How Gay U.S. Ambassador Rufus Gifford Got Married, And Became a Social Media Star
In a candid interview, Rufus Gifford, the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, talks about his agonizing coming out, which made his happiness-filled wedding last weekend all the sweeter.
The happiness is audible in Rufus Gifford’s voice.
It is almost a week since the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark married his partner of six years, Dr. Stephen DeVincent, at Copenhagen City Hall, with a lavish reception afterward at the ambassadorial residence.
The men, both glowing with happiness and joy and extremely handsome, became social media stars after Gifford, 41, shared images of their special day last Saturday on social media.
There was the picture in the car just after they got married.
There was the exchanging of the rings.
There was the handwritten congratulatory message from Gifford’s close friend, President Obama.
There were the fireworks at midnight, organized by DeVincent, 56, for his husband (they’re his favorite things, as well as French fries, which DeVincent also arranged to have served at midnight).
“It’s been an amazing week,” Gifford tells The Daily Beast, sounding still genuinely overcome by the overwhelmingly celebratory and positive public response to his nuptials.
“Its incredibly emotional. It’s been wonderful, and something we’ve been planning on doing for quite some time but life gets in the way.”
The wedding was a little more than a year in the planning, and the couple invited 110 of their closest American friends and around 50 of their closest Danish friends to a “really, really wonderful celebration. It was more about love, family, and acceptance than anything else.”
Gifford adds it was also an homage to Denmark, which, 26 years ago, took the then-bold step to allow same-sex couples to register as domestic partners—becoming the first country in the world to do so.
“When the Lord Mayor mentioned that in the room, which is something Americans don’t know, there was almost a physical gasp,” says Gifford.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by letters, emails, and Facebook messages over the course of the last few days,” he adds. “I got one from a Danish gay couple, one of the first to get married. He said that he remembered back then, even here, there were angry people standing outside City Hall, or tabloids wanting to take pictures of the crazy gays.”
The reason the gentleman wrote the letter, he said, was that it was so wonderful to see society change, even in a famously liberal place like Denmark.
Gifford said a couple of moments particularly moved him on his big day. “The most personally ‘momentiest’ moment was standing in the tent which we had built on our backyard, looking around the room, seeing so many friends from all parts of our life.
“All of them are really good friends and all of them were laughing. I said in my toast that I wished nothing more than for the 16-year-old Rufus to see this room, because for many of us who grew up in the 1980s the idea that this could be our reality was completely unthinkable. To see the love in the room was incredibly special.”
Well, I say, the guestlist was very swanky, and included the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark.
Gifford laughs, but insists, “There was not a single person invited who was not a personal friend. We had 10 ambassadors, but they’re all personal friends. The Crown Prince and Princess are our age, and we’ve actually become friends with them, so it made sense.
“I really felt very strongly we didn’t want to invite people who couldn’t laugh with us. That was my litmus test for inviting somebody. I wanted someone to dance to a DJ, and enjoy fireworks and drink wine and all the rest.
“Everybody I knew who was there could do that. It was a little bit fancy and then a little bit not. We all had aunts, uncles, and cousins there who are anything but fancy, and could not be more upset at having to rent a cheap tuxedo in Copenhagen. They were there alongside ambassadors, royalty, and all the rest. It was a great group and everyone gelled really well.”
The letter from Obama, for whom Gifford has worked for almost nine years, was on one hand “wonderfully validating as I respect him a tremendous amount. Then you take a step back and think, ‘Here we are, a gay couple getting married, and we’re getting a handwritten letter from the president.’
“Could we have imagined just a few years ago that this was possible? We have to remember that I think, take a little bit of perspective, and just love the progress that we’ve made—as a country, as Americans, but also the world in so many ways. You try not to get too flowery about it. There’s so much work to be done. But the moment was so beautiful, it was just perfect.”
The day was even more special for Gifford because his family was all there, and—many years previously—coming to terms with his own sexuality, coming out, and his family coming to terms with his homosexuality, were all far from easy.
