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Being Gay in the Foreign Service

Public perception of gay rights, including the right to marry and to serve in the military, has undergone a sea change in the last few years, so much so that President Obama nominated five openly gay ambassadors. However, it was not that long ago when simply being gay meant automatic suspicion as a security risk and often harassment or worse. In these excerpts, Russell Sveda talks about persecution from the Diplomatic Security (DS) bureau, the ensuing bureaucratic battles, and his subsequent 14-year grievance case, the longest in State Department history. He also discusses the fear he and others had when they started the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) in 1992 and the support he received from other FSOs.

He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2000. You can read his entire oral history. In July 2015 he was charged with submitting false medical claims for reimbursement.

Go here to read about the “Lavender Scare” and the Department’s efforts to ferret out gays in the 1950’s and 60s.

“The charge that they were investigating was homosexuality”

SVEDA: In 1985, the State Department security people, then known as SY, now known as DS, learned that I had had sex with a young man who was above the age of consent but below the age of 21. I had not realized that this guy was as young as he was. I thought he was over 21. But they found out about it. There was a man whose name I can’t remember in SY who was particularly big on rooting out homosexuals from the State Department. I guess they must have learned about this. I had the encounter in May of 1985. They must have learned about it in July of 1985. They did not question me until December of 1985….

What had happened was, this young man, whose name was Myles…I met him in New York at a bar. The drinking age then was 18 and he had a chauffeur’s license, so I assumed he was 21. Indeed, he had false papers showing that he was over 21. He came down to Washington for a visit and we had sex and he went back up to New York. Then he came down to Washington to stay at my place. We didn’t have any sexual relationship, but he wanted to move to Washington and stay at my place for a few weeks until he did find a place. I said, “Fine.”

At this point he went back up to Massachusetts, where he had been going to college, and saw a girlfriend of his. He managed to have an accident where he wasn’t hurt but the van that her family owned was very badly damaged and they were not insured for him as a driver. So they contacted his family in Oklahoma [and] talked with [his father] and he was saying, “Well, what the hell was the kid doing in Washington?” “Oh, he’s staying with a Foreign Service officer,” said the mother. This guy called the local DS investigating office in Tulsa and complained about his son living with a gay Foreign Service officer. That was it. It was just a phone call. So, they must have learned about this in July or so. Nobody ever contacted me.

That October, I noticed that my name was not on the promotion list from 03 to 02. I was a little bit disturbed because I was pretty certain that the job that I had done on the China Desk and the job that I had done in Moscow would have really put me in a good position to be promoted. So, I talked to my CDO [career development officer], a guy named Dave Tapakono, and he said, “You know, why don’t we find out where you were on the promotion list, how close you were to being promoted?….” In December, he calls me and says, “Hey, Russ, I just found out that you were promoted. You were number 3 on the list of 60 to be promoted and somebody blocked it.” I said, “Who could have blocked it?” He says, “Well, there are only three offices that have the power to block a promotion. One is DS, one is the Inspector General, and the third — I don’t know.”

Q: It must be the White House because it requires presidential approval.

SVEDA: I guess so. So, that evening, December 17th, a Tuesday in 1985, while the State Department was having Christmas parties in all offices, I go to find out what it is. It’s not the Inspector General’s office. It didn’t seem to be the White House. I found out that it was DS. So, I went to the office of this man who has since died who was the man who was the most fanatically anti-gay person in DS, as far as I understand from other gay people. He interrupted the Christmas party and sat in his office with me for a minute. He said, “Oh, well, this is just something we need to look into. It may be nothing. We’ll get back to you.”…

In January of ’86, right after the New Year, they called me for two or three days of interrogation. The charge that they were investigating was homosexuality. I mention that because in the ensuing years and a huge grievance fight that I had with these people, they denied that this was what they were investigating, that they didn’t care about that, but that is only after the climate changed….The DS people wanted to withdraw my security clearance. At first, they didn’t say they wanted to withdraw my security clearance. They were considering it.

