From Battling Bigotry in the Dominican Republic to Achieving Reality TV Stardom in Denmark, President's Out Appointees Have Made Their Mark
President Barack Obama's commitment to inclusion has been rendered concrete by his appointments, which have helped make the face of America's government more representative of its people. In addition to a record number of racial and ethnic minorities, he has appointed a record number of LGBT officials, including judges and ambassadors who require Senate confirmation.
Before Obama's presidency, there had been only two openly gay U.S. ambassadors. The first, James C. Hormel, was nominated by President Bill Clinton as ambassador to Luxembourg in October 1997. Although Hormel was eminently qualified for the post and quickly won approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was subjected to an ugly confirmation battle during which he was defamed and belittled by homophobic GOP senators such as Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft. His nomination was effectively blocked by Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who refused to schedule a vote.
Finally, in May 1999, to the outrage of some Republicans, Clinton named Hormel ambassador via a "recess appointment."
In 2001, to little public controversy, career foreign service officer Michael E. Guest was nominated as ambassador to Romania by President George W. Bush and became the first openly gay ambassadorial nominee confirmed by the Senate. Guest served as ambassador until 2003 and then in the State Department until his retirement in 2007.
At his retirement ceremony, Guest bitterly criticized Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice (and by extension Bush) for the discrimination faced by LGBT employees and specifically for the benefits denied to their same-sex partners. He made clear that his decision to retire was a direct result of this discrimination:
"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. Absolutely nothing has resulted from this. And so I've felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner, who is my family, and service to my 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."
In contrast to the difficulties faced by Hormel and Guest, the ambassadors nominated by Obama have had little difficulty in the confirmation process and received unqualified support from the State Department. In addition, they have been encouraged to make the furtherance of LGBT rights a key part of their portfolio. (Moreover, many of the benefits that Guest complained were denied to his partner during the Bush administration were extended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009. Others were added after the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.)
As Hillary Clinton declared at the United Nations in 2011, under Obama official U.S. policy is that "Gay Rights are Human Rights."
Obama has appointed seven openly gay ambassadors: U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa David Huebner (who served from 2009 to 2014); U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer; U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra James Costos; U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford; U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James "Wally" Brewster; U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry; and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius.
Huebner discussing his role as Ambassador to New Zealand:
Costos introducing himself and his partner Michael Smith:
Baer and his husband, Brian Walsh:
Berry introducing himself, and discussing same-sex marriage and his husband, Curtis Yee.
Osius and his husband, Clayton Bond, on PBS Newshour:
The six currently serving openly gay ambassadors recently participated in a panel discussion â€” sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, the Harvey Milk Foundation, and GLIFAA, an organization for LGBT foreign service employees â€” at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
The six participants shared their personal experiences and the obligations of representing not only their country but also the LGBT community.
Particularly interesting is the contrast between the experiences of Brewster in the Dominican Republic, which criminalizes homosexuality, and Gifford in Denmark, a notably gay-friendly country. In one, the ambassador and his husband are beleaguered and sometimes vilified as a gay couple and advocates for LGBT rights. In the other, the ambassador and his husband are celebrated and their wedding became a major social event.
Brewster, a Chicago businessman who has served as a National LGBT Co-Chair for the Democratic National Committee and on the Board of the Human Rights Campaign, was nominated as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic on June 22, 2013.
His nomination was greeted with hostility from the Dominican Republic's influential religious establishment. In a press conference, the Dominican Republic's highest-ranking Catholic official, Cardinal NicolÃ¡s de JesÃºs LÃ³pez RodrÃguez, referred to Brewster as a "maricÃ³n" â€” a derogatory term that is usually translated as "faggot."
Another Catholic official, MonseÃ±or Pablo Cedano, an auxiliary bishop of Santo Domingo, issued a veiled threat against the nominee. "I hope he does not arrive in the country because I know if he comes he is going to suffer and will have to leave," Cedano said. He added that it was "a lack of respect" that Obama "sent ... a person of this kind as an ambassador."
Evangelical Christians were equally inhospitable. Ex-president of the nation's Evangelical Confraternity, CristÃ³bal Cardozo, called the appointment "an insult to good Dominican customs" and said it is inappropriate to send such an ambassador to "a country where homosexual relationships are not approved, neither legally nor morally."
On November 22, 2013, Brewster was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic by Vice President Joe Biden. Just a few hours later, Brewster married his longtime partner, Bob J. Satawake. The ceremony and reception took place at the Hay-Adams Hotel, overlooking the South Lawn of the White House.
Ambassador Brewster and his husband have persevered in a country that penalizes homosexuality and constitutionally bans same-sex marriage. They have refused to allow the hostility of homophobes to deter their commitment to equal rights.
