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State Department changes visa rules for same-sex partners of foreign diplomats

A State Department official said a policy change affecting same-sex partners of foreign diplomats was made to “ensure and promote equal treatment” for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Lawmakers and gay rights advocates are criticizing a new State Department policy that denies family visas to the same-sex domestic partners of diplomats posted in the United States and gives those already in the country three months to marry or lose their visas.

The change reverses a policy put in place in 2009 under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that defined family to include domestic partners of diplomats posted at embassies or the United Nations. That allowed them to obtain visas and accompany their diplomat partners as household members, a status that was not extended to unmarried heterosexual couples.

A State Department official said the change, which took effect Monday, was made to “ensure and promote equal treatment” for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

“The change in policy ensures consistent treatment between opposite-sex partners and same-sex partners by requiring that same-sex partners, like opposite-sex partners, must marry to qualify for derivative diplomatic visas,” the official said.

In 2014, the State Department rolled back partner benefits and protections for same-sex couples after an unmarried heterosexual couple filed an equal employment opportunity complaint, asking to be recognized as domestic partners.

The State Department gave affected couples until Dec. 31 to marry, either in the United States or in a third country where same-sex marriage is legal, and present a valid marriage certificate. Those who do not will have to seek a change of visa status or leave the country to seek a new visa abroad.

Only 12 percent of the countries in the world recognize same-sex marriage. Former secretary of state John F. Kerry ordered ambassadors to pressure their host countries where it is illegal to allow U.S. diplomats to bring their same-sex spouses with them openly, and report progress to him annually.

The Trump administration policy is an example of evolving practices since the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he opposes same-sex marriage, but he has promised to treat all employees with respect.

The State Department has become more welcoming of gay employees, a far cry from the days when gay diplomats were denied security clearances because they were believed to be susceptible to blackmail. The group GLIFAA represents LGBT staff, many U.S. embassies around the world fly rainbow flags during LGBT Pride Month, and senior officials speak at the annual gay pride event held in an auditorium and beamed by closed circuit around the building.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under administration rules, said 105 families currently in the United States are affected by the changed policy, 55 of whom are connected with international organizations.

But critics said there was no reason for the change and that having spousal visas in the passports of same-sex domestic partners could expose them to prosecution and punishment in countries where homosexuality is illegal.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the policy change “cruel, utterly unnecessary” and warned it could open U.S. diplomats to retaliation.

“Denying visas to same-sex partners of foreign diplomats and U.N. officials is a discriminatory reversal of a policy that recognized that not all same-sex couples around the world have the freedom to marry and unfairly targets LGBT families,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a gay congressman who spoke at the State Department’s annual gay pride event in June. He urged the administration to reconsider a “dangerous and bigoted policy.”

Foreign missions were alerted to the change, which was first reported in August by the Washington Blade, in a diplomatic note sent in July.

“Same-sex spouses of U.S. diplomats now enjoy the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex spouses,” the note said.

The new policy grants some limited exceptions for diplomats representing countries where same-sex marriage is illegal. The domestic partner still could get a visa as a family member so long as that country recognizes same-sex spouses of U.S. diplomats posted there. But officials posted to international organizations, such as the United Nations, do not represent a foreign government, and there are no exceptions to the policy.

Domestic partners currently get “derivative” visas stamped in their passports, with the principal in the household identified by name. But the exact relation to the principal is not spelled out, and nothing on the visa stamp will change as a result of the new policy.

Hyung Hak “Alfonso” Nam, president of U.N. Globe, which represents LGBT staff at the United Nations, said he fears the policy’s impact on the partners of diplomats from countries where same-sex marriage is taboo. He warned that some could be vulnerable to prosecution, and that it will create hurdles for couples considering a posting at U.N. headquarters in New York.

“Either they will have to get married or find some means to come separately and get married here at City Hall,” he said. “The ones really impacted are those who will have difficulties going to a country that performs same-sex marriages.”

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said diplomats are in an elite class and unlikely to face persecution. He characterized it as “mean-spirited.”

“Those diplomats should be able to bring their partners and families with them,” he said. “There’s no logic or moral benefit to keeping them out. It just seems to be a way to pick on them.”