All Six Openly Gay U.S. Ambassadors Together at the Same Time
The Newseum in Washington, D.C., beneath the glow of the Capitol dome, was the venue for a watershed panel discussion on gays who serve openly in the foreign service. The event, which was held on Tuesday, March 24, was hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the Harvey Milk Foundation, and GLIFAA (Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies). The heads of all three organizations, Chad Griffin, Stuart Milk, and Salim Ariturk, respectively, were in attendance.
Milk, who also served as moderator of the ensuing panel discussion, remarked before the discussion began that he was happy to see many Floridians in attendance tonight. Hotspots Publisher Peter Clark was in attendance, as were representatives from South Florida Gay News, among other Floridians. Florida Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Lois Frankel were among the people scheduled to attend the discussion.
The discussion involved all six of the United States’s openly gay ambassadors who are curently working in the foreign service. This was especially important because, in the not-so-distant past, you could be removed from your job in the foreign service for being gay. Also, the very first openly gay ambassador was only appointed less than twenty years ago, and now there are six, all appointed by President Barack Obama. This was the first time all six gay ambassadors participated in an event together.
The six men who participated in the discussion panel were John Berry, Ambassador to Australia; James “Wally” Brewster, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic; Rufus Gifford, Ambassador to Denmark; Dan Baer, Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; James Costos, Ambassador to Spain; and Ted Osius, Ambassador to Vietnam. These men serve United States interests across the world, spanning different continents, languages, cultures and belief systems.
All of these public servants have lived very interesting lives, as noted by Milk, and while all the men are committed to serving their country, all of them are in varying stages of their careers. In the case of Ted Osius, he is the newest gay ambassador, having been sworn in just three months ago. No matter how old or new they were to foreign service work, however, they spoke very highly about the responsibilities they have, and how they owe it to the changing U.S. landscape (and President Barack Obama) for appointing six gay ambassadors, and in turn, making this event a reality.
In the panel discussion, Milk asked each of the men how they were received in the countries they serve. For the ambassadors of more liberal countries like Australia or Denmark, there were no sizable issues for them to overcome. However, Brewster, who was chosen to represent the Dominican Republic and was subsequently chastised by the Dominican government for his sexuality, had a tougher road ahead of him.
“Wally Brewster’s speech was extremely moving and extremely emotional,” Hotspots Publisher Peter Clark told us. “He said that it was so important to be with his partner when transferred to this new country. The Obama administration backed him when the Dominican government responded negatively. It meant a lot to him.”
Once Brewster told his story, Stuart Milk ensured that enough time would be allotted for the ambassadors to tell their stories of obstacles they had to overcome. The ambassador for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dan Baer, also had a sad story to share. His work brings him across Europe, but he is based in the Baltic states, where gay rights are still struggling to take hold and discrimination and prejudice are still widespread. He does business quite often with Russia, which has very draconian anti-gay laws.
“It was extremely personal for him. You could tell serving in an area like that made it difficult for him to be open and honest, but he was,” Peter Clark told us. “He made it very clear that we, as Americans, are privileged to live in America, where we can be open and honest. We may have a way to go but in many European countries, you can be punished or even jailed for the life you lead. The juxtaposition was extremely moving.”
The evening was very interesting and it was enlightening to hear stories of acceptance and others of prejudice from the ambassadors who are spread out all over the world. Thanks to the HRC, the Harvey Milk Foundation, and GLIFAA, this forum was the first time in history that all of America’s top gay foreign service workers were in the same room together, much less participating in a panel discussion, that served to educate people and also succeeded in underscoring the absolute need for equality worldwide.