Gays in the Foreign Service: Debunking the Security Myth

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


The Foreign Service leaves a sizeable group of people guessing about whether their sexual preference, if known, would be damaging to their careers. “The State Department’s director general has not made it clear that jobs are not in jeopardy if [employees] are gay,” says David Buss, a program director in the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions who has been subject to security review as a gay. “There is a real concern that being gay can negatively affect your assignments and career,” says a USAID officer who asked to remain anonymous. “The way they briefed us at the A-100 course [for entering officers], says another, “I almost expected to be drummed out of the service.”

The Department of State, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have established policies toward gay employees in a piecemeal manner, failing to publicize existing policies, charge several gay employees. As a result, some gays in the Foreign Service feel that a degree of uncertainty attends their security clearances. AFSA wrote in March to Director General Edward J. Perkins asking for a clarification of the Foreign Service’s policy toward gays in its ranks, so far without reply. Also in March, an informal group representing gay employees of the Foreign and Civil Service in State, USIA, and USAID expressed their concerns about “inconsistent standards” to the director general. In response, Ambassador Perkins assigned Deputy Assistant Secretary for personnel Kenneth Hunter to meet with the gay employees and determine a course of action. David Buss, spokesman for the employees, says that they now have established a group called Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, which meets monthly to represent the concerns of gay employees of State, USIA, and USAID.

“My main problem with [State’s Office of Diplomatic Security], says a gay officer, “is that, in my five years, there’s never been a policy promulgated…. I’ve wanted to be out ever since I entered the service, but I’ve never known whether I would automatically be [fired] or what…. By not promulgating this, they wait until it’s a crisis.”

Relevant, but not damning

Officially, homosexuality is no offense. Personnel officers in all branches of the Foreign Service are guided in general terms by the Foreign Affairs Manual, which specifics that grounds for disciplinary action may include, “conduct which furnishes substantial reason to believe that the individual may be or is being subject to coercion improper influence, or pressure which is reasonably likely to cause the individual to act contrary to the national security or foreign relations of the United States;” or, “notoriously disgraceful conduct,” defined in part as “that conduct which is shameful in nature and is generally known and talked of in a scornful manner.” Diplomatic Security (DS) adheres to a general policy that was stated during a press briefing on August 4, 1982: “[A]dmitted or alleged homosexuality, per se, does not constitute a basis for denial of employment or security clearance.” According to the statement, however, sexuality in general “may be relevant” during a security review. USAID follows the State Department protocol, a USAID spokesman says. He adds, “We’ve never turned anyone down [for a security clearance] because of homosexuality.”

Russell Sveda, a Foreign Service officer on detail to the National Science Foundation, says that is not the practice in State. Sveda says he was first investigated on the grounds of homosexuality in 1978, when he was posted to Israel. He worked without incident, however, until 1986, when DS sought his discharge on suitability grounds, initially because of “homosexuality,” following disclosure of a brief liaison with another American man. Then Director General George Vest ruled in Sveda’s favor in July 1986 by, shortly afterwards, Sveda was informed that his security clearance was being suspended and subsequently revoked. Since that time, Sveda states, he has spent more than $30,000 on his defense and received letters of support from dozens of colleagues and superiors, including ambassadors, but his clearance has not been restored. “It’s absolutely capricious,” he says.

Others say they have been singled out for security interviews on the basis of sexual preference alone. Danny Hall, an administrative officer most recently assigned to the Dominican Republic whose sexual preference is known to colleagues, says that on his return to Washington from his first tour he was called to three interviews with Diplomatic Security and asked about his homosexuality. No charge of misconduct was raised. Two DS agents also flew to Dallas to ask Hall’s mother whether she was aware that her son was gay. The agents were courteous and made sure Hall was informed of his rights, he says, and his security clearance has not been revoked. Nevertheless, he found the experience disturbing. “I see that there’s prejudice or harassment that does exist,” he says.

Richard Hoagland, a gay Foreign Service officer in USIA, came under investigation by the USIA Office of Security in August 1989. Hoagland, like Hall, was out of the closet to colleagues and superiors, had possessed an exemplary work record during his four years of Foreign Service, and had never breached any security regulations. But, Hoagland says, it would have been unrealistic to imagine that his sexuality would never come under official review.

