Ambassador Rufus Gifford, the State Department’s new chief of protocol, has been on the job for barely three weeks. But he’s already made history as the first openly gay diplomat ever to hold that title.
In an exclusive phone interview, Gifford said he couldn’t be happier about his latest assignment, even though the Senate nomination and confirmation process took nearly a year.
“I’ve always believed you don’t know how to do a job until you start to do it—especially as it relates to something like diplomacy and protocol,” he said. “It’s all about creating this environment in which diplomacy can thrive, and I view this moment in American history to be so profoundly important. We have to rebuild trust, and the work of diplomacy is so much about concepts like dignity and respect.”
While waiting for his Senate confirmation, Gifford prepared for the job by seeking out the counsel of two former State Department chiefs of protocol: Peter Selfridge and Capricia Marshall, both of whom served under President Barack Obama.
Gifford, 47, spoke to The Washington Diplomat on Jan. 20—exactly one year after the inauguration of Joe Biden and five years since the inauguration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
It’s not the first time Gifford has made history. In 2015, while serving as US ambassador to Denmark, he married veterinarian Stephen DeVincent at Copenhagen City Hall, site of the world’s first legal same-sex civil unions in 1989.
Gifford’s 2013 appointment as ambassador came 16 years after then-President Bill Clinton nominated gay rights activist and philanthropist James Hormel to become US ambassador to Luxembourg. Conservative Republicans in the Senate blocked Hormel’s nomination, but in 1999, Clinton used executive privilege to appoint him during the Congressional recess. Hormel died last August at the age of 88.
“It’s different now, but back in the ‘90s, that’s how it was. Mercifully we’ve come a long way as a country since then,” Gifford said. “But it was only in 1995 that gay men and women were finally allowed security clearances. Before that, it would have been impossible to be an openly gay ambassador.”
Gifford’s ‘eye-opening moment’
Gifford’s new appointment raises some interesting scenarios, given that the chief of protocol’s job is to serve as a liaison between the president and leaders of other countries. As such, his hand is the first one shaken upon arrival by any visiting king, queen, president or prime minister.
“For example, Gifford would likely be a point person for any meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, making an openly gay man the face of the United States for a country in talks with a leader who has rolled back LGBTQ rights and looked the other way from violence against LGBTQ people in Chechnya,” noted the Washington Blade.
Gifford is originally from Manchester, Mass., a small town 30 miles north of Boston. The son of a banker, he attended Brown University and was involved in many nonprofit organizations including the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT History Museum in New York, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., and UTEC, a group for at-risk youth in Lowell, Mass.
“At the time, I was trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be,” he said. “I had just come out as gay. And that meant moving to L.A. and working in the entertainment industry—and doing something completely different as a young gay man who really didn’t fit into the culture I was raised in.”
Yet Gifford found Hollywood to be uninspiring.
“I was bored by it,” he said. “Here I was in my late 20s, thinking California was the promised land—and it just wasn’t. I felt like a professional failure.”
After Gifford applied to business school and was rejected, the young man decided to quit his job and join Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign as an unpaid volunteer.
“That was an eye-opening moment. After Kerry lost, I started my own business doing political consulting. In 2007, I met then-Sen. Barack Obama and signed up for his presidential campaign,” said Gifford, who ended up working for Obama for 10 years—on the political side and then overseas, as a diplomat.
‘The dream of a lifetime’
After serving as national finance director at the Democratic National Committee and later national finance director of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Gifford was nominated and quickly confirmed as US envoy to Denmark.
Finally, at the age of 38, Gifford could call himself an ambassador.
“It was, in many ways, the dream of a lifetime. I never imagined—given who I was and where I came from—that I would represent the Obama administration in the capital of one of our greatest allies. It was as good as it got for me. But I was not a seasoned diplomat. I had a lot to learn, and boy did I learn.”
While in Denmark, Gifford led efforts to address the effects of climate change, build global coalitions, and invest in clean energy. He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog by Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II for meritorious service.
He also had fun.
“Bringing people together and making things click, the value of human connections, building trust, empowering people to work toward a common goal,” he said. “I love this stuff.”
Gifford became a celebrity in Denmark, writes The Advocate. A Danish TV station did a prime-time documentary series on him, Jeg er Ambassadøren fra Amerika [I am the Ambassador from America]. The series began in 2014, earned him Denmark’s equivalent of an Emmy, and made him recognized throughout the nation of 5 million.
“The work of diplomacy is so intriguing,” he said. “The vast majority of people really don’t know what an ambassador does. They don’t know the day-to-day work of diplomacy.”
Gifford: Allies are hungry for US leadership
During his three and a half years in Copenhagen, said Gifford, he saw a “hunger” for US leadership in the world.
“I think we take for granted how much American leadership is valued—not just in Europe but globally,” he said. “That made me incredibly passionate about the work of government at a time when trust between institutions was waning. I wanted to tell a story about diplomacy and the inherent good that comes from this human-to-human connection.”
Yet that connection has been severely tested in recent years, following the chaotic Trump administration and the 45th president’s well-known disdain for professional diplomacy.
Career diplomat William J. Burns, who served as US deputy secretary of state from 2011 to 2014, wrote in the May 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs: “The neglect and distortion of American diplomacy is not a purely Trumpian invention. It has been an episodic feature of the US approach to the world since the end of the Cold War. The Trump administration, however, has made the problem infinitely worse. There is never a good time for diplomatic malpractice, but the administration’s unilateral diplomatic disarmament is spectacularly mistimed, unfolding precisely at a moment when American diplomacy matters more than ever to American interests.”
Asked to comment, Gifford had this to say: “I’m not particularly interested in talking about the past. What I look at is the future. Are there morale issues? Yes, there are, and I’ll do everything I possibly can to make sure the incredible people who frankly have kept this place running for so many years feel valued and respected. I certainly hope I’m successful. I wouldn’t be here if I thought American diplomacy was in tatters.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has only added to Gifford’s challenges, given that the vast majority of meetings are still taking place via Zoom, and that most foreign embassies in Washington are still open to the public by appointment only.
“I believe wholeheartedly that diplomacy is an in-person game, so our team looks forward to resuming in-person programming with the diplomatic corps as soon as it’s responsible to do so,” he said.
In the meantime, the Office of the Chief of Protocol has been hosting monthly virtual “state of the administration” briefings for the 180 or so Washington-based ambassadors and their staffers. Each month, foreign diplomats are introduced to senior Biden administration officials who provide updates on their areas of expertise—with a chance for those diplomats to ask questions after the briefing.
Gifford made his debut with ambassadors last week during the January 2022 briefing. Recent monthly briefings have featured other top officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, and Gifford’s old boss—and now special climate envoy—John Kerry.
While he declined to address specific issues such as Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine or the ongoing Iran nuclear talks, Gifford said there’s no doubt in his mind that the Biden administration is on the right track when it comes to foreign policy.
“The president’s first couple of trips overseas were resounding successes,” he said. “Our allies have embraced the new administration and are thrilled to see the US back at the table on issues that have global consensus, like climate change. The world is fragile right now. We are still in the midst of a pandemic—and we have enormous global challenges ahead of us.”