March 25, 2015 at 12:24 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay U.S. ambassadors take part in Newseum panel

John Berry, Wally Brewster, Rufus Gifford, Daniel Baer, James Costos, Ted Osius, GLIFFA, Harvey Milk Foundation, Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry, U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James ‘Wally’ Brewster, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer, U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra James Costos and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius spoke at a panel for openly gay U.S. ambassadors at the Newseum in D.C. on March 24, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo during a June 26, 2013, press conference referred to the openly gay man that President Obama had nominated to become the next U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic as a “faggot.”

The U.S. Senate a few months later unanimously confirmed James “Wally” Brewster’s nomination in spite of continued opposition from López and other prominent Dominican religious leaders.

Brewster — who is a former Human Rights Campaign board member — on Tuesday became emotional during a panel at the Newseum in downtown Washington as he discussed the opposition that he and his husband, Bob Satawake, continue to face in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

“We knew that that’s not who the Dominican people were as a whole, and I think that was important to us,” said Brewster with Satawake sitting by his side. “Bob and I will celebrate 27 years together this year and from that perspective we both have a very strong Christian belief and so nobody is going to ever tell me that God doesn’t love me.”

Brewster and the five other openly gay U.S. ambassadors took part in a panel organized by HRC, the Harvey Milk Foundation and GLIFAA, a group of LGBT Foreign Service members

Randy Berry, the special U.S. envoy to promote global LGBT rights, and Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student who was beaten to death in 1998, were among the hundreds of people who attended the historic event.

Stuart Milk, the gay nephew of assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation, moderated the panel.

“It’s very important to have out and open and visible service,” said Stuart Milk. “We have to be at the table. We have to have LGBT people visible, even in difficult places.”

U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, who is a founding member of GLIFAA, during the panel noted a high school student in the Vietnamese city of Hue a few weeks ago asked him if he was gay and whether he “came here with your husband and with your child.” The boy proceeded to ask him in front of his classmates whether he felt comfortable in his country.

Osius — who assumed his post late last year — told the student that gay members of the Foreign Service once lost their security clearances if they acknowledged their sexual orientation.

“We’ve made quite a lot of progress in that time,” said Osius, who is raising a three-week-old daughter and toddler-aged son with his husband, Clayton Bond. “When I got off the plane in Vietnam, ours was an American family: A black man, a white man and a brown child. And we were received so warmly in Vietnam.”

U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra James Costos said he and his partner received “great accommodation” when they arrived in the country and were “treated graciously.”

Costos during the panel noted the U.S. Embassy in Madrid initially did not “do too much with” Spanish LGBT rights advocates because same-sex couples were already able to legally marry and the country had already adopted sweeping legal protections. He stressed anti-LGBT employment discrimination and bullying remain serious problems in the country — especially outside of the Spanish capital and Barcelona — in spite of laws that are designed to combat them.

“What we can do through our messaging is give a sense of hope,” said Costos.

U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford noted the Nordic country in 1989 became the first nation in the world to legally recognize same-sex couples.

In spite of this historic milestone and Denmark’s reputation as a tolerant country, Gifford said his ambassadorship has generated interest among the Danish people.

“When you are a United States ambassador, who you are as a person matters,” he said. “Everything you say matters and your personal story matters.”

“It’s not just about negotiating trade deals and the standard diplomacy,” added Gifford. “It’s who you are too.”

U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry, who is the former director of the Office of Personnel Management, acknowledged Frank Kameny at the beginning of his remarks.

John Berry during the panel also noted Tori Johnson, the gay manager of the Lindt Chocolate Shop in Sydney who died last December during a 16-hour standoff, lived with his partner of 14 years. The former OPM director noted the attack has reinvigorated the Australian movement in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples because the country did not recognize Johnson’s relationship.

John Berry also compared Johnson to Mark Bingham, the gay man who fought back against the hijackers of United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, because he lost his life while trying to get the gun away from the man who stormed his café.

“He is a hero,” said John Berry. “He is a hero to the LGBT community.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Daniel Baer — who married his husband, Brian Walsh, last August in Vienna — has been among the most high profile American voices against Russia in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russian separatists in the eastern part of the former Soviet republic.

Baer during the panel acknowledged LGBT rights efforts are “backsliding in a number of places” around the world. These include bills in Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics seeking to ban so-called gay propaganda that are similar to the Russian law that took effect in 2013.

“We keep pushing,” said Baer. “We keep doing what we’re doing.”

Ambassadors ‘wonderful representatives of the LGBT community’

Several social media users noted after the event the six U.S. ambassadors who took part in it are all gay white men.

Stuart Milk described them as “wonderful representatives of the LGBT community.” HRC President Chad Griffin further categorized the men as “trailblazers.”

“Today there is no clearer sign of our progress in 2015 than the fact that there is not one, not two, but six openly gay ambassadors serving our country overseas,” said Griffin at the beginning of the panel. “They’re dear friends. They’re true leaders.”

Brewster told the Washington Blade during a brief interview after the panel that it makes him proud to see Dominican LGBT rights advocates and their straight allies “stand behind” him and Satawake when they face criticism.

“We have to just lead and that was our objective in being who we are and that’s being a couple that love each other,” said Brewster. “We don’t look at ourselves as being any different than any other couple. We just want to do great work for the Dominican people.”

Wally Brewster, Dominican Republic, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James ‘Wally’ Brewster (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

Comments are closed
© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2017. All rights reserved.
Washington Blade Newsletter

Signup!

Get our top stories emailed to you every Thursday and specials offers from our partners.