By good luck, I landed my very first job after college at the U.S. Department of State nearly four decades ago. The State Department always has been a magnet for any young person excited about world affairs and surrounded by smart, dedicated professionals.
While I could not then predict where my career might take me, I knew one thing for sure. The American Foreign Service, at the time, was likely to be a sensitive and risky environment for an openly gay man or woman. In 1974, we were confined by long ago norms and outdated security rules under then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that made it virtually impossible to successfully ascend the diplomatic ranks to live and work honestly and openly.
Fast forward to the dramatic changes in Foggy Bottom in recent years, and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s declaration that “gay rights are human rights.” American diplomacy today not only reflects this refreshing change, but also has improved the lives and the mission of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender foreign service colleagues everywhere – including the posting of LGBT senior diplomats and the appointment of outstanding Ambassadors like David Huebner who serves us in New Zealand, and last week’s swearing in of John Berry, now newly married and establishing his new home at our Embassy in Australia.
All of these changes, of course, were made possible in part by the courageous work performed since 1992 by the leaders and members of GLIFAA (Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies). Often with personal risk, GLIFAA gave birth to the Foreign Service trailblazers and allies essential to achieve the potential for LGBT people to serve openly and proudly in their ranks, and to welcome our spouses, partners and families.
This month in Stockholm I witnessed these historic changes first-hand when I was invited by the American Embassy staff to serve as a guest speaker during Sweden’s Pride season. While our U.S. Foreign Service professionals play many roles in world capitals, some like Embassy Counselor Jeff Anderson engage in public diplomacy – that connects American visitors and thought leaders with our counterparts overseas. In the truest spirit of diplomacy, it’s about learning, listening and finding common values. In addition, it was encouraging to discover that one of GLIFFA’s past presidents, Bob Gilchrist, today serves as Charge d’Affaires at the Embassy in Stockholm.
Jeff opened a new chapter this year for the Embassy by urging greater dialogue with LGBT business and civic leaders that gave me a unique chance to witness how Swedish society embraces openness, recognition and respect for LGBT people in all walks of life. We held a spirited Q&A session with the Embassy’s youth council, talked with business owners and entrepreneurs, and one morning, at the ambassador’s residence, held a first-ever breakfast conversation with a cross-section of 25 individuals representing LGBT and allied interests – including business, government, media, faith, political party leaders and the military.
Looking east toward the disturbing, darkening policies today of Russia, much of this conversation touched on several paths to combat Russian bigotry. While we spoke of boycotts, economic pressures and next year’s Olympics, it was encouraging to listen to Swedish perspectives on the global implications – Russia and beyond, and the long-term strategies it takes to achieve protections and lasting respect for LGBT lives, families and rights on all continents.
Tobias Holdstock, deputy political adviser to Stockholm’s mayor, left us with a haunting observation. He questioned whether the tide of anti-gay bigotry in some parts of the world is a signal of worse things to come, or perhaps a closing chapter of shrill backlash to the advances made by nations like Sweden and the U.S.
We also shared ideas about the dynamic intersection of American business with public policy, and how corporations are helping transform U.S. society to be more welcoming and inclusive. Over the past 20 years, I told first-hand about the pioneering steps that global brands like American Airlines have taken to change policies for their employees as well as customers that influenced many brands to follow.
Outstanding civic leaders like Ulrika Westerlund and Helena Westin, representing RFSL advocates – a Swedish group parallel to our Human Rights Campaign – led a special panel to talk about LGBT business inclusion and progress globally. In turn, I described the unprecedented milestone this past spring when nearly 300 major U.S. corporations from Amazon, Google and Twitter to Marriott, Orbitz and Xerox told the U.S. Supreme Court that the unfair Defense of Marriage Act must be repealed because of its harm to their businesses and the American economy.
What made these discussions especially meaningful and newsworthy for the Swedish was the personal engagement given by our Ambassador to Sweden Mark Brzezinski. Many will recognize his surname, since his father served as National Security Adviser in the Carter White House. We both have Virginia roots and degrees from the University of Virginia – and more important, a deeply shared desire to build bridges among LGBT and non-LGBT allies to advance human rights.
At the start of Stockholm’s monumental Pride celebration in late July, Ambassador Brzezinski took a bold step. He mesmerized Swedish television and newspapers by hoisting the Rainbow flag along with our American flag at his residence. Americans and Swedes alike applauded the signal it sent to other Embassies including the Russians. With this warm gesture, the Stockholm Pride organizers in turn honored Ambassador Brzezinski by selecting him to offer welcoming remarks at this year’s opening celebration – an historic and meaningful occasion for any American diplomat.
Ambassador Brzezinski made the most of the moment. In a headline remark quoted by Sweden’s largest tabloid paper, he declared: “Viar anti-anti-gay” or put simply in English, “We are anti anti-gay.”
Nor can we forget, throughout this remarkable experience, the ambassador’s personal words of welcome to the Swedish LGBT leaders and activists who joined us as his guests at the residence. He chose three simple words to express what he and President Obama feel about the global movement for LGBT rights by honoring “our courage, our dignity and our love.”
Bob Witeck is president of Witeck Communications, Inc., a D.C.-based strategic communications firm, and a longtime LGBT activist and writer.