Then I hired a lawyer. The only help that the American Foreign Service Association [AFSA] ever gave me was to give me the phone number of a lawyer to contact. Sometimes I wonder why I had been paying my yearly dues because they really did nothing for me. But I did get a lawyer…a man named Bill Bransford…. There was nothing until March when Ambassador George Vest, who was the Director General of the Foreign Service, sent my attorney a letter saying that because I had not cooperated with an investigation, I would be removed from the Foreign Service for non-cooperation. Well, of course, the lawyer got in there and we were able to have an interview with the lawyer present. It went on from there.

This is a very long story, but basically the next 14 years are the story of this grievance and how I managed to fight it. It was the longest grievance in the history of the State Department.

“The State Department is like an octopus with a very weak central brain”

If I were to sum up the whole story in a few sentences, I would say that, first of all, the people in the State Department, the professionals who entered by the exam system, have been always very supportive of me. The people in DS who did not enter through the exam system have been very hostile to me. The political appointees it depended on which administration it was whether they were friendly or not. In the case of the Bush administration, not friendly. In the case of the Clinton administration, very friendly. So, there’s that factor.

The other thing is that in dealing with the State Department, I have learned that the State Department is like an octopus with a very weak central brain and arms that do not really recognize the other arms as being part of the same organism. Sometimes the arms fight with each other thinking they’re being attacked by a stranger. So, it’s very easy to temporize with the State Department on a grievance because you just simply get one arm of the State Department acting in cross purposes with another arm and it takes months and months to figure things out.

When the thing began, I never really expected it would last more than two weeks. I hoped it would last at least two weeks because I needed to find another job. As time went on, my objectives changed because I wanted to come as close as possible to age 50 and 20 years of service so I could have a retirement pension. But the way I did that, looking back on it, was really quite amazing the twists and turns of this case.

Initially, when I lost my security clearance, which was at the end of my tenure on the China Desk, the China people, people from the China Desk and people who worked with them, expected me to have an assignment in Beijing as political-military officer in Beijing. So, in anticipation of that, they assigned me to language training, figuring that from 1986-’87, I could settle my affairs with DS, make sure that my clearance was okay, and then go off to Taiwan for the second year of language training and then go off to Beijing. The expectation was that I would be able to clear this up because the whole thing seemed ludicrous from the point of view of people I talked with who were professionals, the State Department professionals. So, they were very supportive.

When in 1987 it became clear that DS would not allow me to go to Taiwan for the second year of language training even though technically there are no U.S. government employees in Taiwan, I was able to find a detail to the National Science Foundation, where I was until retirement a month ago…. The State Department was very good about having me detailed there. While details are normally only a year, my detail to NSF has been 13 years.

As far as I know, the security people thought that homosexuals were security risks. We were at risk of being entrapped overseas. They did this on no evidence whatsoever. I say that because there were hearings that were held in the Senate in 1987 or ’88 on this very point and it turns out that in the whole 20th century, there had never been a case of a homosexual who had been blackmailed against his government except in World War I — an Austrian officer was blackmailed. That was the only incident that anybody ever came up with.…

A Fundamental Denial of Due Process

When we went to [State Department Director General] George Vest that spring in 1986, George Vest decided that the only punishment that needed to be accorded to me was a letter of reprimand to be put in my file for a year. That effectively would block a promotion for a year. But then it would be taken out and that would be that.

So, two weeks after George Vest cleared me, the State Department security people suspended my clearance. My lawyer complained about this. He said that the question before George Vest was one of my suitability for the Foreign Service. George Vest as Director General had decided that I was suitable for the Foreign Service. If I was suitable for the Foreign Service, I should have a security clearance. The problem in the case on a technical level was that they had done this thing backwards. They should have first removed my security clearance and then given me to Vest to decide on suitability. But up until that time, the suitability determination was the determination of whether you should still be employed by the State Department and therefore have a security clearance.