“We grew up in small town (Manchester-by-the-Sea) in Massachusetts, which of course is progressive, but back then we didn’t know any gay people,” Gifford tells me. “It wasn’t a religious thing, it was more of a cultural bias in some ways. I’m not a parent, but parents want nothing more than for their children to be happy, and my parents didn’t understand me.
“Their definition of happiness was very narrow. It was a suburban lifestyle, beautiful house, wonderful kids: those sorts of things that weren’t going to be my reality. What’s funny is that it wasn’t going to be my reality back then. Today theoretically it could be.”
Back then, being gay was “very far” from what Gifford’s parents believed happiness was. “I think I was a real challenge to them. They really had to shift their mindset, but they knew they had to do that work.”
To that end, the entire family, except Rufus, went into therapy, “which is wonderful. As a testament to my parents they had so much work to do to figure it out inside themselves, but they didn’t ask me to change which was the most wonderful part. They knew they had to change.”
It was hard, Gifford says. “There were lots of tears, lots of drama, lots of sadness, and occasional fighting.”
Coming out was a “huge challenge,” he adds. “I came out when I was 18, in my freshmen year at Brown University. It was a huge struggle. I had no gay role models. The big difference is you know you’re attracted to men—I was from a very early age—but you don’t identify as gay, because that was represented in society in a way that was unrelatable to me. It wasn’t until I got to college where you meet people who…it just seemed to make more sense.”
Gifford’s voice hardens. “I was riddled with self-hatred and self-doubt, and a lack of any understanding of what my life would be like in the future. There were many, many days when you didn’t want to wake up the next morning, but you can’t even imagine those days now—they seem like another lifetime.”
Does he mean he contemplated suicide? “Not in any serious way, I think that’s too dramatic. But the intense depression was real. It was literally wanting to escape your body. And because everything you’re thinking and feeling was wrong, what do you do about that?”
Today, he thinks this was all just a product of growing up in the time he did, and not in a city, “not in a place where the concept of difference was celebrated. I grew up in a town where being normal was very specific and important. “Manchester-by-the-Sea is a wonderful town. It has evolved tremendously since I grew up there. I go back there now and I’m certain a young gay kid might think differently, but it’s a very different place to what it was then.”
Gifford’s journey to self-acceptance, was, he says, “one of those things that allowed me to grow as a human being. It felt like I had to fight for myself and fight for my own way, and that was good for me to get outside of my comfort zone. It was a challenge, but I look back now and it’s been the most unbelievable, wonderful journey.”
The presence of his parents, three brothers and sisters, and every one of his nieces and nephews at his wedding showed him just how far the whole family had come.
His father had just emailed Gifford and DeVincent when we spoke, and Gifford read me his moving message.
He wrote, among other things: “Amidst all the crazy publicity I want to at least remind myself that these magical three days are a wonderful love story… This weekend was a wonderful expression of your devotion and love.
“Any relationship’s bedrock is trust, respect, and communication as these will secure the overlying love… I’m enormously grateful for our entire family of three generations which saw first-hand this amazing experience, again with that cornerstone of love.
“Thanks for the memories, which will be sustained for a long time. XO, Father and Father-in-law.”
Similar emails have come from his siblings, and Gifford has also spoken to his mother who expressed similar joy.
“It’s very important for my family to have gone on this journey,” he says. “My mom and dad will say my coming out broadened their horizons, and broadened their understanding a little bit more about love, compassion, acceptance, and diversity—all those wonderful things about life. It is one of most important things that ever happened to them.”
After his tormented teenage years, college turned out to be liberating for Gifford, he says. “You spread your wings, start dating, find your place in the world, make enormous mistakes, fall flat on your face from time to time.”
Diplomacy did not interest Gifford at that stage. “My father was a banker from Boston, and I wanted to be anything but a banker from Boston.” He moved instead to Los Angeles, with his then-boyfriend, to work in film. “It was really a desire to pave my own way, and my sexuality was a really important part of that.”