Cautious opening

An exclusionary policy toward gays in many federal government positions existed through the 1960s. In the 1950s FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had made “sexual perversion” a criterion of non-loyalty for the Federal Employee Security Program, reporting that the FBI had identified many “sex deviates in government service.” In 1953, President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order explicitly barring homosexuals from employment in the federal government, and a number of employees were fired. The Department of Defense had a policy of dismissal for employees with gay “tendencies,” according to Mary Newcombe, a staff attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who specializes in Defense Department issues.

As attitudes changed in the 1960s and 1970s, so did government employment practices. The Civil Service Commission in 1976 and 1977 amended its regulations to bar dismissal of any federal employee on the basis of sexual orientation, and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 did the same thing by statute. Exclusionary policies toward those holding security clearances, however, remained in place, and gays went to the courts to reverse discriminatory policies. According to Franklin E. Kameny, an authority on security clearances for gay people, several cases have established a precedent that curtails the federal government’s ability to refuse a security clearance on the basis of homosexuality alone.

Instead, a “nexus” must be established between sexual orientation and the ability to perform a job.

In 1988, the National Security Agency decided to grant gays and lesbians access to “sensitive compartmented information” (SCI) under certain circumstances. The CIA in the late 1980s also decided that homosexuality per se was not grounds for denying an SCI clearance, although it was on factor to be taken into account in determining trustworthiness.

Currently, one of the last bastions of exclusion – the armed services – is being assailed by Congress. In May of this year, Representative Pat Schroeder (D-CO) introduced the Military Freedom Act of 1992 to forbid discrimination in the armed services on the basis of sexual orientation.

Fears of blackmail

The official anxiousness about gay employees stems from an old perception that gays, leading a lifestyle that is stigmatized, may be more susceptible to blackmail than heterosexuals. “The idea was that homosexuals were particularly apt to be blackmailed,” says Larry Williamson, deputy assistant secretary of State for Personnel. “I think there was something to it, because in [the 1950s] there were damn few people out of the closet. There was a great deal of fear about exploitation by [Communist] Bloc intelligence.” Williamson believes attitudes have changed significantly in the past 10 years. The State Department, however, still considers applicants and employees who are homosexual to be potentially vulnerable to blackmail, Williamson says.

A study undertaken for the Department of Defense on the susceptibility of gays to blackmail suggests, however, that gays and lesbians are no more likely than heterosexuals to be pressured into committing treason. The report, prepared in 1988 by the Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center but never released by DOD, examined 117 cases of Americans between 1945 and 1989 who had committed or attempted to commit espionage. Of these 117 offenders, seven were identified as homosexual. In brief biographic sketches of the seven and synopses of their treasonous acts, no connection was established between sexual orientation and espionage. None of the offenders was recruited by a foreign government, which would seem a requirement if blackmail had been a motive; all but one volunteered their services.

None of the State, USIA, or USAID spokesmen interviewed for this article could offer substantiation for the fear that gays are vulnerable to blackmail. Larry Williamson says he is not aware of any cases of blackmail involving a gay, and Larry Carnahan, acting director of USIA’s Office of Security says, “There have been no such cases in USIA.” Officials in the Office of Security at USAID also can recall no case of blackmail involving a gay or lesbian employee.

A secondary reason for subjecting gay employees to heightened scrutiny is the reluctance to allow any Foreign Service employee to engage in behavior that might embarrass the U.S. government. But the gay employees interviewed all emphasized the need for discretion, and none reported being counseled for inappropriate behavior. “Generally, a current employee’s sexual practices become a matter of concern to the agency only if they seem relevant to the employee’s alleged violation of security of suitability regulations,” says Harlan Rosacker, director of USIA’s Office of Personnel. Acts that are committed during a foreign posting and are considered “notoriously disgraceful conduct” could result in a security investigation for either sex. For homosexuals, “commonly accepted displays of affection, such as kissing” are not considered notorious. Neither is presence at gay bars. However, “employees who engage in sexual acts in gay bars, bathhouses, and theatres” would fall into realm of “notoriously disgraceful.”

At many foreign posts, homosexuality is technically illegal – as are many homosexual acts in most of the United States. But, according to a USAID Office of Security official who requested anonymity, even engaging in homosexual acts that are illegal in the host country should not put a Foreign Service employee’s security clearance in jeopardy. “We’re not in the criminal business,” he says. “[We would not be involved] unless the employee were to commit a crime that is also in violation of U.S. code, like rape, for instance.”