The case occurred at a time when DS had just become a bureau independent of the Director General’s Office. I’ve always seen this case as a turf battle between the two. Basically, when the case began, they were under the Director General, it was an office under the Director General, and suitability was the issue. But by the time the case had been decided by Vest, they were a bureau equal to the Director General’s Office and their attitude was, well, the Director General can make his own decision about suitability, but we’re going to make the decision about his security clearance. This is one of the reasons why I’ve been able to maintain my employment with the State Department because I have been declared suitable. It’s bizarre.

Q: It seems incredible that this sort of thing could go on for 14 years. 

SVEDA: First of all, when DS began the business about my security clearance, we filed a grievance. The grievance was supposed to be decided within 90 days. But consideration of the grievance by the Foreign Service Grievance Board was suspended while the State Department drafted regulations and promulgated regulations allowing for a review by an appeal board of security clearance determinations. You see, in the old system, if I can call it that, when security was an office under the Director General, the suitability decision was the final decision. But when DS became a separate bureau and said that they could make security decisions independent of the Director General, my lawyer pointed out that, gee, you really have to have some kind of appeals process above DS because otherwise, it’s unfair.

The State Department went back and forth on this. They went to the White House and they went to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice said, “You know, we really do have to have some kind of regulations.” They literally did not have regulations on the books. So, we had to wait for a while until they drafted and promulgated regulations and then applied them to me retroactively and just told me to carry on the appeal as though the regulations had been enforced at the time that my case had begun.

That thing went at least until December of 1989. There was a decision by this appeal panel which was made up of M [Management], DS, and the Director General’s Office. Those three were sitting on this appeals panel. When I made my presentation with my lawyers, we expected it to be an adversarial procedure, which is to say we would get to hear DS’s case, but we never got to hear DS’s case. We just made our own argument. DS was sitting in the room. We left and then DS made a separate presentation out of our hearing to the board, which decided against me. We never had a chance to hear DS’s arguments. We never had a chance to respond to DS’s argument.

As it struck us, this was a fundamental denial of due process, which gave us another round for another grievance or to add to our grievance. This just went on. There were times when the State Department seemed to forget totally about my existence. There must have been a whole year when we never heard anything from anybody. We just went on and on like that….

But it became something of a turf battle with DS now equal in dignity to the Director General’s Office. The Director General was reduced to basically handling just personnel. It lost control of the security function. In fact, actually, this is a story that somebody really should examine concerning the State Department in the 1980s, the rise and rise and rise of the security function. It’s gotten to the point where, if I may be so bold as to say, the State Department is like a great university where the campus cops had wound up deciding on hiring, firing, and tenure questions….

Between 1989 and 1992, not much happened. I think there was a whole year, maybe 1991, where my lawyers and I heard absolutely nothing from the State Department, which in retrospect was a great lesson.

Founding GLIFAA – “The paranoia was palpable”

When 1992 rolled around, my classmate from Georgetown, Bill Clinton, was running for President. My lawyer asked me, “What do we do?” I said, “Just keep delaying until the election.” He said, “How can you be so sure Bill Clinton is going to win?” I said, “I don’t have any choice but to believe he’s going to win.”

In April or May of 1992, a group of gay and lesbian – really only gay – Foreign Service officers got together in an apartment in Columbia Plaza [a block away from the State Department] and it was a very tense gathering. I mention this to explain how things have changed and how this meeting led to the formation of an organization. The gathering had about 25 people there. The tension in the room was palpable. The paranoia was palpable. People were terrified that there was a DS plant in the room, that they would find out that they were gay.

They knew that they were taking a very big risk by appearing together as a group of gay Foreign Service officers. That first meeting was an opportunity to vent a lot of anger, which was done, and then the organizer of the meeting asked if this meeting suggested that we might form an organization sometime in the near future to work on issues of concern to gay and lesbian Foreign Service officers. The decision was taken by us to do that, to meet again in calmer circumstances….