They have engaged the attacks forthrightly and with dignity, always conscious that their very presence in the country gives hope to those who cannot speak out on their own behalf. They know that their openness as a gay couple itself makes a powerful statement:
Brewster especially infuriated his detractors when he and Satawake met with Dominican LGBT leaders, prompting the Dominican Republic's Ambassador to the Vatican to protest.
In honor of Pride 2014, the ambassador produced this video:
In June 2016, Ambassador Brewster announced that he and his husband would participate in the Dominican Republic's Pride Caravan:
Gifford, the son of a Boston banking family and a former film producer, came to political prominence as a prodigious fundraiser, first for John Kerry's 2004 campaign, and then for Obama. In the 2008 campaign, he raised some $80 million as head of Obama's Southern California fundraising operation. He subsequently became a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, and then the finance director of Obama's re-election campaign. In the latter capacity, he is believed to have raised more than a billion dollars.
Gifford was appointed Ambassador to Denmark in 2013 and quickly became a national celebrity, appearing frequently on Danish radio and television programs. In 2014, he appeared in his own six-episode reality show (or, as he prefers, "documentary") called I am the Ambassador from America, which followed his professional and personal life over the course of three months.
In the show's first episode, he said, "the most common question I get is what does an ambassador do, and the only way you can explain it to people is by living it." Thus, the show attempted to answer the question by inviting viewers to follow him during his work and in his life more generally.
The show was a surprise hit and was renewed for a second season. It won the Danish equivalent of an Emmy and made Gifford a familiar face and personality, especially since he so freely shared so many personal aspects of his life, including his upbringing in a small, wealthy Massachusetts town, his coming out experience, and his relationship with his partner Dr. Steven DeVincent, a Provincetown veterinarian.
But as Danish media critic Mads Hvas Jensen has observed, the show did more than highlight Gifford himself. It also advanced American diplomacy. Gifford has understood the strategic use of television to present American foreign policy in a favorable light, especially to young people. From this perspective, even Gifford's openness about his sexuality and his advocacy for LGBT rights can be seen a means of demonstrating the advances made by the Obama administration in recent years.
Among the major recent advances in American civil rights was the achievement of marriage equality throughout the nation on June 26, 2015. Hence, it was not surprising that in October 2015, Gifford and DeVincent decided to marry, and to feature their wedding on the television show.
They also made the decision to be married not in the U.S. nor even in the American embassy, but in Copenhagen's City Hall, where they were wed by the Lord Mayor in the same gold-filigreed room in which the world's first legally recognized same-sex civil unions were performed in 1989.
The decision to wed in Denmark was "to be a statement," DeVincent told Vogue. "We got married in the town hall in Copenhagen because it was the location of the first same-sex civil union. We also very much wanted to have the wedding in Denmark, because once Rufus became ambassador, we knew that was going to be our home for the next three and a half years. It was going to be the longest we've ever lived in one place together." He added, "Once we were there, the country was so welcoming to us and we wanted also to show our appreciation."
In the video below, an episode from PBS Newshour, Gifford is profiled:
Ambassador Gifford has spoken in favor of LGBT rights and participated in Pride parades not only in liberal Copenhagen, but also in other less accepting areas of his purview, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands. For example, Gifford and DeVincent and members of the embassy staff participated in the Faroese Pride Celebrations on July 27, 2016, which were attended by 10 percent of the population.
America's openly gay ambassadors are an impressive group. Some, such as Ambassadors Costos and Gifford have been chosen, as is a long honored and bipartisan custom, because of their political and personal connections to the president. Others, such as Ambassadors Baer and Osius, were chosen because of their academic or cultural expertise. The ambassadors have different styles and face different challenges, but all have distinguished themselves in their jobs.
In addition to the customary diplomacy that they practice, however, they also serve as living symbols of American progress in human rights.
When they march in Pride celebrations, for example, they make an important statement about American values in general and about American policy under Obama in particular.
When Ambassador Berry answers a question about same-sex marriage, he is careful not to interject himself into Australia's fractious debate on the issue, but he nevertheless furthers the quest for marriage equality by offering the example of his own marriage.
Similarly, the high-profile weddings of Ambassadors Gifford in Copenhagen and Baer in Vienna have also helped normalize same-sex relationships here and abroad, as has the example of Ambassador Osius and his husband and children in Vietnam. In August, Osius and Bond renewed their vows in a ceremony presided over by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and attended by several LGBT rights advocates. "We thought it might be meaningful not only to us, but to the LGBT community in Vietnam," Osius said.
The dignity and resoluteness of Ambassador Brewster in the face of insult offers hope to those who are unable to stand up to homophobia themselves; and Baer's denunciation of Russia's anti-propaganda law gains increased credibility because of his openness as to his own sexuality.
The appointment of openly gay ambassadors helps fulfill President Obama's campaign pledge to make the face of the American government more representative of the nation's people. But it is does more than that. It also announces to the world that in the U.S., opportunities are not limited because of whom one loves, and it illustrates concretely that the country's much-touted support for human rights includes LGBT rights.
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