Something I think we all can agree on, is that Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died during the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was an American hero. I spent last week reading everything I could about his life because I had heard, as I’m sure you have too, the rumors that Chris was secretly gay. I thought if it were true, that story might have made a compelling On Our Radar column for last Sunday; Libyan ambassador unable to come out and still be effective in the gay-hating Middle East.
But the truth is, I cannot tell you if Chris was gay. I can tell you only that he was a 52-year-old man without wife or child, at least one he claimed in public. I could find no bereaved lover of either sex who raised a hand to acknowledge a relationship. The phone call Secretary Clinton made to inform his next of kin went to his sister, a Seattle doctor, so I assume it was her name Chris wrote in the “in case of emergency” box on the State Department personnel form. I could find not a single statement made by Chris himself, about any LGBT issue. Upon reflection, I suspect it is the kind briar patch topic that Foreign Service officials avoid. In the 50+ articles I read to try to get a sense of the man Chris Stevens was, I found one friend who seemed to go out of his way to say “He was a regular person. He drank beer and dated women and liked outdoor sports” and I could find no evidence that he was not speaking truth. So I couldn’t write the column. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell you what I did learn about Chris Stevens. Whether he was gay, or straight, he still lived a fascinating life, and it is a heart wound to all of us that he was lost in service to, not just our country, but to humanity.
Chris, the oldest of three siblings, grew up in the upper-crust society of Northern California in the 70s. His father was a judge, and then a councilman representing Davis City, which is about as liberal a community as you will find in America. His mother was a cellist with the San Francisco symphony. His parents divorced when Chris was a teen. His dad went on to become an assistant California Attorney General; remarried and had another daughter. His mother, who retained custody of the children, married a music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. In high school Chris belonged to the Model UN Club, and went to Spain in an exchange student program. He went to his dad’s alma mater, UC Berkley, as an undergrad, where he played excellent tennis and belonged to a fraternity.
The year after college Chris spent teaching English in a remote village in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. That was where he fell in love with that part of the world, and began learning Arabic. (He already spoke French.) His mother said of him “He had sand in his shoes.” When his year in Morocco ended, he returned to California, earned his law degree, and tried to settle into the life of a Washington DC trade attorney. After a year and a half, he put his head down on his desk one day, said he couldn’t do this anymore, and quit.
Chris was much happier in the Foreign Service. He had different titles and different official jobs, but what he did best is what they call “outreach”. Chris served in Jerusalem, in Damascus, in Cairo and Riyadh, and most importantly, in Tripoli, and everywhere he went he established a network of contacts. He was rarely found behind his desk wearing a suit or tie. He was always out “in the field” meeting people. Hillary Clinton described Chris as having a “goofy grin” and the one constant I found in everyone who spoke of him was how friendly and incurably upbeat he was. I came across one story about a friend who was on the phone with Chris who could hear explosions in the background. He asked, “What’s going on? Are they shelling you?” to which Chris answered “Well, not on purpose.”
All of Chris’ work at making contacts came into play during the Libyan uprising of 2011. Secretary Clinton sent Chris Stevens and a group of about a dozen Foreign Service and “security” (read CIA) agents into Benghazi at the height of the fighting on a mission worthy of a James Bond movie. To the annoyance of the State Department, Wikileaks published some of Chris’ messages from this mission. The group sneaked into Libya on a Greek cargo freighter. It was Chris’ job to make contact with the rebels, and bring them together with ex-pats and U.S. friendly leaders who would take over when the government fell. The hardest part was getting them to trust one another. Someday, there might be a movie of Chris’ mission into Libya. I am dying to know if the agent sent by France to do the same job worked with Chris, or as a rival? What we do know is that Chris was successful. His reward, ironically, was the Ambassadorship that would lead to his death.
Chris spent most of his time as Libyan Ambassador doing what he did best – outreach – trying to make sure the new government of Libya became a friend to the U.S. It was the reason he was in Benghazi, and not in the much safer embassy in Tripoli, the day the mob overran the compound. Chris was there for the opening a Libyan/American community center. I am sure you have heard by now that he was not killed by the mob, but died in a locked safe room of smoke inhalation from a fire started by a rocket-propelled grenade. What you may not have heard is that it was his Libyan friends who carried him through the streets to the hospital, where the Libyan doctor worked for 90 minutes trying to revive him. And that just as we mourn him here, many, many of those who knew him throughout the Mideast mourn him as well. The photo that appeared on many front pages did not show his Libyan enemies desecrating the body of the ambassador, they showed his Libyan friends trying to save him.
I am sorry, I couldn’t write a column about Chris Stevens being gay. But I am encouraged that Chris was the friendly face America showed to the world. I hope we have many more just like him out there, who believe in friendship rather than war. Gay or straight, makes absolutely no difference, I just hope Chris Stevens had love in his life. And most of all, I wish we had had a chance to know him better.
Chris Stevens formal Photo via Wikipedia
Informal photo via U.S. Consulate Facebook page.
Jean Ann Esselink is straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
We invite you to sign up for our new mailing list, and subscribe to The New Civil Rights Movement via email or RSS.