We formed an organization called Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies [GLIFAA]. The group has changed over the years. In 1992 before the election of Bill Clinton, before his inauguration, there was a great deal of tension and the main concern was to get DS to stop harassing homosexuals like myself for being homosexual. After the election of Bill Clinton and in subsequent years, the organization has become largely a social organization, but also has prevailed upon the State Department with unmarried heterosexual Foreign Service officers to have the State Department accord equal housing to unmarried Foreign Service officers, gay or straight, and married Foreign Service officers without children. The purpose of this would be to allow the partner, gay or straight, of an unmarried Foreign Service officer to have enough room to live.

The interesting thing is that, in subsequent years, the job market being what it is and the fact that Foreign Service officers tend to become romantically involved with people of their own professional background and standing, it has become harder and harder for the State Department to keep people who are romantically involved with people who want to have a life and a career of their own. I know of a number of instances of straight people and gay people where the relationship has either broken up because of this…. So and So is being sent to the Dominican Republic and there is nothing for the partner to do or the partner just chooses not to work for the embassy in the case of straight people and there are visa problems with work visas, diplomatic visas, all sorts of problems.

I know of one couple that was assigned to what would be my dream assignment: Embassy Vatican City. This one guy took his lover with him to Rome, but it was very hard for his lover to find the right kind of job in Italy and I think getting a work permit was a problem and a diplomatic visa was not extended. So, he broke his assignment and went to USUN [U.S. Mission to the United Nations] to follow his lover. He went back to New York because he had job opportunities there. That relationship basically broke up over that. He is now back in Washington after his USUN assignment. So, there are a lot of people who are seriously thinking of leaving the Foreign Service, gay or straight, simply because they cannot have their intellectual and educational peers with them. It’s a very big problem. This is one of the things that GLIFAA is hoping to help the State Department solve.

The Beginning of the Clinton Administration

In 1992, in November, my classmate, Bill Clinton, was elected President. Up until that point, I was not able to work on his campaign. My partner, Richard Victor Schachter, was able to go to New Hampshire in February and March of 1992 and campaign with Bill and Hillary. Victor had never been to Arkansas, but never mind. He passed out literature, videotapes, and all the other things that they did up in New Hampshire. So, he worked on the campaign. I was not able to work on the campaign, but the minute that Bill was elected President, both Victor and I were hired as consultants for the Clinton/Gore transition. You could only imagine my feeling at this point. Here I was, working on a presidential transition. Meanwhile, the State Department was not sure what they would do about me in terms of keeping me or not keeping me or giving me a clearance or not.

In January of 1993, when he was inaugurated, the day he was inaugurated, I gave up my seat on the reviewing stand of the White House, which Victor and I were going to share – Victor and his mother instead took the places there in the presidential reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue – and I went with a group of volunteers to take the White House from the Bushes….The first thing that I did when we turned on the phones was to go and start answering the phones. We expected that there would be a lot of positive comments about the President, who had just been inaugurated a half hour earlier and was then watching the inaugural parade. The next five or so hours, we had the most vitriolic…and anti-Clinton telephone calls organized by the religious right, excoriating him for his position on abortion and also on gays in the military. So, I had my introduction to what later became the rather tempestuous Clinton administration….

Meanwhile, my case is percolating at the State Department. The State Department security people perceived a shift in the climate and recognized that I had some form of White House protection, although what it was, was unclear. In point of fact, there was very little protection, but perception is where the name of the game was….

In 1993, expecting that my carefully orchestrated White House connections would serve me in good stead with the new administration, I was shocked to get an assignment by the Director General, Genta Hawkins, to leave my National Science Foundation detail. The order said that I would be allowed to stay in the State Department until age 50, which at that point would have been December 27, 1995, and allowed to retire, but in the meantime, I would have to work at the Dulles Airport unclassified pouch mail room.

So, basically, it was 1993-1995, the middle of ’93. I was looking to essentially two and a half years of working in a way like Oscar Wilde at hard labor in this absurd location. The Dulles Airport mail room is very far from where I live and I don’t own a car. I’ve never owned a car. So, it would have been a very arduous thing for me to have done. I immediately went to my lawyers, who thought of whatever they could do, but not very much because the State Department is a disciplined service and has the right to assign anybody anywhere on a “take it or leave it” basis….

