Clearances and Closets: Gay Life in the Foreign Service

The following article originally appeared in the July 1992 issue of The Foreign Service Journal.


The invasion of Czechoslovakia by half a mission Soviet troops was the most significant experience of my childhood. My family emigrated to the United States, and I developed a keen interest in international affairs. This interest and the desire to give back something to my adopted country turned my attention to public service. After finishing graduate school, where I focused on Eastern Europe, I joined the Foreign Service in September of 1982. This is what I had always wanted to do. It still is. My first offer came from USIA, and I accepted it for a practical as well as a sentimental reason: I was gay and mistakenly assumed that a press-and-culture operation would be a more tolerant setting than the State Department. I also wished to honor my grandfather who, charged with listening to the Voice of America, spent the 1950s in a Communist concentration camp.

Much to the surprise of most of my classmates, we all got the assignments we wanted. I tested out of Servo-Croatian in seven months and was eagerly on my way to Belgrade. Part of Eastern Europe but not the Soviet Bloc, Yugoslavia then had excellent relations with the United States. I had a successful tour of duty there, as evidenced by my supervisors’ evaluations of my performance. On the way to my follow up assignment in Capetown, Southern Africa, I was to stop for three weeks in Washington for consular training and consultations.

I ‘confess’

A few days before my departure for South Africa, I was called in for a “routine security debriefing” concerning my Belgrade assignment. I cooperated fully with what turned into a nine-hour interrogation. Foolishly, I allowed the two officials from the USIA Bureau of Management’s Office of Security to cajole me out of securing legal representation. This was a fatal mistake, since it allowed them to lie to me about the fraternization policy in Yugoslavia and to misrepresent what I had told them about my personal life. I believe that their interest in me stemmed from a CIA report that I was gay – information that the CIA had received from me years earlier during a campus recruitment interview. Since my homosexuality had never come up during my Foreign Service security background check, USIA now seemed determined to get me to sign a “confession.” During the course of the interrogation, it became obvious to me that another purpose of the questioning was to ferret out other gays in the Foreign Service. I asked about the liberal fraternization policy in Yugoslavia (single officers were allowed to date local nationals and only had to report serious relationships as they developed) and was assured that it was still in effect.

After signing my “confession,” I was told to go ahead and get my shots for Africa. Although shaken by this encounter, I firmly believed that my candor and cooperation had been proper. I was determined to prove that I was not subject to blackmail (and therefore not a security risk) and that I was an honest and loyal employee. I took this position against the advice of those who argued that with Security, one should never be forthcoming on sexual matters.

It was the summer of 1984, and, despite the Orwellian date, I assumed that times had changed. I discovered the extent of my naiveté when, without explanation, my assignment to Cape Town was canceled. For weeks on end, I waited for something to happen.

Double standard

Six weeks after the security interrogation, I received a letter from the USIA director of Personnel that proposed to terminate my Foreign Service appointment based on alleged misconduct that demonstrated “in-subordination, irresponsibility, poor judgment, and lack of discretion.” The specific charge of insubordination was based on alleged violations of agency instructions prohibiting sexual relations with communist country nationals. The letter also informed me of my right to a pre-termination hearing before the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

I was stunned and at first could only believe that the charge was a terrible mistake. After all, my Serbo-Croatian teacher was a Yugoslav national who had recently married a USIA Foreign Service Officer, and I knew of other Foreign Service officer who had married Yugoslavs. The Officer of Security did not bother to show the personnel director the actual fraternization policy for Yugoslavia; the office merely assured her that it was the same as for the Soviet Union. I held a number of meetings with the director of personnel at which I produced the text of the policy and half a dozen signed statements from unmarried FSOs who had recently served in Yugoslavia and never been told that sex with local nationals was prohibited. After the meetings, she revoked the proposed termination and assured me that, based on my performance thus far, I would be tenured. She also encouraged me to take an immediate overseas assignment and get on with my career.

My faith in the ultimate fairness of the system restored, I looked forward to my new assignment in the Philippines. Unfortunately, I had not counted on the deep-seated homophobia and bureaucratic doggedness of the USIA Office of Security. Once they leveled their charge against me, no amount of evidence and no review process could persuade them to see the matter differently. They advised Personnel that they would not approve any Foreign Service assignment for me. Consequently, in January of 1985 I received a second letter of termination form the director of personnel. This termination, unlike the first one, was supposedly not disciplinary or performance based but rather a result of Security’s determination that my “homosexuality would make [me] an extremely likely target for hostile intelligence approaches.”

Going to the courts

Realizing that I could not settle this dispute quietly inside the agency as I preferred, and determined to clear my name of the misconduct charge implicit in the overseas clearance revocation, I turned to the outside world for help. The American Civil Liberties Union and I, through volunteer attorneys at the firm of Covington & Burling, filed a grievance against the U.S. Information Agency.

After two years of intensive legal wrangling, the Foreign Service Grievance Board made its decision. The board found my termination to be invalid, since Security’s action was “arbitrary and capricious and contrary to agency regulations.” It directed the agency to reinstate me in the Foreign Service, clean up the files, and remove the blanket restriction regarding overseas assignments.

Nevertheless, the Office of Security persuaded the agency to ignore this directive and take the case to U.S. District Court. Once on the outside, the agency chose not to argue the facts of the case but rather to dispute the board’s and the court’s jurisdiction even to hear the case. To this day agency attorneys, at great expense to the taxpayer, are fighting to make Security’s actions absolutely unreviewable.

I find this position frightening and even un-American. Simply put, it means that whenever the Office of Security involves “National Security,” it can deprive any government employee of due process rights. It was precisely such unfettered state power that drove my parents to flee Czechoslovakia.

My hope is that soon the U.S. Foreign Service will find better uses for its resources than eliminating from its ranks loyal and talented Foreign Service officers who happen to be gay.

Jan Krc is currently awaiting a security clearance for a new Foreign Service candidacy. This article does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Foreign Service.