By 2004 he was feeling “very uninspired. I had the kind of fantasy in my head that I would move to Hollywood and make Oscar-winning movies, but—and I take nothing away from these—I was working on big-budget family comedies, like Dr Dolittle 2, Garfield, and Daddy Daycare. I felt a need to make a change.”
Gifford quit his job and campaigned for John Kerry, his then-home state senator and ironically now his boss as Secretary of State.
No one in his family had ever run for office, but it felt to Gifford politics was under discussion around the dinner tables of Massachusetts, including his own.
In 1992, aged 18, he went to Brown to register to vote for the first time, a “very important moment,” and he talked to his father about that year’s election battle between Bill Clinton and George Bush. “Politics was always in my blood, and always will be—once it’s part of it its hard to get it away. I love it.” (As an ambassador, he says he must exercise political impartiality and not reveal if he is for Clinton, Sanders, or A.N. Other.)
A role in Democratic Party fundraising blossomed in California, and then Gifford worked in political consultancy. “Then I met Barack Obama in January 2007 and it changed my life.”
Gifford had just come from a meeting with Hillary Clinton’s finance director who had offered him a job in California for her 2008 campaign, and was at a party Ted Kennedy was hosting to celebrate the Democrats taking the House and Senate in 2006.
Gifford spoke to Obama for a short amount of time. “There was talk about him running for president but he hadn’t declared yet. In those moments, I said, ‘This is my guy, this is what I want to do.’ I said ‘no’ to the Clinton campaign and kept my fingers crossed that Obama would call to offer me the same job.” That happened, but for less money, “but it was worth it to me.”
To Gifford, Obama was “everything I wanted to elect politically, but also who he represented as a human being. I wanted to show both my parents, who would never have believed it, that we could have elected an African-American president with ‘Hussein’ as a middle name, and also show the rest of the world that too.”
Gifford was also gay, so wasn’t he frustrated—as many LGBTs were—with, once he was elected, how long it took Obama to “evolve” on equality?
“I trusted… I fully understood… I was working for him for the entire time when all that frustration with all the candidates around marriage equality was there.
“Truly how I felt, back then and how I feel now, is that I trusted him, and trusted in him and the process where he would get to where we needed him to be. Am I frustrated at times with the pace it took? Absolutely. Its impossible as a gay man knowing what is right, there’s no question.
“It’s frustrating at times that it takes as long as it does, but you know in your heart that it’s gonna happen.”
So why did Obama take so long—was it genuine inner-debating, or was he pro-equality all the way along but too worried about the political fallout if he said so?
“I can’t really comment on it,” says Gifford. “I don’t really think about that part any more anyway. It’s more about where we got.”
The seeds of Gifford’s ambassadorial life were sown when he was the finance director of Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
Tapped to meet about possible jobs in the second administration, Gifford never thought an ambassadorial job would be in the offing: He was 38, and ambassadors seemed much older. But he was offered his current job, and still has goosebumps thinking about that meeting.
He recalls James Hormel’s fight in 1997—nominated by Clinton to be the U.S.’s first openly gay ambassador (to Luxembourg), “but blocked by a Senate because he was deemed unfit to serve us overseas because he was gay.” Clinton eventually over-rode the Senate, and Hormel took up the posting in 1999.
Times have fortunately changed and, for Gifford, “this job is really as good as it gets, it’s really wonderful.”
Gifford met DeVincent in Washington in 2009. “The attraction was immediate, the connection was immediate, life just gets in the way of that.”
What he means is the couple have made their relationship work despite the opposing geographical pulls of their jobs.
DeVincent was, and still is, a veterinarian based in Provincetown (especially during the summer), who was doing a fellowship in the State Department when they met.
When Gifford had to move to Chicago for the re-election campaign, there was more commuting. Oddly this made both men realize how much they meant to each other.
“We spent every single weekend together except two,” says Gifford. “On the Friday afternoon when I had to take the L to O’Hare or he had to take the metro to National, it didn’t feel like a chore. It was something good and happy.”
They moved to Copenhagen in the fall of 2013, and still DeVincent works the summer in Provincetown. It’s hard for DeVincent to qualify as a vet in Denmark—it would mean essentially returning to school—but he has taken on roles with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, on projects involving elephants in Africa and polar bears in Greenland.
