Politics

09.05.14

D.C.'s Lesbian Power Wedding

The marriage of two high-powered women in the national security establishment shows how far we’ve come, and gives us what is perhaps Washington’s first wedded lesbian power couple.

Tucked among the wedding announcements in the Sunday New York Times was one of those cultural markers that when they write the history of the gay rights movement in America, it should go down as a milestone. Not because the wedding of two women working in the field of national security and intelligence created a big ruckus—to the contrary, unless you’re an avid reader of the Times’ wedding pages, or a friend of the happy couple, the fact of their marriage is totally unremarkable, and that’s the news. 

Just as families come in all shapes and sizes, and can’t be defined by sexual orientation, power couples too can look different in the 21st century. Ann Bridgeman, who goes by Tess, is joining the National Security Council this month as a deputy legal adviser, while her spouse, Elizabeth Lynn George, is a legal counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

These are high-powered jobs, which require security clearances, and that were once reserved for men—straight men, at that. The belief that persisted throughout most of the last century was that people hiding their sexuality would be susceptible to blackmail. Charlie Joughin with the Human Rights Campaign recalls “the old days with witch hunts to out people in positions of national security. Now, so many years later, two women proudly announce their marriage in one of the nation’s preeminent newspapers with an adorable photo no less. It’s very indicative of the times having changed.” 

Once you remove the stigma, you remove the risk. And while there are many more battles to be fought to achieve full equality for LGBT people, the progress made especially in the last decade is remarkable. “I can almost hear J. Edgar Hoover rolling over in his grave,” says Michael Guest, the first openly gay ambassador confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Hoover was the FBI director who wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr., and who used people’s sexuality as a weapon for entrapment, straight or gay, even as questions surfaced about his own orientation.

“By walking down the aisle, they show the power of being out—and they make it impossible for people to demonize them for being lesbians.”

“Four decades ago, being gay was considered a security risk and it could end your career,” Guest told The Daily Beast. He joined the Foreign Service in 1981 at the start of the Reagan administration, and in 2000, some 20 years later, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put his name forward to become an ambassador. George W. Bush won the election that November, and Guest’s nomination was stalled for a time, but then in March of 2001, it moved forward.

His sexual orientation didn’t come up in his Senate hearing but it was in his paperwork, and when he paid courtesy calls on various senators, some raised the issue. In the end, he was easily confirmed as ambassador to Romania. He was not, however, the first openly gay ambassador. That distinction belongs to philanthropist James Hormel, who President Clinton named ambassador to Luxembourg in a 1999 recess appointment.

Republican Senate leader Trent Lott refused to bring Hormel’s confirmation to a vote, saying publicly that he believed homosexuality is a sin, and equating it with addictive disorders like alcoholism and kleptomania. Christian conservative groups opposed Hormel, labeling him a gay activist because he had donated some of his considerable wealth to LGBT groups and causes. The Christian right blocked Hormel’s confirmation and, in the odd way Washington works, the bitter fight helped smooth the way for Guest.

“No one had the stomach for another fight,” says Guest, who as a career Foreign Service officer wasn’t seen as an activist. “The Republican Congress didn’t want to embarrass a Republican administration,” he explains. “And seven years after my confirmation as the first openly gay ambassador, there was the first gay ambassador in the Obama administration, followed by four or five more. That’s as commonplace now as [same-sex] marriage.”

Still, there is something in the Bridgeman-George union that is different, and possibly trend-setting. They hold serious jobs that require security clearances, and by being honest and open about who they are, they might just be Washington’s first lesbian power couple. “By walking down the aisle, they show the power of being out—and they make it impossible for people to demonize them for being lesbians,” says Guest.   

Elaine Kamarck, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wondered if their jobs pose a conflict of interest. Both lawyers, both 33 years old, Bridgeman and George met at New York University where they both earned magna cum laude law degrees. “They’re both in the same business,” says Kamarck, pointing out that the Senate Intelligence Committee where George works has some oversight of the National Security Council where Bridgewater will soon be. After thinking about it for a nanosecond, however, Kamarck concluded there probably isn’t a conflict, and she agrees that their marriage is a cultural milestone.

But the bigger milestone, in her view, is getting women into national security, which she calls “the last refuge of the old boys network.” In any event, there is much to celebrate in the elevation of these two women in their careers, and in their union as a married couple.