Why have there been so few openly gay ambassadors?

Dennis Jett, a professor of international relations at Pennsylvania State University, served as U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru during the 1990s. He is writing a book on American ambassadors.

Thomas Bayard, a former senator and secretary of state, became the first American diplomat to be given the title “ambassador” when he was sent to London in 1893. Since then a few thousand people have had that honor. But only three of them have been openly gay.

That is about to change. Last month, President Obama put forward the names of five openly gay nominees for ambassadorial posts. It’s a remarkable step, though possibly less revolutionary than it appears. For while the nominations reflect the change in public attitudes toward the LGBT community, they also show the importance of domestic political constituencies and the money they raise. And even if the United States is moving forward on gay rights, a large part of the rest of the world lags far behind.

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It was only 16 years ago that the first openly gay person was nominated to an ambassadorial posting. President Bill Clinton put forward James Hormel’s name in 1997 for Luxembourg, a country smaller in population than the District of Columbia, and immediately ran into congressional opposition. Several senators firmly opposed Hormel, a prominent philanthropist and grandson of the founder of the meat company that created Spam, because he was gay.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Hormel’s appointment, but a number of Republican senators, responding to pressure from conservative Christian groups and Catholic organizations, worked to block the nomination. In arguing against Hormel, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi labeled homosexuality a sin and compared it to alcoholism and kleptomania. Among the senators opposing Hormel was Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who said being “openly, aggressively gay” would limit his effectiveness as an ambassador.

When the full Senate failed to act on the nomination, Clinton gave Hormel a recess appointment in 1999. Since then there have been only two other openly gay ambassadors. The first confirmed by the Senate was Michael Guest, a career diplomat, whom George W. Bush named as ambassador to Romania. And Obama chose one openly gay ambassador in his first term, David Huebner, who was sent to New Zealand without any significant Senate opposition.

Last month, however, he nominated five more who now await confirmation: Rufus Gifford for Denmark, John Berry for Australia, James Costos for Spain, James Brewster for the Dominican Republic and Daniel Baer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (located in Vienna). All are political appointees, and, as is typical for the 30 percent of ambassadors who are not career diplomats, they’re headed to developed nations or the Caribbean.

Clearly times have changed, and this country has evolved. As a result of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, federal agencies such as the State Department are quickly expanding benefits to same-sex married couples. A majority of Americans now support allowing same-sex marriage and don’t believe that homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong. And gays are welcomed in the military, even by Hagel, who apologized for his earlier remarks about Hormel before his recent confirmation hearings to become secretary of defense.

Governments in many other parts of the world are not so enlightened, however. As The Washington Post’s Max Fisher pointed out recently, 76 countries still criminalize homosexuality; five of them allow the death penalty for the offense. In nearly all of Africa and the Middle East, there are harsh legal restrictions against it. And even in parts of the world where it is not considered a crime, strong negative reactions can be provoked.

For instance, the nominee to become ambassador to the Dominican Republic was called “an insult to good Dominican customs” by the Rev. Cristobal Cardozo, leader of the Dominican Evangelical Fraternity. And Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez scoffed at the nomination, saying that “you can expect anything from the U.S.” Since foreign governments have to officially accept an appointment before the White House announces it, the Dominican government was no doubt aware there might be controversy but still approved the choice.

Sending gay ambassadors to countries where homosexuality is condemned is an issue the State Department will increasingly have to deal with. It is a new variation of an old problem, however. While the State Department reflects the country it represents, it cannot completely ignore the attitudes in a nation to which an ambassador is sent. For many years, it was rare that an African American ambassador was assigned outside Africa or Western Europe because of racial attitudes at home and abroad. And there were no doubt prolonged debates about women serving as ambassadors in the Middle East before the United States sent the first, April Glaspie, to Iraq in 1988.

Diplomats have dealt with the issue of sexual orientation with a version of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. While there have obviously been other gay career ambassadors besides Guest, they have chosen discretion. The topic rarely came up in my nearly three decades as a Foreign Service officer. Everyone knew that public scrutiny came with being nominated for an ambassadorship and that vocal opposition could spring up from any quarter. Given the number of hurdles to overcome to get the title, no one wanted to add one more.

Career Foreign Service officers understood that senators could place a hold on a nomination without identifying themselves or offering a reason. And if opposition emerged, significant support from the White House would be unlikely. The president might expend political capital in a confirmation fight for a political appointee but would be far less inclined to do so in the case of a career officer, where there was less at stake.

Discretion was the watchword for career officers because they knew that being openly gay would limit the countries to which they could be assigned. And until the late 1980s, homosexuality was grounds for denying State Department workers a security clearance, as it was believed that it gave foreign intelligence agents an opportunity for blackmail. (Reagan-era Secretary of State George P. Shultz finally ended the practice.)

Bureaucratic factors also played a part in limiting the number of gay ambassadors. Career officers tend to become ambassadors in the region where they have served the most time. If someone worked mainly in developed countries because of their openness to gays, he or she would find few ambassadorships there; those plum assignments usually go to political appointees.

Another possible reason for the paucity of gay ambassadors has to do with a different State Department tradition: treating a spouse as an unpaid employee. Nearly every career officer who obtains the title first serves as deputy chief of mission in an embassy after being handpicked by the ambassador. At an interview for one such job, I was rejected because I was divorced and had not yet remarried. The ambassador told me flat-out that he was not going to ask his wife to organize all the official entertaining (even though the post was a tropical backwater). While ambassadors today aren’t likely to say something so inappropriate, I suspect such considerations might encourage some of them to pass over single men, including openly gay men, when choosing their deputies.

Obama’s nomination of openly gay ambassadors represents domestic politics of another kind. Costos and Brewster both bundled more than $1 millionfor the president’s reelection campaign, while Gifford served as its finance director. And the selection of those who were not significant donors or fundraisers still represents payback to a key Democratic constituency. The president and Republican nominee Mitt Romney evenly split heterosexual voters in 2012, but Obama won the gay vote 76 percent to 22 percent — an even greater gap than among Latino voters.

Yes, the choice of five openly gay nominees for ambassadorial positions is undoubtedly historic. To what extent it represents a true move toward respect and equality, or more the slicing and dicing of the electorate and a reward to those who helped in the cause of reelection, remains an open question. I hope it is more the former than the latter, especially when there are so many parts of the world that do not seem eager to be so progressive.

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