May 4, 2012

Michael Guest, the first openly gay ambassador confirmed by the Senate, was the U.S. ambassador to Romania from 2001 to 2004.

Only Ric Grenell can explain the “personal reasons” that compelled him to leave Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. If his departure was influenced even the slightest by the anti-gay attacks that followed his appointment, I sympathize.

In 2001, when I, an openly gay career Foreign Service officer, was sworn in to serve as U.S. ambassador to Romania, I and many others hoped that the Republican Party’s obsession with demonizing gay and lesbian citizens was at an overdue end. George W. Bush had chosen me, after all, and a secretary of state known to have advocated for “don’t ask, don’t tell” had sworn me in.

It wasn’t long before that hope was shattered. For months I received bags of hate mail, much of it from writers who identified themselves as “loyal Republicans.” A Republican congressional aide called soon after my arrival in Romania to ask whether my partner’s “socks and underwear” had been transported at taxpayer expense. It quickly became clear to me that the organizations that decried my nomination, or even called for it to be rescinded, shared a Republican membership base.

Grenell surely knows, as I do, many Republicans who believe that their party should be more open to gays and more accepting on issues of gay rights. But where are those voices, and what influence do they have? Republican Party leaders continue to allow principles of fairness and equality — so important at the founding of the GOP and, indeed, our country — to be hollowed out.

Over the first three months of my tenure as ambassador, I thought seriously of following the path that Grenell, in the end, took. At times, the graphic spite and incivility of letters I received made me cry. I knew that my life and that of my partner would be easier were I to move on to less-public responsibilities.

I stayed in the job because I was a career professional and because our country’s interests after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were so important to me as an American. I knew that anti-gay voices at home had not eroded my access to or influence with Romanian officials. I knew that I served at the president’s pleasure and that, if political pressure ultimately became unbearable, the man who had selected me could ask me to leave.

I also knew that giving in to the anti-gay crowd would make it only harder for the next gay man or woman to be nominated. That alone gave me the strength to endure those wrenchingly difficult months. I hope Grenell’s decision to leave the Romney campaign will not carry the same impact within his party.

Too many voices have sought to lay Grenell’s departure at Romney’s door. That seems too far a stretch to me: Romney appointed Grenell on merit, and I salute his decision to do so. Gay Republican friends tell me that Romney has no personal animosity toward gay people. They quickly add that gay people other than Grenell are serving in Romney’s campaign.

But Romney’s slowness to comment amid the noise since Grenell’s resignation raises questions about his principles, as well as the quality and depth of his leadership. That’s what should concern us most in this sad affair. We should expect Romney to go further in making clear that issues of sexual orientation will have no bearing on any personnel decisions he makes, whether in his campaign or, should he be elected, in the administration he would lead.

The larger political backdrop to Grenell’s departure remains troubling to those of us who are gay. For far too many years, the Republican Party has harbored the drowners-out — the voices most responsible for ensuring that fair and equal rights of America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens are a question, not a fact.

Those voices, and the discriminatory policies they have helped anchor in law, make it hard for many of us to imagine voting Republican at the national level. They have also riveted our country’s attention, in tabloid fashion, to a needless debate that only distracts from efforts to strengthen our country’s peace, prosperity and cohesion.

Grenell’s decision to step down may prove to be little more than another chapter in that story of shame. But surely Republican Party leaders have an obligation to challenge the anti-gay bias that’s been allowed to thrive within. The GOP’s prospective presidential nominee carries that obligation as well.