January 14, 2015 at 11:28 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
EXCLUSIVE: State Dept. considers phasing out DP benefits
Hillary Clinton, gay news, Washington Blade

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 announced gay Foreign Service personnel were eligible for domestic partner benefits. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade has learned the State Department is considering phasing out domestic partner benefits for unmarried gay employees in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Patrick Kennedy, under secretary for management at the State Department, told representatives of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies during a Dec. 22 meeting that the agency plans to move forward the proposed elimination of the Same-Sex Domestic Partner (SSDP) program.

GLIFAA President Selim Ariturk told the Washington Blade that many of his organization’s members come from states that have yet to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. He said their partners could also lose their jobs “simply for getting married to someone of the same gender.”

Ariturk further noted that legally married foreign-born partners of GLIFAA members could face additional threats in their respective homelands.

“A diplomat from the embassy of an anti-gay country could walk into D.C. City Hall today and ask to see the marriage records of such a couple,” Ariturk told the Blade. “Those records could then be used to ‘convict’ the foreign partner of homosexuality the next time he travels home. The danger is real.”

A gay entry-level Foreign Service officer who sought to remain anonymous told the Blade the State Department’s domestic partner program “was the thing that really made” him “feel welcomed” in the agency.

“While it’s great that we can get married much more easily now, my partner and I are not looking forward to being forced into a shotgun marriage due to a policy change that takes away the benefits we were promised,” he said.

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

“Changing our policy to provide training, medical care and other benefits to same-sex domestic partners will promote the cohesiveness, safety and effectiveness of our posts abroad,” said Clinton in a press release that announced the new policy. “This change is the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013 issued its landmark ruling that struck down a portion of DOMA.

GLIFAA subsequently recommended the State Department expand its domestic partner benefits program to opposite-sex couples. Matthew Asada of the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents Foreign Service personnel, last September reiterated this call in a letter to Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom.

“AFSA appreciates all that the department is doing to recruit and retain a professional, innovative and diverse diplomatic workforce,” wrote Asada. “As the department considers how to proceed with its domestic partnership program, AFSA believes that the best course of action is not a phasing out of but rather an expansion of the program.”

The Human Rights Campaign notes Walmart is among the 66 percent of Fortune 500 companies that now offer domestic partner benefits. More than half of these corporations have extended them to both gay and straight employees.

“The U.S. government-wide view is that special accommodations should be made when there are national impediments,” wrote Higginbottom in an Oct. 23 letter to Asada. “This is not the case for opposite-sex partners.”

A straight Foreign Service employee at the State Department who has been with her partner for seven years criticized the exclusion of heterosexual domestic partners from the current policy.

“While we are committed life partners who own a home together, marriage is not something we want forced on us just to have our relationship recognized,” she told the Blade. “For us, and perhaps for many same-sex couples too, domestic partnership benefits would allow us to stay true to our values and also have our employer do the same. Many private employers do this. It is very unfair to me and others like me for the department not to expand domestic partner benefits to all couples.”

Noel Clay, a spokesperson for the State Department, told the Blade on Tuesday the federal government is “in the process of making its policies comply with” the Windsor decision.

“For the State Department, one thing we have to do, which we’ve taken appropriate time to do correctly, is to review the SSDP program and determine how to make it comply with the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision,” he said.

Clay said the State Department is working with the Justice Department and other agencies on “next steps.” He said the agency is also “listening to concerns and suggestions raised by” GLIFAA and the American Foreign Service Association.

“Any policy change will be well vetted before implementation,” Clay told the Blade. “Any changes would include efforts to continue to protect LGBT employees and their families living in countries where it is difficult for LGBT people.”

Ariturk told the Blade on Wednesday there is nothing within the Windsor decision “that requires any government authority or any employer to stop recognizing a civil union or a domestic partnership.” He also stressed that Secretary of State John Kerry has “always been a progressive champion,” noting he voted against DOMA in 1996 while in the U.S. Senate.

