HANOI — When U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius, his husband, and their 15-month-old boy came onto the stage at the American Club in Vietnam’s capital last week, the crowd cheered and drew closer. Hundreds of young Vietnamese were there, many of them gay, lesbian, bi and trans and, in some cases, still trying to figure these things out.
They loved the message Osius brought to the pride event called BUBU (Be Unique, Be U) Town.
“We are all different, and it is our diversity that enriches our world,” said Osius, a 26-year veteran of the Foreign Service. He looked fit in his khakis and a black polo shirt from the U.S. Marine Security Guard Detachment, complete with a patch on the shoulder that said “POW-MIA: You Are Not Forgotten.” But the motif of the day, no question, was the rainbow flag that Osius had been holding in his hand.
Osius spoke in Vietnamese. “Being unique sometimes brings difficulties,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t look like everyone else. Look at my family—my husband, Clayton, is African-America. My wonderful children, Tabo and Lucy (who couldn’t be here today), are of Hispanic origin.”
Clayton Bond, also a veteran of the State Department, stepped forward with drowsy young Tabo in a carrier. More applause rang out from a crowd unfazed by the sweltering heat and humidity.
“In Vietnam, the LGBT community is growing, led by people like you who not only understand the issues but also know firsthand what it is like to be different,” said the ambassador. “We are witnessing real changes in attitudes among Vietnam’s people. …”
Osius was echoing sentiments heard at a big event held in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., last month, where six gay ambassadors appeared together on stage. Meanwhile the State Department has named a special envoy to promote the human rights of LGBT persons around the world; and LGBT Pride Month next month will see many more events.
But behind the happy talk, LGBT diplomats still have reserves of frustration, and perhaps even of fear. Notwithstanding his public appearance, Osius could not find time for a formal interview after the BUBU event, even on the phone. Neither could Selim Ariturk, the current head of GLIFAA, the recognized organization for LGBT persons and their families in foreign affairs agencies.
Some State Department officials, privately, have put pressure on GLIFAA to quiet down. All sides acknowledge that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been very supportive. But the Newseum event and the coverage that surrounded it, while generally positive, also raised questions about just how far Foggy Bottom is willing to go to protect the rights of LGBT staffers and their families, especially when they are bidding for assignments in countries that are actively hostile to gays. With the many other problems American diplomacy is facing right now in the Middle East, in Africa, with Russia and with China, promoting LGBT rights is not always going to be regarded as a top priority at the State Department.
Osius is a case study in how obstacles can be overcome, but he could also be the exception rather than the rule. Although there are other out ambassadors, he is the only one who is a career Foreign Service officer; the others were political appointees. And the greatest difficulties may be faced by couples far below ambassadorial rank who are seeking the protection afforded by diplomatic status for their spouses and children. That has to be conferred by the host country, and usually it is as part of reciprocal agreeements, but not always.
When Osius started in the Foreign Service in 1989, as he told the audience in Washington last month, “people would lose their security clearances, which means losing your job, for being out.” When GLIFAA was formed as “Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies” in 1992, its meetings were held in private homes and largely in secret. But the organization soon began to get results.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton began taking measures that culminated in 1998 with Executive Order 13087, which barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But, to this day, as GLIFAA points out on its website, “there is no federal law barring such discrimination.”
During those years, Osius held several sensitive posts, including a tour as political officer in Vietnam from 1996 to 1998, when the United States was just beginning to reestablish full diplomatic relations. He went on to become a senior adviser on foreign policy to then-Vice President Al Gore, and served in Thailand from 2001 to 2004.
By then, for LGBT State Department employees in any case, the issue was becoming less about their personal orientation or preferences, and more about how they could establish and care for families as they traveled around the world representing the United States.
In 2004, at a GLIFAA meeting in Washington, Osius met Clayton Bond, and the two have been together almost ever since. In 2009, they got married—in Vancouver, Canada—because at that point only one state in the Union would have let them tie the knot legally.
It is an indicator of just how rapidly things are changing in the United States that today there are some 35 states where Osius and Bond could be wed. But that good news at home has not translated into better shots at good assignments— with family—abroad, because it comes in the face of what GLIFAA’s Ariturk often describes as “the rising wave of global homophobia.”
Assigning an LGBT couple to most Western European countries presents few or no problems. But confronting the militantly homophobic governments of Russia, many African countries, and China is another matter. A recent GLIFAA survey suggests about half the nations in the world where the United States has diplomatic representation are problematic or hold up a big “No!” sign to LGBT couples.
How far can the State Department push in such circumstances? How far should it push? Many of the hundreds of LGBT staff in U.S. foreign affairs agencies would understand if Washington did not want to go to the mat with Moscow or Beijing. But Foggy Bottom’s reluctance seems to extend to many other corners of the world.
In some cases, governments agree to accept gay couples, giving both partners or spouses diplomatic accreditation, but religious leaders raise objections. In the Dominican Republic, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez talked at a press conference about “maricones” (faggots) when talking about Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster and his partner arriving on the island in 2013. Brewster endured that and many other insults, he said last month, because of his own strong Christian faith and the realization that “it wasn’t about us so much as it was about a conversation the society needed to have.”
In Vietnam, a very traditional society, Osius and Bond might have faced similar problems when they arrived in December, but by all accounts they did not.
“When I got off the plane in Vietnam ours was an American family—a black man, a white man, and a brown child.” In the months since, Osius has worked on a number of complex issues, including trans-Pacific trade and concerns over China’s expanding claims in South China Sea. “He is not ‘the gay ambassador to Vietnam,’” said one of his aides, “he is the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam who also happens to be gay.”
But the high profile of Osius, Bond, and their kids continues to push the edge of the social envelope in Vietnam and, indeed, around the world. And to the extent they are successful as diplomats, the more they open the door for progress in the future, the better off everyone will be.