July 27, 2015 at 5:43 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
U.S. urged to deny spousal visas to anti-gay countries’ diplomats
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U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), center, is the only Republican who signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that urges the State Department to deny spousal visas to diplomats who represent countries that don’t recognize the same-sex spouses of U.S. Foreign Service personnel. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than 100 lawmakers on Monday called upon the State Department to deny visas to the spouses of diplomats from countries that refuse to recognize the same-sex spouses of Foreign Service personnel.

U.S. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who is the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) spearheaded the letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that 125 members of Congress signed.

U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) are among the Democrats who signed the letter alongside Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.)

Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the only Republican who signed it.

“We cannot look the other way when an American spouse — any American diplomatic spouse — is discriminated against in this way,” reads the letter. “If a foreign government refuses to issue the appropriate visa to same-sex spouses, we ask that the State Department reciprocate by denying a visa to the spouse of a diplomat from that country.”

The signatories note they are “deeply concerned” that LGBT Foreign Service personnel “are sometimes denied an equal opportunity to represent the United States abroad because certain foreign governments refuse to accredit same-sex couples.”

The letter further notes reports the State Department “sometimes declines or discourages” LGBT Foreign Service personnel from “assignments to certain overseas posts due to anticipated objections from the host nation.” It highlights that some of the agency’s employees “have apparently been denied assistance when they try to bring their same-sex spouses into countries that do not recognize their marriages.”

“These decisions can hamper the professional growth of those FSOs (Foreign Service officers) and threaten the department’s ability to ensure that it can place the best, most qualified person in each position,” states the letter. “We urge the State Department to prioritize this issue by advocating for all American Foreign Service spouses, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Lowey in a statement to the Washington Blade on Monday applauded Foreign Service personnel for “working each day to advance the American causes of freedom, equality and justice.”

“Our State Department must take concrete actions in defense of LGBT Foreign Service officers and their spouses experiencing discrimination abroad,” said the New York Democrat. “If a foreign government denies a visa to the spouse of any one of our diplomats — regardless of their sexual orientation — they deserve to receive similar treatment.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued her own statement in support of the letter.

“Rather than deter LGBT FSOs from applying for certain assignments, we should deter governments from practicing discrimination,” said the California Democrat. “Our government has an obligation to provide adequate assistance that empowers GBT FSOs to have the resources needed to do their jobs.”

GLIFAA President Regina Jun on Monday also welcomed the lawmakers’ letter.

“These American families want nothing more than to serve their country,” she said in a statement, referring to LGBT Foreign Service personnel her organization represents. “But less than half of U.S. government positions abroad are in countries where we know our families can safely join us. To us, this isn’t even about the word ‘marriage,’ but about the word ‘family.’ The members of Congress have asked for reciprocity and fairness. If these countries won’t let our American families in, why does our country continue to admit all of their families.”

State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Monday told the Blade during his daily press briefing that he had not seen the letter.

“If it is as you describe, I’m sure that we will respond at the appropriate time and detail to members of Congress,” he said.

Kerry last year said it is “discriminatory” and “unacceptable” for any country to deny visas to same-sex spouses of Foreign Service personnel. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom affirmed this position last month during GLIFAA’s annual Pride event at the State Department.

“We don’t have gay spouses, we have spouses,” said Higginbottom. “We don’t have lesbian families. We have families. We refuse to accept that equal treatment by our foreign counterparts is too much to ask.”

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Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom speaking at last month’s annual GLIFAA Pride celebration at the State Department. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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

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