President Barack Obama’s choice of James “Wally” Brewster as ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 2013 elicited a nasty response from some quarters of the Caribbean, Roman Catholic country. A Dominican cardinal referred to Brewster as a “faggot” in Spanish; the ambassador said his husband faced discrimination in the diplomatic corps. Yet the backlash turned out to be an opportunity for Brewster, one of six openly gay U.S. ambassadors.
According to Brewster, Dominicans approached the ambassador and his husband on the street to apologize for the cardinal’s slur. “It became a social conversation that needed to be had in the Caribbean and we were just the ones that President Obama happened to send there,” Brewster said at a March event at the Newseum in Washington.
The ambassador and his husband both have “a very strong Christian belief, and so nobody is going to ever tell me God does not love me,” Brewster said poignantly, his eyes glimmering. “So from that perspective it was very easy to argue the point. You don’t address the people that make the bad comments. All you do is talk about love … and when you talk about that, the goodness of the people [comes] out.”
Brewster’s reception in the Dominican Republic was a reminder that gay ambassadors are still often judged on their homosexuality rather than their merit. He and the five ambassadors he took the stage with at the Newseum are the personification of the Obama administration’s policy of considering the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to be human rights.
Obama elevated LGBT rights to a tenet of U.S. foreign policy with a December 2011 memo that, among other things, instructed federal agencies engaged abroad to “combat discrimination, homophobia and intolerance on the basis of LGBT status or conduct.” American foreign policy arguably hasn’t been the same since.
Obama’s 2011 memo was “groundbreaking and historic” and is bearing fruit abroad, according to Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel for LGBT rights at Human Rights First. “When we talk to activists in other countries, we’re often hearing how much a source of support the United States embassy is for them.”
Holy See Opposition
The Dominican cardinal’s slur on Brewster was but one reaction to America’s six openly gay ambassadors abroad. Another is how Daniel Baer, the openly gay U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has been received at his post in Vienna.
“I have never felt like … my ability to carry out my job is at all hampered by other people’s responses or discomfort [to my sexuality],” Baer said in an interview. “If anything, it gives me some advantages since I’m totally comfortable with it, if they’re uncomfortable … that’s not such a bad thing,” Baer said, hastening to add that such a calculus is far from his mind in his daily work.
But at least one OSCE member has taken exception to the U.S. policy of supporting LGBT rights through the organization.
On several occasions when Baer delivered a statement in support of LGBT rights, the Vatican “has chosen to speak up in the permanent council and at one point even read the Bible to me,” he said. “But I would hope that that has nothing with my being gay and more a response to U.S. policy, one that I think the Holy See is … increasingly in an uncomfortable position on right now.”
In fact, a recent article in Foreign Policy said that Pope Francis has urged the Vatican’s diplomats at the United Nations to focus more on poverty and inequality, rather than emphasizing Church dogma on gay rights and abortion.
But Column Lynch wrote that despite the pontiff’s emergence as a global diplomatic player, “the pope’s envoys remain very much entrenched on the front lines of the culture wars the pope himself has suggested he wants to leave behind.”
Gay rights were at the center of a recent diplomatic spat between the Vatican and France, which nominated an openly gay official to be its ambassador to the Holy See. For four months, the Vatican has quietly refused to accredit Laurent Stefanini, the protocol chief at the French Presidential Palace and a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage.
France’s ambassador to the United States is the only openly gay ambassador in Washington’s diplomatic corps at the moment. Gérard Araud, a Mideast and security expert who previously served as Paris’s envoy to the U.N. in New York, has said he doesn’t want to be known as the “gay ambassador,” telling Vogue last year that he wouldn’t “want to be reduced to one dimension.”
But being an openly gay ambassador is still somewhat of a novelty, even in the U.S. and Europe. Baer was just 36 when he was nominated for the OSCE post. He thought his youth might be more remarkable than his sexuality, but press coverage of his nomination concentrated on the latter feature.
“It has become a cliché for people to remark that nobody could have imagined how quickly things changed in the United States” when it comes to gay rights, Baer said. Yet clichés have the virtue of being true. “I think it is incredible that when I finished high school, people could still be fired from the State Department for being gay,” he added.
A group of State Department employees founded GLIFAA in 1992 to form a voice against the discrimination of gays and lesbians in the security clearance process. One of the founding members of GLIFAA was Ted Osius, the current U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.
When the organization was formed, “straight allies were much fewer and farther in between,” GLIFFAA President Selim Ariturk said in an interview. But times have changed, as has GLIFAA’s role in the conversation around gay rights in the Foreign Service.
For one, the group’s mandate has broadened to support the rights of bisexual and transgender people. Robyn McCutcheon, the first transgender Foreign Service officer to come out on the job, preceded Ariturk as GLIFAA president.
A more complicated shift in mission for GLIFAA has been figuring out how to complement and augment the work of a White House that has broke ground on LGBT rights. One obvious area of improvement is that all six openly gay ambassadors are men (and white). When Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to GLIFAA last year, he said he wanted to be the first secretary to nominate openly lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as ambassadors, according to Ariturk.