Scrutiny from the Hill

In 1987, Representative Schroeder, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil Service, received allegations that Foreign Service personnel suspected of being homosexual were subject to disparate treatment. Her concern was directed at USIA. In response to Schroeder’s inquire, USIA compiled statistics on the treatment of homosexual Foreign Service employees. Included was a listing of the 18 security reviews carried out between 1982 and 1987 looking into sexual indiscretion in USA. Of those listed, 12 involved homosexual Foreign Service officers and six involved heterosexuals.

The report reveals that all but two of the 12 gay cases were initiated solely because of an accusation of homosexuality, not unlawful conduct. One of the two remaining admitted sexual contact with foreign nationals, and the other admitted having sex with foreign nationals, and the other admitted having sex with foreign nationals from a “criteria” country. (A “criteria country” is one in which the risk of hostile intelligence operations against American officials is considered particularly high, traditionally including countries in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China.) By contrast, all six heterosexual cases listed involved contact that violated regulations, including one person in the Voice of America who was married but engaged in “sexual relationships with prominent nationals of other countries, some of whom were believed to have connection with foreign intelligence organizations.”

Schroeder’s 1987 inquiry and correspondence with then Agency Director Charles Wick was followed in 1988 with a request from Schroeder for the State Department to answer seven pages of questions concerning discrimination against gays. Since that time, security reviews have become less intrusive for gays. “Diplomatic Security approaches it with a certain amount of understanding,” says Washington attorney William Bransford, who has represented several gay Foreign Service employees. “They put it in a nice way: ‘You have your lifestyle, that’s your business. But we have national security interests, and sometimes the two conflict.’ It’s much easier for most gay Foreign Service officers to accede to that kind of interview.”

‘Potential’ risks

State Department Personnel now follows guidelines that were laid out in the December 7, 1988 response to Schroeder’s queries. According to Williamson, this response is standard policy now in effect for the State Department. Among other things, the policy states:

• The department does consider applicants and employees who are homosexual to be potentially vulnerable to blackmail.

• State does not, without more specific security concerns, limit or revoke a security clearance if it ascertains that an employee already posted to a criteria country is homosexual.

• If the department learns that a Foreign Service employee posted to a criteria country is (or is believe to be) homosexual, an appropriate investigation is initiated, consisting normally of record checks, inquiries to cognizant security officers or supervisors, and a personal interview with the employee.

Tolerable discrimination?

Where does it all leave gay Foreign Service employees? Some contend it leaves them with subtle patterns of prejudice and discrimination. For example, while officials of each branch of the Foreign Service say there are no security distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual activity in foreign countries, gays and their families are often subjected to interviews about the employee’s sexual behavior that they may find offensive and intrusive.

Furthermore, a few gay officers say they would like to bring their companions to post. “Most couples now have to deal with, ‘who’s going to put his career on the slow track?’ We do that too, but we do it without a [diplomatic] passport, without housing without evacuation protection…” says one gay officer in State. “We laugh because the president talks so much about family values. Well, I believe in family values, and this is my family. What am I supposed to do? Marry a woman and make her miserable? Be alone all my life?”

Nevertheless, the system is improving, according to Williamson. As much as the attitudes of the 1950s were reflected in department policy of that period, greater societal acceptance of homosexuality is filtering into Foreign Service thinking. “Overt and official discrimination is absurd,” Williamson says. “I would say, however, that there are individuals who still find [homosexuality] an aberrant behavior and don’t like to deal with [gays].”

For Richard Hoagland, the Foreign Service’s attitude toward gays is, at worst, “benign.” “I think the majority of Foreign Service officers across the board are – privately, maybe – very supportive of these issues,” he says. Nevertheless, although he has risen steadily through the ranks, he accepts that his sexuality will limit his personal life in comparison to heterosexuals. That includes getting involved with any foreign nationals of any country: “It’s something I’ve decided I wouldn’t do, because it would raise questions in the security apparatus. Yes, it boils down to discrimination. I know it’s morally wrong, but that’s the level of discrimination I’m able to live with.”

Mead Jennings is a Washington-based journalist. Anne Stevenson-Yang is editor of The Foreign Service Journal.