WASHINGTON ― Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community Monday, acknowledging that the State Department has had a long history of discrimination against applicants and employees.
“In the past ― as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades ― the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place,” Kerry said in a statement. “These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.”
“On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community,” he added.
The issue is not Kerry’s commitment to the community. In 2015, he appointed the first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons. President Barack Obama has also appointed a record number of openly gay ambassadors, and around the world, his administration has championed equality.
But in the 1950s and 1960s, at least 1,000 people were dismissed from the State Department because they were believed to be gay, during what’s known as the “lavender scare.” The government justified its actions by arguing that these individuals were security risks because they were more susceptible to blackmail and “honey traps.”
The State Department was encouraged by Congress, which required officials to report on the number of gay people they fired each year and complained that Foggy Bottom was full of homosexuals sympathetic to Communism.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, asked Kerry to apologize in a Nov. 29 letter:
Although the worst effects of the “lavender scare” are far behind us, as recently as the early 1990s the State Department’s security office was investigating personnel thought to be gay and driving them out of government service as “security risks,” leading to Secretary of State Warren Christopher finally issuing a prohibition against discrimination in the Department including that based on sexual orientation in 1994, and President Bill Clinton signing Executive Order 13087 barring discrimination in the basis of sexual orientation in 1998.
Yet, according to the State Department Office of Legislative Affairs, the State Department Historian’s Office, and the Senate Historian, to date there has been no public acknowledgment or apology by the Department or the U.S. Government for this history of discrimination, and the grave injustice done to these State Department employees, based on their sexual orientation.
“The apology made by Secretary Kerry today represents a welcome first step to acknowledge this dark stain on our nation’s history, and I thank him for his principled leadership,” Cardin said Monday. “I intend to move forward with legislation that adds the Senate’s voice to this important issue, and to address my on-going commitment to building an inclusive foreign policy and development workforce that represents all Americans.”
There has been significant concern in the LGBTI community about what sorts of policies President-elect Donald Trump will pursue once he takes office. His vice president, Mike Pence, has a long career history of opposing equality.
At a recent gathering of international LGBTI leaders hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund Institute in Washington, D.C., former U.S. ambassador to Romania Michael Guest predicted, however, that it may be tough for Trump to turn back some of the progress.
“I think that some of these things are dyed into the fabric of the State Department in ways that would be very, very, very hard to unravel,” said Guest, who was the first openly gay Senate-confirmed ambassador and was nominated by President George W. Bush. “I think it would look bad for Trump personally, and his administration more broadly, if they were to just suddenly say, ‘No more pride flags on embassies. No more pride celebrations.’”
Kerry’s full apology:
Throughout my career, including as Secretary of State, I have stood strongly in support of the LGBTI community, recognizing that respect for human rights must include respect for all individuals. LGBTI employees serve as proud members of the State Department and valued colleagues dedicated to the service of our country. For the past several years, the Department has pressed for the families of LGBTI officers to have the same protections overseas as families of other officers. In 2015, to further promote LGBTI rights throughout the world, I appointed the first ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.
In the past – as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades – the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place. These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.
On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.
This story has been updated to include comment from Cardin.
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