Gays and the State Department

Michael E. Guest didn't expect his 26-year career at the State Department to end like this. But after three years of petitioning Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her senior management team to change policies that apply to same-sex partners of foreign service officers—and getting no results—he decided to quit. During his retirement ceremony in the State Department treaty room on Nov. 20, the former ambassador to Romania told colleagues that the department's policies forced him to choose between obligations to his partner and service to his country. "That anyone should have to make that choice is a stain on the secretary's leadership, and a shame for this institution and our country," he said.

Guest, an openly gay man, was referring to regulations that deny gay and lesbian partners the same rights afforded to heterosexual spouses. Such rights include guaranteed evacuation in case of a medical emergency, antiterrorism security training and even transportation to overseas posts—which is covered for the family pet of a foreign service officer. According to surveys by Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, a nonprofit organization that represents the concerns of gay and lesbian personnel, an estimated 350 gay or lesbian partners are affected by these regulations. [Unmarried heterosexual partners are also affected by the same regulations.]

State Department spokesman Curtis Cooper says that, as with any issue of concern to the department's employees, the policies are continually reviewed. Cooper says the department does not engage in unlawful discrimination. "Same-sex and heterosexual unmarried partners of foreign service employees at posts abroad are treated in an equivalent manner," he says. "Michael Guest has described his reasons for retiring, and we understand and respect his decision was personal." Guest spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez about his decision to take early retirement—and what he hopes the administration will do now. Excerpts:

How did you come to the decision to retire early?
Michael Guest: I would have to go overseas in two years. If this administration hasn't done anything to change these policies after three years of me trying to get them to do so, then I have no confidence that they will between now and the time I have to go overseas. And I would not go overseas with my partner again unless some of these things that are important to his safety, effectiveness and fair treatment are resolved.

Of the 26 years that you served, how many did you spend overseas?
Probably about half the time.

How long have you been with your partner?
12 years.

In your farewell speech you said that this is not a gay rights issue. What is it?
This is a workplace issue. Everyone who joins the foreign service has the same contract. We have the same requirements placed on us; we have the same obligation and the same commitment to service. Just because you are not married and cannot marry, you shouldn't be denied protections that spouses get. From my standpoint, people talk about this as though it's just a gay rights issue. Well, leave the label aside for a minute. If you were at a job doing the same kind of work as your colleague next door, and your colleague's partner were provided for simply because he or she was a spouse, how would you feel about the lack of provision for your own partner? I am not trying to change the definition of marriage. No one who has touched this issue from inside this department has tried to redefine marriage. We are just approaching this from the standpoint of employer-employee relationships and the obligations that employers have to those that they allow to go overseas. It should be no different for the State Department than it is for all of these American companies that recognize they have obligations to the families of the people that work for them.

For the past three years you urged Secretary Rice and her senior management team to "redress policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees." What specific steps did you take to bring this matter to light, and what response did you get?
I have met with director-generals. They're the people in charge of human resources. I've sent them letters and e-mails. I've had e-mail communications back and forth. I've communicated with the under secretary for management and sent a letter to Secretary Rice. I've sent letters or talked to people outside the management chain as well. Generally, people say, "You're right. We have to do something about this," but no one has done something about it. I say "generally" because I did not receive any response from Secretary Rice. I didn't really anticipate that I would get a letter back from her. That's not what this was about. What I would have hoped is that the letter would have spurred her to ask her management team to look into the issues and give her a report and an action plan to address any of these problems. As far as I know, that never happened.

The latest correspondence between you and Secretary Rice was the letter you sent in December?
Right. Then I made the decision, probably in March, that I would leave.

How much could Secretary Rice really change immediately, if she decided to do so?
There are some things she could change. There are other things where she could recommend changes and inform the relevant congressional committee who could make the changes to regulations accordingly. For example, Tamiflu access. If avian flu breaks out on a post, then normally Tamiflu would automatically be provided to all employees and their family members, but not partners. As I understand it, she could change that. That would not require change of law. Some of the changes regarding travel benefits probably would. But I believe there are enough people on the Hill—Republican and Democrat alike—who would recognize this is a workplace issue, and you've got to take care of your folks. It does require leadership on our part. It does require leadership on the part of [Rice] and her team to put in place an action plan and then work the action plan to get these inequities corrected.

You've also been told for about a year that same-sex partners were going to be allowed into a few of the Foreign Institute courses available to service members and their families. What do you make of that?
One of the points that I've made fairly regularly is, what happens if a partner is killed overseas and it emerges that the partner wasn't given just a two-day course that allows you to understand how to protect against terrorist threats and watch for possible casings? Who's responsible for that? What happens if there's a foreign intelligence trap laid for a partner who hasn't had the benefit of that course and doesn't know how to recognize it? That's not in the interest of our country. It's not in the interest of the overseas community. I suspect that's what people are responding to: the notion that this is the least you could do, because it's not in the interest of the United States not to give that course. But again, that has been talked about this whole time and nothing has resulted yet.

Family pets have their travel paid for, but same-sex partners typically don't. What does that say about foreign service policy?
I would rather let your readers decide that one.

Some labeled your early retirement a symbol of protest against these policies. Was it?
No. It was the recognition that I have to go overseas in two years and I've seen no sign that this administration is willing to change these policies. I'm not going to go overseas again with my partner without those changes. I have done everything I can to raise the attention [to the idea that] this is all about the safety, effectiveness and fair treatment of people who are covered by the same American flag and are going overseas to do jobs that the country needs done. The government shouldn't allow itself to lose dedicated employees over these issues.

What has it been like to choose between obligations to your partner and service to your country?
I felt sad to make that choice, but I am very hopeful. I know in my heart that this is going to change, in time. I know it's going to change, because Americans are fair-minded.

What are you going to miss most about the work you did?
I'm going to miss my colleagues. There are some really terrific people who work for the State Department and have untold stories of valor, courage, initiative and great ideas. They are really trying to help American foreign policy succeed. And I'm going to miss the chance to effect change. You hate to leave a job where you can really help your country. That's why I came to Washington. I'm sure whatever I do next will be involved in something that allows me to make change.

Is there anything else you would like to say to those who could change these policies?
To think of the people who serve loyally and the people who are trying to help this country and who signed on for this very difficult, challenging and very rewarding career. No one should leave their career simply because their family obligations can't be met.