Is their 15-year age difference an issue?
“It’s always sort of an issue practically,” says Gifford. “It’s one of issues you ask yourself, ‘Does this make any sense that he’s almost 15 years older than I am.”
He doesn’t look it, I say.
“In some ways that’s the problem,” says Gifford. “When people meet him, they think I’m older than him.” He laughs. “It’s sort of not about that. At some point you’re just compatible, and it’s just good. It’s just has never been a problem.
“When we first met, our friends said to both of us, ‘He’s 15 years older,’ or ‘He’s 15 years younger. Is this really real or just a fun thing?’ Those sorts of comments stop happening really quite quickly. You just make it work, and that part has been fantastic.”
Gifford’s future, he admits, is a bit of a mystery.
“I’m a political appointee of the president so when he’s done, theoretically I’m done. The next president could extend me for a little bit longer, but these jobs are incredibly sought after, and I fully anticipate sometime in early 2017 that we will leave here. For me, I’ll be a 42-year-old retired ambassador. That’s a strange concept because I don’t want to go back to my old line of work. And I will not.”
Gifford still owns a home in Los Angeles, but doubts the men will go there. He sees this potential period of change as an opportunity.
“Is it a career in politics or the private sector? What city? We love living in Europe, do we want to stay? We think a lot about London and New York, or maybe home in Boston. We’ll see. We have to figure out together in the course of the next year, and in the meantime enjoy this incredible life and work we’re doing right now.”
As the fuss over his wedding showed, Gifford has become a figurehead himself. “It’s strange, I can never really view myself that way. I fully understand that people are paying attention, and with that comes a great responsibility to represent yourself as a gay man who is a public figure.
“What I use as my guiding principle, ultimately, is just to be honest, and when I say that I mean to let people in, to let them know how I’m feeling, to let them into our lives.
“I don’t consider myself an activist, but I do believe just saying Stephen’s name any time I’m doing a television interview is a sort of activism in and of itself, in the sense it’s creating a sense of normalcy around the concept of homosexuality.”
Even in liberal Denmark, Gifford is stopped numerous times on the street not only by gay men and women, but people who thank him for being public and out, “which makes you realize how much it matters. It’s completely emotional for me.”
He says he could not have imagined that the selfie shot in the car, with the men showing the wedding rings on their fingers, got 55,000 Facebook likes and thousands of comments. “It’s just wonderful.”
Five days after his wedding, Gifford says he still needs to process it all. “The only thing I know is that it does feel incredibly magical. If I think of one word to describe the last few days it would be ‘gratitude.’”
It’s too soon to say if the couple want children, Gifford says it wouldn’t be anything they would undertake before leaving Copenhagen, “and neither of us are getting any younger, so you have to take that into account.” However, Gifford says he loves ageing, “other than the fact your body hurts a little bit more.”
There will not be an immediate honeymoon, but the men may jet off somewhere warm when the Northern European days and nights become bitter in the winter.
When I ask Gifford how he is feeling five days on from all the hullabaloo, he says to look at the video of his wedding night fireworks surprise.
“It feels like this overwhelming emotion, and overwhelming positivity. And I just feel humbled, incredible gratitude, and I feel as blessed as I ever have in my life in this job, in this country, representing the country I love, doing what I love to do more than anything in the world—and, of course most importantly, with the man that I love.
“I don’t know how it gets any better than this. That we’ll figure out in the days, weeks, months to come. For now I’m going to relish this and enjoy it, because it’s a very special moment in our lives.”
To that end, as you read this, Gifford and DeVincent will be having a deliciously quiet weekend.
“On my ambassador’s calendar, every 15 minutes is accounted for, from 8 o’clock in the morning to late at night. But this Saturday and Sunday, there is absolutely nothing on the calendar. We are taking both days off. That means sleeping late, taking the dog (Argos, a nearly 4-year-old golden retriever) for a walk, and eating leftover cake—which there is tons of.”