Martin Luther King Jr have done had he been faced with couples looking to marry interracially who were threatened by their families or even the KKK? Do you think he'd have advised them to pursue a separate but equal status in order to get some protections? Certainly the Lovings lives might have been easier had they just moved or opted to live together without marriage. But because of them, bans on interracial marriage were found unconstitutional. And given that the arguments in that case were very similar to those in Windsor, I credit them in no small part for helping us achieve marriage equality.
Gays and lesbians can now get married legally in 36 states. More than 70% of the country now lives in a marriage equality state. And yes, if you meet the man or woman of your dreams overseas, you may not be able to be married there. But that is exactly the type of case a fiancee visa can take care of, with the added bonus that your new husband or wife can become a US citizen.
I have spoken to many, many GLIFAA members on this issue, and with the exception of the members of the board, all but one has agreed it is time to phase out SSDP. (I was told one other person who is a friend and not on the board also wants to keep the policy, but that person has not said so to me). I do think there is a place for a limited-period DP program for LGBT and straight couples at post to allow them time to return to the U.S. and marry. But that isn't what is being argued here.
And frankly, I am concerned that GLIFAA's time, energy and political capital are being used on a losing issue when there are still real, pressing issues facing our members that need to be dealt with. Like continuing to improve things for our transgender colleagues. Like making sure that spouses can serve together at posts, and if the country they are assigned to refuses to accept the spouse as they do all other spouses, making certain that is dealt with reciprocally. Like finding a way for LGBT employees to get credit with promotion panels and for onward assignments for the "unaccompanied tours" they serve where they are forced to be apart from their spouses while straight couples are not because of the laws in that country. These are issues that affect where members of the Foreign Service can serve, which then affects their ability to advance in their careers.
And respectfully, I think it is where GLIFAA should focus its attention.