WASHINGTON — A group of 125 members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday calling on the State Department to deny recognition of the spouses of foreign diplomats from countries that will not recognize the same-sex spouses of U.S. diplomats.
"We cannot look the other way when an American diplomatic spouse — any American diplomatic spouse — is discriminated against in this way," the lawmakers wrote. "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."
All but one of the 125 signatures are from House Democrats, including the most senior minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, New York Rep. Eliot Engel. The one Republican to sign was Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has supported marriage equality for several years and co-sponsored legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
The letter comes while President Barack Obama is in Ethiopia, the second leg of a two-country trip to Africa. Some senior lawmakers in Kenya, the first stop on Obama's trip, warned him to avoid expressing support for LGBT rights in the country. During a Saturday joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, however, Obama responded to a reporter's question about LGBT rights by saying that "the State should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation."
Obama's State Department has placed an unprecedented emphasis on promoting LGBT rights abroad, including the creation of a position for a special envoy for LGBT rights earlier this year. But BuzzFeed News reported in April that multiple foreign service officers (FSOs) say their careers have been derailed because of how the State Department handles posting foreign service officers with same-sex partners.
In some cases, they allege, the State Department has not pushed foreign governments to grant the same visa and diplomatic status to foreign service officers' same-sex spouses that would routinely go to opposite-sex spouses. They report sometimes being moved to less desirable posts in order to avoid causing friction with a foreign government over the status of a same-sex partner, or being told that the U.S. government will offer no support in bringing their partner to a country that does not recognize same-sex relationships.
"We are deeply concerned about reports that LGBT FSOs are sometimes denied an equal opportunity to represent the United States abroad because certain foreign governments refuse to accredit same-sex spouses," the members of Congress wrote, threatening "the Department's ability to ensure that it can place the best, most qualified person in each position."
Especially in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings "stating that the federal government has a Constitutional obligation to treat all spouses equally regardless of sexual orientation," the lawmakers said that the State Department needs to equalize treatment of gay and lesbian employees.
"While we understand the challenge in dealing with foreign governments that discriminate, we call on the State Department to send a forceful message that all American families must be treated equally," they wrote.