There was a time when you could be thrown out of the foreign service for being openly gay. In 1997, when the first gay U.S. ambassador, James Hormel, was nominated, many senators opposed him because of his sexuality.
Less than 20 years later, six gay U.S. ambassadors gathered to celebrate progress –but also to underscore the work ahead.
They discussed how far the foreign service, the nation and the world has come on the issue of equality. They discussed their varied experiences around the world being representatives not only of America, but the gay community.
Together on stage for a panel discussion at the Newseum — hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the Harvey Milk Foundation and GLIFAA, an organization for LGBT foreign service employees — Ambassador to Australia John Berry, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Brewster, Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer, Ambassador to Spain James Costos and Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius each took their turn sharing their perspectives.
Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Brewster teared up discussing how some religious groups have verbally attacked him and his partner. When President Obama nominated Brewster in 2013, a Roman Catholic cardinal in the Dominican Republic referred to him using an anti-gay slur.
“We both have a very strong Christian belief and so no one is ever going to be able to tell me God doesn’t love me,” Brewster said, choking up. But, he said, even in the face of such opposition, many people in the Caribbean country tell him that his being there gives them hope.
Others, like Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford are in a much more tolerant place, but he emphasized it’s still important for him to be a public face for equality.
“This is what it boils down to, one of the things that doesn’t get talked about enough is that when you’re a U.S. ambassador, who you are as a person matters, everything you say matters and your personal story matters,” Gifford said. “To be able to talk about who we are and give a slightly more nuanced version of what it is to be American … it’s been remarkable how well that has been received.”
But with all the progress, they also acknowledged how, in places like Russia and in many African countries, LGBT rights are “backsliding,” said Daniel Baer, U.S ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But Baer commended big victories like the United Nations beating back Russian opposition to giving benefits to all spouses of gay U.N. staffers Tuesday.
Also in the audience was the State Department’s new LGBT envoy, career foreign service officer Randy Berry, who officially starts the job April 13.
After the event, we asked him how it feels to be the first ever tasked as the point person on gay issues around the world.
“It is huge … even just hearing you say that makes me a little nervous,” Berry said. “I think I’m probably more nervous about this job than any I’ve ever done because I think the stakes are very, very high. I think the need is immediate in places … but I am also very confident about making tangible progress.”