Monday, June 23, 2014

Kerry: 'I'm Working Hard to ... Have Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Ambassadors'

    With much of the Obama administration's foreign policy in tatters, John Kerry is clear on at least one goal he hopes to achieve by the end of his time as secretary of state: having lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ambassadors representing the United States.  In remarks to a GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies) Pride event in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department, the secretary ran through a litany of accomplishments by the Obama administration that benefit the "LGBT/gay community." During his speech, Kerry said that, if confirmed, Ted Osius (nominated by President Obama for the post in Vietnam) would be the sixth openly gay U.S. ambassador currently in service:
So I am very proud of the progress that we are now making even in appointing LGBT ambassadors. I worked with the committee here at the State Department – with the D Committee, and I worked with the White House. And as a result, Ted Osius, sitting here, whom I’ve known a long time, and his family I know, will be the first openly LGBT officer nominated to serve as an ambassador in Asia. And on confirmation, he’s going to join five openly gay ambassadors who are now serving their country. I’m working hard to ensure that by the end of my tenure, we will have lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ambassadors in our ranks as well.
    As he began his talk, Kerry recognized GLIFAA event moderator, Robyn McCutcheon, as the "first transgender Foreign Service officer to come out on the job":
Robyn is the first transgender Foreign Service officer to come out on the job, and believe me it wasn’t easy. I think everybody here knows that. When she was posted in Bucharest, she faced a lot of prejudice, she had to deal with completely inappropriate judgments that people were making, questions about her abilities, but she didn’t just persevere. In the end, she won the hearts of the Ambassador, her career Foreign Service colleagues, Civil Service colleagues, and the local staff, and she actually made Embassy Bucharest a model of acceptance. She even authored the first State Department report on transgender issues, and she didn’t just get through a difficult period, she was determined to turn it into a precedent-setting event, and as a result she made it a lot easier for those – or at least a little easier for those who follow.
    The guest of honor at the event was Masha Gessen, whose Pink Triangle Campaign caused a stir in Russia after that country passed what Kerry termed "repressive anti-LGBT laws." Kerry went on later to note that:
...we now have hundreds of LGBT individuals in our bureaus at State, USAID, and at posts all around the world. Foreign Service Officers like Lucia Piazza – where is Lucia? Somewhere – is she here? Not here right now. But she’s here in Washington. Kerri Hannan in Buenos Aires. Michelle Schohn and her wife, Mary Glantz, in Tallinn.
    After pointing out a number of LGBT diplomats currently in service in the state department, Kerry said  the "wonderful thing" is that no one looks at these individuals doing their jobs as "LGBT diplomats," but just "diplomats":
And the wonderful thing about this is nobody looks at these folks when they’re out there and says, “Wow. That’s a great LGBT diplomat.” They look at them and say, “Those are great diplomats.” And that’s exactly how we make progress in this fight.
    Kerry went on to note the progress made in the fight against AIDS, the repeal of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, the Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (which Kerry said would "never pass" Congress today,) and also changes in healthcare laws benefiting LGBT individuals. He particularly noted efforts to make sure the transgendered were fully covered, something he said was a right and not a privilege:
I am proud that we worked with GLIFAA and Pat Kennedy to press OPM [Office of Personnel Management] to remove its exclusionary language from health insurance plans so that employees who have undergone a gender transition can get the health care that they need. And that’s what it means to fight and that’s what it means to win in a battle that we all know matters enormously, not as a matter of making these things a privilege, but to make sure that they are, in fact, a right.
    In spite of the progress noted by Kerry, some members of GLIFAA expressed concern about the direction of their cause, saying that in some ways, they are "feeling even more squeezed" as more countries prohibit issuing visas to same-sex partners.  One member said he had to cross off sixty-eight percent of the jobs on his bid list because of the visa issue and wanted to know what the State Department might do to address this obstacle. Kerry assured his listeners that "we are instructing embassies to inform governments locally that this is our policy and that they need to honor our policy. It’s that simple."
    Another member zeroed in on problems faced by the transgendered around the world, saying that they "are denied documents that reflect the gender in which they live their daily lives" and that "too often they feel forced into sex work" because of their limited options. Kerry responded:
...We have instructed our posts to report on and perform outreach to transgender communities in countries. In addition, we have instructed our human rights and health officers to raise transgender issues in their host countries, and we have encouraged our public affairs officers to include the needs of transgender groups in their programming, so that we are showing that this is something that we’re going to engage in...
    Kerry said that while the state department hoped to handle "real trouble spots" on the transgendered issue with "reasonable conversation and an understanding," it may be necessary to "isolate those people for those policies" as the U.S. considers "what the options are with respect to actions that we’ll take."
    Back in December 2011 in Geneva, Hillary Clinton gave a speech to the Human Rights Council where she said, "[G]ay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights." Kerry said that he was "proud to follow in the footsteps of an extraordinary advocate for the cause" and updated Clinton's words:
[S]tanding here with [moderator Robyn McCutcheon], I want to build on that legacy, because LGBT rights are human rights, and human rights are LGBT rights.
    The State Department is not by any means the only agency celebrating LGBT Pride Month as proclaimed by President Obama. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence posted a celebration message on its website and tweeted a number of items on Twitter, including a photo of Kristin Beck, a transgendered former Navy Seal who took part in intelligence community celebrations of LGBT Pride Month.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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