By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Michael E. Guest, a tall, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair, looks every bit the diplomat. At the young age of 43, at the start of the Bush administration, he was named ambassador to Romania, and since he returned in 2004 he has trained new ambassadors before they ship out overseas.
But last month, after 26 years in the Foreign Service, he did something uncharacteristically undiplomatic.
Guest resigned from the State Department, giving up a career he loved, in order to protest rules and regulations that he believes are unfair to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers, giving them fewer benefits than family pets. He had spent the years since his return from Bucharest trying to win changes in policies, appealing directly to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but said his proposals were met with indifference and inertia.
"I've felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner, who is my family, and service to my country," Guest told a crowd of 75 senior State Department officials, a few steps from Rice's office, at his retirement ceremony on Nov. 20, according to a transcript of his remarks. "That anyone should have to make that choice is a stain on the secretary's leadership, and a shame for this institution and our country."
Within the State Department, gay men and lesbians are widely accepted, in contrast to the military, where an admission of homosexuality is grounds for dismissal. But Guest and others say the State Department's regulations have not kept pace with the department's culture, especially as Foreign Service officers overseas face increasing dangers.
For instance, same-sex partners -- or unmarried heterosexual partners -- are refused anti-terrorism security training or foreign-language training and are not evacuated when eligible family members are ordered to depart. Unlike spouses, they do not receive diplomatic passports, visas or even use of the State Department mail system. They also must pay their own way overseas, get their own medical care and are left to fend for themselves if a partner is sent to a dangerous post such as Iraq.
Many of these rules, Guest said, could be changed with Rice's signature, which he said was not a matter of gay rights but of equal treatment.
John Naland, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, said that a number of top officials attending the ceremony for Guest acknowledged that these issues should be addressed. "If everyone is saying we need to do more, then let's do more," he said.
"The secretary and the State Department do not discriminate on hiring or promotions," said Pat Kennedy, the undersecretary for management, who also attended the ceremony for Guest, a longtime colleague. "These are complex issues. We are committed to giving our personnel the support they need to get their jobs done."
Aaron W. Jensen, president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, said the group's leadership met with Rice in May 2005 to argue for a change in policies but "we would like more leadership on this issue." He said that surveys indicated that about 350 same-sex partners were affected by the regulations. There are 12,000 Foreign Service officers, and about 5 percent are gay, he said.
J. Michelle Schohn, an officer in the intelligence bureau, said she gave up a budding career in archaeology and joined the Foreign Service simply because of the hassles she encountered when her partner was based in Azerbaijan, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed. One of her partner's colleagues got married and his spouse immediately got a diplomatic passport, but Schohn was treated no differently than any American tourist. Because of the difficulties, she ended up flying to Azerbaijan a month at a time to stay with her partner, and received no housing allowance for staying home.
At one point, during violent protests, "had there been an evacuation, we would have had to pay to evacuate me," she said.
Once Schohn joined the Foreign Service, she said, the department "has been very good to us," posting the two together in Jerusalem and now back in Washington, though same-sex couples technically cannot bid for jobs in tandem.
Another Foreign Service officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of her counterterrorism work, said she had to pay for her partner's evacuation when she was based in an African country that erupted in conflict. Her partner was not allowed to attend embassy security briefings and was prohibited from using the diplomatic postage service. "Effectively, she doesn't exist," she said.
The travel costs of family pets, however, are paid for by the State Department.
When Guest was ambassador, he signed a waiver allowing his partner and other unmarried partners to pay to use the embassy medical facilities. When Guest returned to Washington to head the management and leadership school at State's Foreign Service Institute, he began a campaign to get the rules altered. He won an annual award in 2006 from AFSA for "constructive dissent," but saw little or no response from top officials. Finally, he wrote Rice directly in December, knowing that soon he would be posted again overseas.
"This was my last chance. I never got a response," Guest said yesterday. "I don't know that I expected a response. What I wanted was attention to the issue." He said that in the State Department culture, "one word from the secretary" would have spurred action.
"That's what I was hoping, that I would somehow get to her heart," he said.