ANALYSIS: State Department Halts Visas for Unmarried Same-Sex Partners of Diplomats

Only nine years ago, our LGBTQ diplomats and other federal employees serving our country abroad were cruelly separated from their family when they were posted oversees, as their same-sex partners and spouses could not obtain spousal visas.  Like military servicemembers under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they were discriminated against in their service to our country, rather than having their and their families’ service and sacrifices supported and celebrated.

In 2009, that changed with new State Department guidance — which Family Equality Council documented in this blog post — requesting accreditation by host countries of same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats and other employees as family members eligible for “privileges and immunities” provided by host countries to consular families.  Under the concept of reciprocity, the State Department also began to issue diplomatic visas and employment authorization to same-sex partners of diplomats from other countries serving in the U.S.

I remember well how the lives of my friends serving our country changed under the new policy.  Rather than struggling to maintain long-distance relationships via Skype and occasional visits, they began to face the same challenges as other employees in foreign service: uprooting families and moving from place to place every few years, but now with the support and protections of U.S. embassies, including access to facilities and benefits such as preferred employment opportunities which ease the loneliness and other challenges of foreign service.   This was particularly important in countries with discriminatory policies and practices towards LGBTQ people, where the protection and support of one’s U.S. embassy could help relieve the strain and fears of life abroad where homo- and transphobia expressed itself in unfamiliar ways.

Just as importantly, U.N. and other diplomatic employees from other countries could now serve in the U.S. joined by their foreign national same-sex partners without being outed by having to declare their intimate relationship publicly.  I have a gay friend who has served for years at the embassy of his government here in Washington, DC – a government which punishes homosexuality by death.  He has avoided work and personal trips home, literally fearing for his life should he be outed while in his home country.

Now the U.S. government is threatening such foreign nationals who work at the U.N., embassies, and in other positions with diplomatic or consular visas, whose same-sex partners accompany them to their post in the United States on family visas: get married and get outed, or get out.  Couples will need to get married by the end of this year or will be forcibly separated when their same-sex partners will lose their legal status and be required to leave the U.S. within thirty days.

Getting married to a same-sex partner will provide a public record of the relationship, literally leading to potential criminal punishment when foreign nationals return home from their service in the U.S. to the seventy countries where simply being LGBTQ is a crime.

Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who led the fight in Congress alongside Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for equality for LGBTQ families in immigration law, stated a decade ago:

“[T]he worst kinds of injustice are those in which the law acts… in a gratuitously cruel manner that harms individuals for no purpose… Tens of thousands of gay[s] and lesbian[s] …face a terrible choice between leaving the country to be with the person they love or remaining here in the United States and separating from their partner… government should never engage in purposeless, gratuitous cruelty and we should stop it.”

At the time, Nadler was referring to immigration laws which separated LGBTQ American citizens and residents from our foreign national partners, spouses and children.  The same quote could be applied today to the atrocious and cruel manner in which a Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who opposes marriage equality, is using a marriage requirement as a bludgeon to needlessly tear apart the families of foreign nationals who cannot safely proclaim their same-sex relationships. It is nearly inconceivable that our government, after nine years of progress in stopping the separation of LGBTQ families, progress cemented five years ago for Americans in the Supreme Court Obergefell marriage equality decision, is now using that same decision to cruelly tear apart families – this time of foreign national diplomats.  In doing so, we are also enabling foreign governments in identifying their LGBTQ citizens so they can criminalize them simply for being who they are.

As the Deputy United Nations Director stated in a blog yesterday, this is “is a bad and cruel policy, one that replicates the terrible discrimination many LGBT people face in their own countries, and should be immediately reversed.”

In the face of such gratuitous cruelty, Family Equality Council will continue to fight for equality for LGBTQ families in the United States, regardless of the national origin or immigration status of those families.

By Julie Kruse, Director of Federal Policy