GLIFAA wants to pressure the administration on other fronts as well. The Office of Personnel Management last year ordered the lifting of a ban on providing transition-related care to transgender people under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, but the move appeared to leave the door ajar to discrimination.
“We’re glad that the ban has been lifted, but … there are only two insurance companies that actually have stopped discriminating against transgender people,” Ariturk said. “The rest of them are still exercising their right to continue discriminating.” Those two providers are Aetna and the Foreign Service Benefit Plan, according to Ariturk, who said his organization is asking OPM to require that all federal benefit plans serve transgender people.
Despite the support shown at the highest levels of the Obama administration for LGBT rights, that support could be firmer in some cases, according to a recent BuzzFeed report. The State Department has bowed to pressure from host countries not to let gay and lesbian diplomats bring their families to posts, the report said, citing interviews with multiple LGBT Foreign Service officers.
That kind of pressure kept America’s first openly gay ambassador, James C. Hormel, from being sent to Fiji, where then-President Bill Clinton nominated him to serve as ambassador in 1994 (homosexual activity was punishable by law in Fiji). Five years later, Hormel officially became the first openly gay U.S. ambassador when he was posted to Luxembourg — but only after a recess appointment. His nomination had stalled in the Senate following fierce protests by religious conservatives, some of whom labeled Hormel a pedophile.
“All the nonsense in Washington over my nomination, the carrying-on, the hand-wringing, and the nasty behavior, the charges, the accusations and the dirt that didn’t stick — none of it mattered,” Hormel wrote in his 2011 memoir “Fit to Serve.”
“All the distinctions that had been assigned to me and used to define me fell away.… No one considered my race, my gender, my religion or my sexuality. I was an honorable person representing an honorable country.”
Despite Hormel’s groundbreaking appointment, there have only been a handful of gay American ambassadors in the last 16 years, even though gay rights advocates have made significant legal strides in the United States in recent years and public opinion on same-sex marriage has dramatically shifted. Advocates say the U.S. Foreign Service should reflect those advances, and serve as a model for countries where being gay is still illegal or even tantamount to a death sentence.
In his appearance at the Newseum, Ariturk called for the State Department to stand up to a “rising global wave of homophobia [that] is causing more and more countries to say, ‘We don’t want that kind of American here.’”
The trajectory of LGBT rights globally has been anything but smooth. While the issue has gained prominence at the United Nations, regimes around the world have moved to persecute LGBT persons. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 of the 54 African countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law criminalizes the spread of information on “nontraditional relationships” among children. Egyptian police have used dating apps to arrest gay people.
These repressive policies come as the United States is expanding its global efforts to have LGBT rights recognized as human rights. Kerry in February tapped Randy Berry as the State Department’s first special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons. Berry has twice held State Department posts in Uganda, where an anti-gay law took hold last year before being overturned by a constitutional court.
Berry’s charge is to coordinate the State Department’s programs related to LGBT people in other countries, while working with civil society and other governments. In an interview with the Washington Blade in April, Berry said he would take a “nuanced” approach that varies from country to country, including those in the “vast middle” that have unenforced laws that still criminalize homosexuality. As an example, he noted the administration’s decision to drop Gambia from a duty-free trade program over concerns over the country’s LGBT crackdown and other human rights abuses. “Our toolkit in each case is going to be slightly different,” Berry told the Blade’s Michael K. Lavers.
For Gaylord, the advocacy counsel at Human Rights First, it will be important for Berry to tailor his engagement with each country where LGBT people face legal discrimination to the facts on the ground, rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.
Debate of LGBT rights at the United Nations last year highlighted the deep divide among countries on the issue. The U.N. Human Rights Council in September passed a resolution deploring “acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” But at 25-14 (with seven abstentions), the vote was far from unanimous, with Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia among the “no” votes. Pakistan’s representative to the council called the measure “divisive and controversial,” while Saudi Arabia’s envoy railed against “an attempt to impose uniculturality” that “runs counter to religious and cultural practices of some countries.”
The charge of attempting to “impose uniculturality” is a common one made by countries opposed to codifying LGBT rights at the United Nations. But Baer sees the world body as a place for gradually building consensus. A U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights report on the protections that international law affords LGBT rights, for example, is “a normative basis for continuing to make the case to recalcitrant governments that they actually have human rights obligations that pertain to their treatment of LGBT people as equal citizens under the law,” Baer said.
But leaders in Nigeria, Russia, Kenya, Pakistan and elsewhere argue that Western nations are trying to force an agenda on them that disrespects their traditions. Some Dominicans, for example, called Brewster’s appointment an “insult.” America’s well-organized gay rights movement and pressure that Western governments have applied on countries such as Uganda — including foreign aid cuts — have inspired a fierce pushback that some fear will only fuel more discrimination.
Baer countered the notion that the United States and other countries were imposing their values on other countries by supporting LGBT rights by saying that “sustainable change comes from within … one of the most effective ways to see change happen in the world is to support those who are making the case for change in their own communities and on the front lines.”
About the Author
Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.