Since the State Department began rejecting all embassy requests to hoist rainbow flags outside the mission buildings during LGBTQ Pride Month this year, some U.S. diplomats have been finding ways to defy, or at least get around, the new policy.
The Vienna embassy’s website features a photo of a rainbow flag flying below Old Glory on a mast jutting from the building, a statement by Diplomats for Equality and a story about a professor lecturing on the visibility and growth of LGBT rights.
U.S. diplomats in Jerusalem joined a March for Pride and Tolerance, and several ambassadors have tweeted photos of themselves in local Pride parades or standing outside the embassies surrounded by employees holding up letters spelling PRIDE.
“This is a category one insurrection,” said one diplomat, who like others interviewed about the sentiment over the rejections, which were not made in writing, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired.
A practice routinely approved for most of the decade at many embassies now requires top-level approval from the State Department. But this year, as first reported by NBC News, all requests were nixed.
The flap over the flags started when the State Department did not send out an official cable this year with guidelines for marking Pride Month, as it has in years past. In 2011, the Obama administration directed agencies involved with foreign policy to promote LGBT rights, a striking policy for an agency that, up to the early 1990s, considered homosexuality a security risk and cause for termination.
The Obama administration’s Pride Month guidelines included rules for flying rainbow flags from poles outside embassies — they had to be smaller than the American flag and fly beneath it. But permission was granted with no fuss. By 2016, approvals were left up to each ambassador or chief of mission.
That process changed last year, after Mike Pompeo became secretary of state. An evangelical Christian who believes marriage should be defined as between a man and woman, Pompeo has said gay employees will be respected and treated like everyone else. But he has downplayed some symbols of LGBT rights, while introducing several new panels and envoys specializing in religious freedom issues.
The advisory cable that came out last year said diplomats are required to obtain top-level approval from the State Department’s Office of Management to fly a rainbow flag.
The State Department declined to answer questions about the Pride Month advisory and rainbow flag ban. But two diplomats familiar with the events said all requests last year were approved.
This year, there was a shift. Embassies in Israel, Germany, Brazil and Latvia, plus a handful of other posts, asked to fly rainbow flags. All were denied, said a person at the State Department who was familiar with what happened.
Although most embassies seem to be toeing the line, the policy shift appears to have sparked something of a revolt among diplomats.
Foreign Service officers have complained on a private Facebook page that nobody should have asked for permission anyway.
Some embassies that have flown the flag in previous years opted this year to commemorate the month by posting on their websites President Trump’s statement affirming LGBT rights and inviting nations to join a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality. The initiative was the idea of Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, who is gay.
Some embassies got playful with the display of Trump’s statement. In Brasilia, for example, the statement is topped by a photo of two hands holding five Play-Doh letters in rainbow colors: LGBTQ. But some did not mention Trump’s statement at all, an absence made more glaring by the juxtaposition with statements by ambassadors and secretaries of states left over from previous years.
Some gay employees in the foreign and civil service say the ban on flying the rainbow flag is just the tip of an iceberg of slights.
Pompeo has not issued a statement for Pride Month, as he did last year. He did not attend the State Department’s annual Pride Day event for two years running as his predecessors usually did, though he was traveling in Europe this year. Instead, he dispatched Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan, a veteran diplomat who promised that the State Department will advocate for gay diplomats and their families.
“Day by day, a death by a thousand cuts, our rights as lgbt+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, the rewriting of a policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a web site,” Robyn McCutcheon, a transgender woman who has served in several posts abroad, wrote in her blog “Transgender at State,” lamenting what she has observed throughout the government in the past two years. “It should come as no surprise that this erosion would happen also at the U.S. Department of State.”
Some acknowledge that their worst fears have not been borne out.
The administration has appointed several gay ambassadors. Trump became the first Republican president to make a statement celebrating Pride Month. No one has been fired for sexual orientation, but some said they have felt more vulnerable after Trump tried to ban transgender people from the military.
Better, they said, to not even discuss LGBT issues publicly and risk the consequences of drawing attention to themselves.
“We fly below the radar,” one employee said. “We survive because they don’t realize we’re here.”