Event benefits the Harvey Milk Foundation
The Obama administration's commitment to administrative diversity was highlighted on Tuesday, March 24, in the nation’s Capitol when five openly gay U.S. ambassadors held a panel discussion that was simulcast on MSNBC.com.
Chad Griffin, the Chair of the DC-based Human Rights Campaign, himself once a foreign service officer, kicked off the evening by remarking that it was "historic. There was a time that being a gay envoy required you to be in the closet because it made you a target."
Today, however, Griffin noted that the LGBT community was able to "celebrate" the appointment of men like Randy Berry, the State Department's first ever envoy for LGBT rights. He called it a "powerful statement to the world that LGBT rights are human rights."
Introducing Stuart Milk, Griffin went on to say that the foundation thrives today because Stuart has "a mission and legacy that began four decades ago with his uncle, Harvey, in San Francisco."
The beneficiary of the event, the all-volunteer Milk Foundation is run out of Wilton Manors, guided by South Florida copyright attorney Miriam Richter, who introduced Tuesday night's program, which also featured senior representatives from the Gay and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFFA), including its president, Selim Ariturk. His message was that “you have to stand up for your own.”
Amongst the guests at the event were Judy and Dennis Shepherd, who together, years after the murder of her son, Matthew, in Wyoming, travel the globe speaking out about LGBT Equality. Randy Berry, the newly appointed special U.S. envoy to promote global LGBT rights, was also present.
Stuart Milk, the program moderator, galvanized the crowd by stating "We have to have LGBT people at the table, visible, and out, even in difficult places,” and acknowledged that the Obama administration has led the way “in fostering human rights abroad by selecting ‘out’ ambassadors who are spokespersons for equality.”
Still, even Milk remarked that “we have a ways to go,” noting the panelists were all white men, and that the “ ‘L,’ ‘B,’ and ‘T’ of our own populations needs to be administratively enhanced in the foreign service.
The program allowed each of the gay ambassadors to share personal experiences, and Ted Osius, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, related that he met his husband, Clayton Bond, in the foreign service while in Africa. “Years ago, being out meant you lost your security clearance. Today, being out lets you be who you are,” he remarked.
Rufus Gifford, who had been President Obama’s Finance Director for his 2012 re-election campaign, echoed one of Harvey Milk’s most important themes. “Being out matters,” he said, “Everything you say matters and your personal story matters.”
“It’s not just about negotiating trade deals and the standard diplomacy,” added Gifford. “It’s who you are too.” An avid runner, cyclist, and sailor, Ambassador Gifford stated that he was focused on the preservation of human rights around the globe, even fighting the effects of climate change, and speaking for the preservation of wildlife. He lives with his partner, veterinarian Dr. Stephen DeVincent.
Daniel Baer, the ambassador for the office of Security and Cooperation of Europe, warned about present day dangers for the LGBT community.
“We are seeing backsliding in Europe and bad things in Russia, too.” But he held out hope that “we are winning in other places,” referring to Vienna, for example, where he and his partner, Brian Walsh, married. Baer, who had previously taught Business Ethics at Georgetown, explained that he subscribed to the “Gandhi course of persistence.”
Ambassador John Berry of Australia also echoed the importance of being visible, paying homage to the legacy of the late Frank Kameny, who devoted his life to fighting for the equal rights of gay American servicemen.
Once the White House head of the Office of Personnel Management, Berry told a moving story that has emerged from a Sydney terror attack a few months ago. As a gunman moved through a coffee shop randomly shooting citizens, the manager of the restaurant confronted him, struggling to disarm the assassin.
“He failed, and died in the struggle,” Berry said, “but as his story was told Australia learned he was a gay man who had been partnered for ten years, but could not marry. His courage, his legacy, like Mark Bingham, on 9/11, has helped change minds.”
Wally Brewster, the gay ambassador assigned to the Dominican Republic met with a challenge on his job immediately. A prominent Chicago businessman and gay rights activist, who owned property in the DR, religious groups and high profile church leaders immediately challenged his appointment as “an insult.”
"President Obama has not considered the particularities of our people. The United States is trying to impose on us marriage between gays and lesbians as well as adoption by these couples," said Father Luis Rosario, director of youth ministries for the church.
A major fundraiser for Obama’s campaigns, Brewster rebuked the onslaught.
“That’s not who the Dominican people were as a whole,” but besides, he added, “no one is going to say God does not love me,” he asserted.
Brewster then passionately added, “I have been with my husband, Bob Satawake, for the past 27 years, living with very Christian values of love, tolerance and a strong belief in God.”
A one-time member of the national board of directors for the Human Rights Campaign, Brewster even said that the debate over his appointment had a hidden benefit, since “it forced the DR to confront homophobia. And today, we see light at the end of the tunnel, and hope down the road.”
In Spain, James Costos, a former HBO executive, admitted he did not have to deal with the issues facing Brewster. “ I was appointed to serve in a country which is very supportive of gay rights but even with that, there is still discrimination in the workplace and bullying in schools. So there is work to do even there. What we can do is give us hope that things will continue to get better.”
The sentiment echoed by all the ambassadors emulated the very vision of Harvey Milk, and the importance of coming out. “What we can do as ambassadors is give people a voice,” said Costos, “and foster equality by our very presence.”
South Florida was represented at the event by a number of people, including Hot Spots Media Group President, Peter Clark and Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Dean Trantalis.