“The death threats facing GLIFAA partners from homophobic countries are even more scary, and some people just can’t safely get a D.C. marriage certificate,” said Ariturk. “We beg the department to maintain domestic partner protections for those who so desperately need them.”

The State Department has not said when it will announce whether it will formally phase out the domestic partner benefits program.

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

10 Comments
  • This is the very thing we said would happen by excluding DP in the marriage fight. I'm just glad to live in Maryland where we got DP rights written into law before passing marriage.

  • It saddens me to think that people do not feel marriage is the ultimate commitment. DP is for brothers and sisters, for friends, and close family who cohabitate. If you are a couple, share your bills and assets, get married or stop whining. DP was only created to give a little treat to those who wanted a real meal. Now we are invited to dinner finally, and you're complaining about hors de vours.

  • With rights also come responsibility, now we have marriage rights it is time to phase out DP's. If not we will be playing into the hands of those that feel like we are asking for "special rights" To me those that are complaining about "shot gun" weddings I would say if you don't want to get married that is fine, but also don't expect to have the benefits of a married couple because you don't want to make that commitment now that the option is available. It's time to shit or get off the pot, as my dad used to say.

  • Alan :-)
    Keep in mind, that State Dept employees work in nearly every country around the world. If a US Diplomat meets a local person in a country where marriage equality does not exist, or even worse, where homosexuality is illegal, then the Dept should make DP benefits available to that couple until they are back in the US where they can marry. Otherwise, LGBT Foreign Service Officers will be severely disadvantaged vis-à-vis our heterosexual counterparts.

  • Alan :-)
    Keep in mind, that State Dept employees work in nearly every country around the world. If a US Diplomat meets a local person in a country where marriage equality does not exist, or even worse, where homosexuality is illegal, then the Dept should make DP benefits available to that couple until they are back in the US where they can marry. Otherwise, LGBT Foreign Service Officers will be severely disadvantaged vis-à-vis our heterosexual counterparts.

  • Ken, I understand where you are coming from and that is an argument especially for those that meet their partner overseas in one of those countries to me that would possibly one of the reasons it should be kept. But I could also see where straight couples would have similar situations because of religious or laws or even culture where they would have issues marrying someone they met on an assignment in a foreign country. I'm in no way an expert and don't claim to be but in the long haul i just can't see the reason for not phasing them out or we be falling into a trap of asking to be treated separately over straight people.

  • Alan Bruce We agree with you that, to be completely equitable, State should offer DP benefits to all who are serving in countries where marriage is not possible. So far, we haven't been successful with that argument, but GLIFAA and AFSA continue to push! :-)

  • Alan Bruce We agree with you that, to be completely equitable, State should offer DP benefits to all who are serving in countries where marriage is not possible. So far, we haven't been successful with that argument, but GLIFAA and AFSA continue to push! :-)

  • Michael K. Lavers, thank you for such a comprehensive look at the issue! Alan Bruce, I hope it might help you feel better if I clarify that the present benefits for domestic partners are NOT (and never were) equal to the benefits given spouses. Domestic partners don't get health insurance or social security, and an American cannot apply for his foreign DP to get a green card. This second-class status is not lost on the very small number of GLIFAA members who so desperately need the DP protections. The protections given to domestic partners are things like evacuation. If the security situation starts deteriorating in country X and the Secretary orders all his staff and their families evacuated, I hope I never see a Department that says "oh, well you are only a domestic partner and not a spouse, so you're on your own." A lot of young people – not just gay people – simply don't marry. I hope all Americans, married or otherwise, would be proud to serve their country in such difficult places, and I hope all of them could be equally protected. I admire these brave men and women, and the love they show in protecting partners who cannot be out.

  • They should wait until marriage equality exists in all states before they phase out any domestic partner benefits. When that happens they should simplify the laws for marriage by making it the same for all heterosexual and homosexual couples by removing gender.

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