In the course of chatting with [GLIFAA] members, I had learned that Sherman Funk, our inspector general, and his wife were very active in a group called PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. It turns out that Sherman Funk and his wife, while they’re not themselves gay or lesbian, have a daughter who is lesbian who they’re very proud of and that Sherman Funk or his wife – I’m not sure which – were the national head of this organization of parents and friends of lesbians and gays, a very active organization. So, I knew that my trump card was talking to him, the inspector general, and having something done about this….He was a conservative Republican.

So, I called up Sherman Funk’s office with my hand trembling on the phone, and I asked his secretary or his assistant if I could meet with him. …He is a very genial man, a really wonderful person…. I told him all the details…. Sherman Funk basically said he would see what he could do. He told me in the course of the meeting that he was indeed involved in PFLAG and he had marched in gay civil rights demonstrations on behalf of that organization. He said that he could not describe to me his contempt for those Foreign Service officers who came to him after he had been interviewed on TV during one of these demonstrations and told him they admired his courage in marching on behalf of his daughter when they themselves had children who were gay and would not be seen doing so in public. He said he could not describe his contempt for such people. So, he said he didn’t know what he could do, but he would make a couple of calls and see what was possible. He called me the next day and said that he had spoken with Genta Hawkins Holmes, the Director General, and also with the head of Security…and that Security said that they could do nothing, but the Director General had said that I would be allowed to stay at NSF at least until I turned 50. That was the best he could do and he wished me well. So, that was turned off.

So, as the case chugged along from that point, DS decided – probably on the urging of that phone call – to do a full background check of me. We thought that DS would give me back my clearance. My lawyer pointed out that under Defense Department guidelines, which had the general use by other departments of the government on security clearances, if an event had occurred five or seven years earlier, basically if that sort of event had not occurred in the intervening time, you could have your clearance back.

The lawyer, William Bransford, kept asking DS for copies of those precepts and they refused to give it to him. They refused to give those precepts to him. Later on…they admitted that they did have precepts which they did not give to us. We thought that was rather shocking. But I was obviously on DS’s…shit list and I was not going to get a clearance no matter what happened.

So, while this was going on, of all bizarre things, I get a letter from Personnel hand delivered to me at NSF….In any event, there was some question about my time in class and it turned out that as they looked into my record, I had been promoted in 1987 from 03 to 02 and nobody had ever informed me of that. Indeed, nobody had ever informed Personnel that my name had been inexplicably removed from the list. DS had removed my name from the list….

At this point, the Foreign Service Grievance Board notices that they have this case on the books, a grievance that had been filed in 1987 which somehow had been left undecided for more than 90 days. They asked my attorney if we were still interested in pursuing this….In 1996, the Foreign Service Grievance Board gave me a decision which basically told the Department of State security people that they had to cleanse my record and review the matter of my security clearance. From 1996 until 1999, we were fighting on those grounds.

The question of DS refusing to cleanse my record in any meaningful way finally being forced by this order to cleanse it literally with a razor blade, taking out all references to the word “homosexual” or “gay” or any intimation that these might be somehow criminal activities – because, frankly, they were not under DC law – so they went through the record. When I finally looked at it with somebody from the State Department Personnel grievance staff, it was like holding a piece of Swiss cheese up to the light. It was absurd.

Eventually, the State Department and my lawyers came to a settlement, the terms of which were retroactive promotion to FS-01 as of 1995; back pay with interest, my outstanding lawyer’s fees, which at that point were about $70,000 (not, unfortunately, the money that I had already paid my lawyers, which was probably another $40-50,000); and the fact that I would have to retire as of the date that these things went through, my retroactive promotion went through; and one provision of the settlement, that I was not allowed to talk to members of the media. My interlocutor here, Charles Stuart Kennedy, assures me that he is not a member of the media….