BY KENNETH KERO-MENTZ
My first job in the Foreign Service was as a consular officer in Rio de Janeiro. Lucky posting, I know. I arrived in October 2000. About four months into my tour, I got to work one day and opened my desk drawer to find a piece of paper with the words “Fag Notes” scribbled on it.
Having come from a job on Capitol Hill where I worked for a supportive member of Congress and with a close group of friends, this attack against my sexual orientation stung. I was already reeling from the dramatic shift my life had taken over the previous 12 months, compounding my feelings of anger and isolation.
Stunned, I shared the note with my supervisor, who was an extremely kind man, and also gay. He recommended talking with the consul general. Now, here’s the thing that kicked me in the gut more than the note itself: When I showed the paper to the CG and shared my anguish, this generally sympathetic, middle-aged, single, female, African-American consul general looked at me and said, “This is the Foreign Service, Ken. What did you expect.” It wasn’t a question.
I’ve spoken about this incident over the years, quite a bit. I shared it when I was giving my closing remarks at GLIFAA’s 2013 Pride event, with Secretary of State John Kerry standing next to me and hundreds of people in the audience. It offers insight into the reason for my advocacy. After all, how could anyone, especially a member of a minority group, so cavalierly dismiss this attack of sorts against a new FSO, unless it was, as she implied, just something to expect?
Back then, I asked myself: Is the State Department welcoming? Is it a place I want to work, to spend my career, my life? I considered quitting and returning to Washington. Who needs this? But I decided to stay and work toward change because, importantly, I loved my job, loved the Foreign Service and loved working for the Department of State. Still do, in fact.
Progress requires effort: it requires folks who are willing to put their necks on the line sometimes. AFSA can help with that.
I’m proud of how far the department and, for the most part, American society have progressed or “evolved” regarding equality for LGBT individuals since then. And recently, my recollections of that day have shifted. As I came to know more senior officers, I realized that my CG in Rio, who joined the Foreign Service 17 years prior, likely dealt with a whole heap of abuse based on any number of factors that had nothing to do with her ability to do her job. It’s not an excuse for her response, but it allowed me to remember her apparent lack of empathy with more compassion.
And change has happened on a host of matters where groups of individuals banded together and—often working with AFSA—pushed for change. GLIFAA, Balancing Act, the Thursday Luncheon Group, Executive Women at State and other groups have helped change the culture at the State Department. Is it perfect? Heck no. Especially not these days. But have advocates for change—often new or mid-level employees—made a huge difference here? Absolutely.
For me, I served on the GLIFAA Board every time I was stateside. I was president in 2012-2013 when GLIFAA celebrated its 20th anniversary, and I had the honor of introducing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. And I served as AFSA post representative overseas and on the AFSA Governing Board in D.C. from 2011 to 2015. I enjoy advocating to make the State Department more “user friendly” and a better place for all, so that those who come after me won’t be told: “It’s the Foreign Service, what did you expect?”
Why am I sharing this painful experience with all of you? I want you to know that if you come across things that just don’t seem right or don’t seem fair, you should let us know. Speak to your post management, to your EEO counselor, to your AFSA post rep, or reach out to one of the many affinity groups and employee organizations that represent the various constituencies that make up the department. Find a way to make your voice heard.
Progress requires effort: it requires folks who are willing to put their necks on the line sometimes. AFSA can help with that. As your union, it’s our job to be your voice, and to call out for change when change is needed. It’s what we do.