October 19, 2015 at 9:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
EXCLUSIVE: State Department to phase out DP benefits
Patrick Kennedy, gay news, Washington Blade

Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

The State Department has announced that it will no longer offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried gay couples.

Diplomatic and consular posts on Oct. 14 notified Foreign Service personnel that the State Department will begin to phase out the Same-Sex Domestic Partner program on Dec. 14. The SSDP will officially end on Sept. 30, 2018.

Foreign Service personnel who are posted in a country in which same-sex couples do not have marriage rights may request up to 10 days of administrative leave in order to travel to the U.S. or another jurisdiction in which they can legally tie the knot. Unmarried heterosexual partners can also take advantage of this policy.

Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told the Washington Blade on Monday that ending domestic partner benefits for Foreign Service personnel is a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples throughout the country.

“When Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, federal spousal benefits administrated by the department became available equally to married opposite- and same-sex couples,” he said.

Kennedy further noted the State Department worked with the Justice Department “and others to align our policy with the law as it stands following” the Obergefell ruling and the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Because married same-sex couples are now able to receive a wide array of benefits available to any married couple in the federal government, the original justification for the SSDP program no longer exists,” Kennedy told the Blade.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 announced same-sex partners of Foreign Service personnel were eligible to receive diplomatic passports, access to medical facilities at overseas posts, coverage of “emergency travel” to visit ill or injured relatives or employees and other benefits.

Kennedy last December told representatives of GLIFAA, which represents LGBT Foreign Service members, the State Department had planned to move forward with the proposed elimination of the SSDP program. This announcement came in response to a heterosexual couple who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that asked the agency to recognize them as domestic partners.

Then-GLIFAA President Selim Ariturk told the Blade in January that many of his organization’s members are from states that had yet to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. He said legally married foreign-born partners of GLIFAA members could face additional threats in their respective homelands.

Ariturk spoke with the Blade more than five months before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Obergefell case.

“The department has employees assigned in over 150 countries worldwide, and we understand that there might be very challenging circumstances for same-sex couples in some countries,” Kennedy told the Blade. “The department’s career development officers work with all our employees to accommodate specific concerns to the extent we are able.”

GLIFAA in a statement it released last week reiterated its opposition to the rolling back of domestic partner benefits.

“I can’t imagine how the family who filed this complaint would find this a fair resolution,” said GLIFAA President Regina Jun. “GLIFAA supports equal treatment and fair protections for all employees, and having protections available for families that have different needs.”

Jun told the Blade on Monday that GLIFAA plans to work with members who may fall under the new policy’s hardship exemption clause.

“We are working closely with members who are in very challenging situations and need this protection for their safety,” she said.

“Federal benefits have long been based on being married,” Kennedy told the Blade in response to GLIFAA’s criticisms. “Since the Windsor and Obergefell decisions, the department has been focused on now being able to provide the full range of benefits — pension, health insurance and more — to same sex married couples, as opposite married couples have enjoyed for years. The SSDP program was a bridge until the time that same-sex couples reached parity with opposite-sex couples in terms of marriage and federal benefits.”

Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom during her speech at the State Department’s annual Pride celebration in June said the agency opposes “any effort to discriminate” when issuing visas to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service personnel who are posted overseas. Kennedy noted to the Blade that she, along with Secretary of State John Kerry and Special U.S. Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry continue to reiterate this position.

“Both Secretary Kerry and Deputy Secretary Higginbottom have expressed their strong support for LGBT rights for all those who serve abroad, as well as citizens of foreign nations,” said Kennedy. “They, along with Special Envoy Berry continue to press for these rights.”

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

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