US State Department criticised for treatment of gay staff

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The only out lesbian in the US Congress has said she is unhappy with the response from the country’s Secretary of State about unequal treatment of lesbian and gay staff in her department.

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, from Wisconsin, wrote to Secretary Condoleezza Rice in February, along with Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat colleagues Howard Berman and Gary Ackerman.

They highlighted “basic and common-sense” policy changes that the State Department needed to enact regarding Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).

These included the inclusion in travel orders for same-sex domestic partners of FSOs; access to training, including language and security classes, for same-sex domestic partners and other benefits and services available to married heterosexual Americans in the Foreign Service.

Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Jeffrey Bergner, replied to Congresswoman Baldwin that the State Department treats “same-sex and opposite sex unmarried partners of U.S. Government employees stationed abroad in an equivalent manner.”

He cited, among other things, helping the unmarried partners of employees overseas obtain residency permits and including them in the Mission phone book.

However, that partial response has been rejected by Congresswoman Baldwin and the others, who are seeking comparable benefits, protections, and services for the partners of gay and lesbian employees as those enjoyed by family members of married FSOs.

They said they are looking to Secretary Rice for her “personal leadership on this issue, in the interest of mission effectiveness, workplace equity, and fairness for those who sacrifice so much for our country.”

The inequalities faced by gay and lesbian State Department staff were highlighted in December when a former US ambassador left his post after criticising Condoleezza Rice’s stance on the issue.

Michael E Guest retired after more than 26 years as a form of protest against regulations that he considered as unfair to same-sex partners.

The 50-year-old, who is openly gay, served as US ambassador to Romania when President Bush took office.

Since his return home in 2004, he has appealed directly to the US Secretary of State Rice to end gay discrimination.

Mr Guest was the first out gay person to be confirmed by the Senate to an ambassadorial post.

“For the past three years, I’ve urged the Secretary and her senior management team to redress policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees,” he said during a speech in Washington in December.

Guest said that these issues could have been solved simply with Ms Rice’s signature, but his pleas had never received any attention.

His decision to speak out against Ms Rice was followed by a story in The Sunday Times about the rumours surrounding the most powerful woman in America, leading to renewed speculation and comment on the issue.

“Rice does not comment on her private life, and she is not an elected official, so her sexuality has never been a campaign issue,” reported The Sunday Times.

“But the gay community has long been troubled by her association with conservative Republicans opposed to gay marriage, and with evangelical Christians who regard homosexuality as a sin.”

A recent biography of Ms Rice, The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy, by Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler, revealed that she owns a house with a close female friend, Randy Bean.