Tom Gallagher, who became the first known U.S. Foreign Service officer to come out as gay in 1975 and who switched careers to become a social worker before returning to the Foreign Service in 1994, died July 8 in his hometown of Tinton Falls, N.J. from complications associated with a bacterial infection. He was 77.
In a write-up of his life and career that he prepared shortly before his passing and in an earlier interview published in the online publication Slate, he said he decided to disclose his sexual orientation at a 1975 conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the then Gay Activists Alliance called Gays and the Federal Government.
Knowing the disclosure would jeopardize his then 10-year career at the State Department and Foreign Service, he decided to come out because he became tired of having to conceal the truth of who he was, he recounted in the interview.
One year later, in 1976, after he determined longstanding policies making it difficult if not impossible for gays working in the Foreign Service to retain their required security clearances, he resigned and moved to California, where he began a new career as a social worker
His biographical write-up says he was born Sept. 11, 1940 in Manhattan before his family moved to New Jersey. He graduated from Holy Spirit School and Red Bank Catholic High School in Asbury Park, N.J. before entering New Jersey’s Monmouth University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1962.
Five days after graduating from Monmouth he signed up as a Peace Corps volunteer and entered the first Peace Corps group to go to Ethiopia, his biographical write-up says. After completing a Peace Corps training program at Georgetown University he and his group of volunteers were invited to the White House, where President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a send-off tea party.
According to his write-up, upon their arrival in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the Peace Corps group was welcomed by Emperor Haile Selassie, the country’s monarch and leader. A month after arriving in the city of Agordot for his assignment to teach a seventh grade history class, Gallagher recounted he heard the “first shot” of what became the province of Eritrea’s protracted war of independence.
His write-up says he “remained devoted to Eritrea and its people for the rest of his life” and “sixty years after leaving the Peace Corps Tom was still in touch with 13 of the 80 boys he taught in Agordot.”
Upon returning to the U.S. he began his first full salaried job at the White House where he worked for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program. It was at that time that he met Carolyn Worrell, the bright young woman also interested in foreign affairs whom he married a short time later.
In his Slate interview with freelance journalist Jacqui Shine he said he believed he was in love with Worrell at a time when he was struggling within himself to fight what he always knew deep inside himself – that he liked men. He had “fooled around with boys” since he was a teenager growing up on the New Jersey shore, he said in the interview.
Gallagher began his first stint in the Foreign Service in 1965, with his first overseas assignment sending him to Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
Subsequent assignments took him to Nigeria and Ecuador, where he served as acting U.S. Consul General in the city of Guayaquil, becoming, at age 34, the youngest ever chief of a major U.S. diplomatic mission. He later returned to Washington where he served in various positions at the State Department headquarters before coming out at the gay conference.
In 1970, shortly after completing his tour in Nigeria, he told his wife he wanted a divorce and arranged for the couple to stay together until Worrell found a job with a federal agency and got “settled,” he said in the Slate interview. It wasn’t until years later that he told his then ex-wife that the marriage breakup was due to his struggle with his sexual orientation, he said in the interview.
Meanwhile, after resigning from the Foreign Service in 1976 he moved to California and underwent training to become a social worker. A short time later he began work in the first of a number of positions, including a post as an emergency room social worker at UCLA Hospital in Los Angeles. He also volunteered as director of counseling programs at the Gay Community Services Center in LA.
Other positions he held included supervisor for the Travelers Aid Society in San Francisco; director of a Napa County, Calif., psychiatric emergency program; and as a volunteer for AIDS programs in the state.
In 1994, when President Bill Clinton removed policies preventing gays from working in the Foreign Service, Gallagher returned to his earlier career as a Foreign Service officer, his write up says. His first assignment was that of the position of American Consul at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain. While holding that post Gallagher helped raise $3 million for the Spanish AIDS Foundation.
Following his post in Spain he was appointed as Country Officer for Eritrea and Sudan in the State Department’s Office of East African Affairs. In 1999, he became head of the visa section at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, where he was credited with refusing a visa for a radical Moroccan who was linked to a terrorist organization considering a plot to spray poison on a U.S. city, according to his biographical write-up.
The write-up says he next returned to Washington and worked at the State Department’s Office of Central African Affairs where he served as Country Officer for the Republic of the Congo. His final tour at the State Department was with the Office of International Health, where he served as Regional Advisor for Europe and worked on an international AIDS program.
After retiring in 2005, Gallagher continued to take on short tours for the State Department including assignments at 17 embassies and consulates on five continents, the write-up says. He also taught a course on the Middle East as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University.
In 2012, during an event at the State Department celebrating the 20th anniversary of the State Department’s LGBT employee group, to which Gallagher was invited, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about Gallagher’s role in advocating for LGBT equality when he came out as a Foreign Service officer in 1975.
“I don’t want any of you who are a lot younger ever to take for granted what it took for people like Tom Gallagher to pave the way for all of you,” Clinton told the gathering. “It’s not a moment to be nostalgic,” she said. “It’s a moment for us to remember and to know that all of the employees who sacrificed their right to be who they are were really defending your rights and the rights and freedoms of others at home and abroad.”
Shine, who conducted the Slate interview, said she got to know Gallagher when she interviewed him for another story about three years ago.
“I was very fond of Tom, who was very funny, sweet, and a hell of a storyteller,” she told the Washington Blade. “He was as astonished as anyone by the extraordinary turns his life took, and humbled by and grateful for all he experienced.”
Gallagher is survived by his former wife, Carolyn Worrell, who is now a judge in Nevada; and his husband, Amin Dulgumoni, a senior software engineer at Goldman Sachs.
Plans for a memorial were expected to be announced soon.