One hundred and twenty-five members of Congress asked Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter Monday to deny visas to diplomats’ spouses if the envoys come from a country that doesn’t recognize same-sex spouses of State Department personnel.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) led the letter, which got one GOP signature — Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has a transgender son.
The lawmakers argued that countries not granting accreditation to same-sex spouses of American foreign service officers are keeping the diplomats from doing their jobs, so they ask that “the State Department reciprocate by denying a visa to the spouse of a diplomat from that country.”
“As you know, the United States Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution protects the right of same sex couples to marry. As the United States continues to make progress toward equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, many countries around the world have yet to address their own discriminatory practices,” the Congress members wrote. “As such, we are writing to express our concerns about recent reports that American LGBT Foreign Service Officers (FSO)s are sometimes denied an equal opportunity to represent the United States abroad because certain foreign governments refuse to recognize their same-sex marriages.”
“As Members of Congress, we believe that when same-sex couples working for the State Department receive equal treatment at home and abroad, our diplomatic corps truly reflects the American ideals of openness, equality, and human rights.”
They noted that the State Department “sometimes declines or discourages LGBT FSOs from assignments to certain overseas posts due to anticipated objections from the host nation, and that some State Department employees have apparently been denied assistance when they try to bring their same-sex spouses into countries that do not recognize their marriages.”
While they didn’t call out countries, a March vote at the United Nations over family benefits for gay employees saw Russia trying to stop the plan, arguing it discriminated against member states. Among the countries siding with Russia were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, China, and Belarus. Indonesia, which abstained, argued that the UN wasn’t allowing enough input from member states on the matter.
UN Ambassador Samantha Power argued during the vote that Russia was trying to undermine the authority of the secretary-general and stressed that the world body wasn’t making any nation recognize same-sex marriage. UN staff would have to get married in a country where same-sex unions are legal to get the family benefits.
The lawmakers who wrote Kerry on Monday argued that countries which don’t recognize spouses of gay foreign service officers “hamper the professional growth” of the diplomats and “threaten the Department’s ability to ensure that it can place the best, most qualified person in each position.”
“We cannot look the other way when an American diplomatic spouse — any American diplomatic spouse — is discriminated against in this way… In countries that maintain legalized forms of racism, sexism, or other types of bias, we believe the State Department should take a proactive role in demonstrating America’s deep commitment to equality, dignity, and diversity,” they continued.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor affirmed that commitment, stating that the federal government has a Constitutional obligation to treat all spouses equally regardless of sexual orientation. The June 26 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, further demonstrated the Court’s commitment to marriage equality. While we understand the challenge in dealing with foreign governments that discriminate, we call on the State Department to send a forceful message that all American families must be treated equally.”
They should have Kerry’s ear. Last year, he told a gay pride event at the State Department: “Let me be clear: We oppose any effort by any country to deny visas for spouses of American staff. It’s discriminatory, it’s unacceptable, it has no place in the 21st century.”
“And I understand how challenging this issue is for all of you, which is why I’ve sent instructions to ambassadors at posts worldwide to engage at the highest levels on your behalf. Together we pay a price when these rights are trampled on, but together we win when these rights are protected,” he said then.
A gay member of the State Department submitted a question to Kerry about how he was going to do that, noting that not being able to bring a partner to a host country had eliminated about two-thirds of jobs on a bid list at the time.
“We are instructing embassies to inform governments locally that this is our policy and that they need to honor our policy. It’s that simple. And a lot of governments will respond positively; obviously, some won’t. And where they don’t, if they don’t extend recognition and immunities, we’re going to instruct them that we’re also going to begin gathering information on the host government policies and practices on accreditation. And we will make this information that is relevant to assignments – make it easier for employees and all of you to sort of pick and choose and know what the lay of the land is,” Kerry replied.
“But at some point in time, we may have to begin to make it clear to them that that can affect one program or another or the choices that we make. It’s not going to be a normal relationship. This is who we are, this what you have to respect, and that’s the way it is.”
Today at the State Department, press secretary John Kirby said they had not yet seen the congressional letter.
“But if it is as you describe, I’m sure that we will respond in appropriate time in detail to members of Congress,” Kirby said. “…I’m not an expert on visa applications and how they’re administered.”
Asked if the issue had been brought up before the nudge from the lawmakers, he responded, “I’m not aware of it coming up.”