FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Robin Holzhauer
Initial interview date: May 14, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Welcome. My name is Robin Holzhauer. And this is an oral interview done on May 14, 2022, with Christopher Hoh. We are speaking in the United States via Zoom, an online meeting platform that zoomed in popularity in 2020 with the onset of COVID. When people— many people began to work from home for the first time. This video will be in the speaker’s view, which means that only the person speaking will appear on the video. For those of you who might have low vision or can’t see us, I’m a white female with brown hair that I’m wearing up and back today. And I’m wearing a teal green and black top. Chris, could you identify yourself please?
HOH: Sure. My name is Christopher Hoh. I go by Chris and I’m a Caucasian male with gray hair and in my 60s, and I am participating in this interview from my home in Arlington, Virginia.
Q: Great, thank you.
Q: This interview is part of the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide—AAFSW—Oral History Project, underwritten by the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. The goal is to have a series of topic-focused short oral interviews with current or former Foreign Service personnel that feature a discussion and insights on a topic specific to foreign service life.
This interview today we’ll discuss challenges unique to LGBTI employees in the Foreign Service. More specifically for today, the viewpoint and experience of a gay man. Before we begin the interview, I have a few framing remarks for the benefit of future listeners, researchers, and historians.
In 1950, the U.S. State Department fired 91 employees because they were homosexual or suspected of being homosexual. In the next two years, nearly 200 more state employees were dismissed for the same reason. In 1952, the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as quote “a sociopathic personality disturbance”. This was part of what is called the Lavender Scare, in which thousands of federal employees lost their jobs due to their sexuality. In 1975, the Civil Service Commission announced new rules stipulating that gay people could no longer be barred or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality. Yet into the 1990s, being homosexual could result in not being hired or losing your security clearance at the State Department. In March of 1992, several employees at the department founded GLIFAA—Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. The employee affinity group, now known as employee organization, promotes LGBTI+ issues. In 1995, then President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12968 barring the federal government from denying security clearances based solely on sexual orientation. As Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright extended member of household benefits to LGBTI family members, because (same sex) partners could not legally marry (In the United States). Because of that, they could not get the benefits legally married couples could. Member of household benefits grants some rights and privileges to same-sex couples but are not as comprehensive as marriage benefits. In 1999, the first openly gay Ambassador was appointed. In 2008 GLIFAA extended its advocacy to the transgender community. And in 2009, Secretary Hillary Clinton extended marital benefits to same sex couples. In 2021, the department appointed an openly gay man as spokesperson, and the Department issued its first passport with an X for gender, signifying a person who does not wish to identify as male or female.
So as I said, today’s interview will focus on Chris Hoh, one Foreign Service officer’s experience with being gay in the Foreign Service, and his work to bring about change in the department. So welcome, Chris. We’re finally going to turn it over to you with the first question.
HOH: Thanks, Robin. I’m glad to be here and be with you.
Q: So before we dive into the serious questions, can you give us sort of a one minute overview of your career, such as when you joined, why you joined, and where you served?
HOH: Sure. I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and studied International Affairs in college, and joined in 1984. My first assignment was in Lima, Peru, and it was interesting because even though I studied international affairs, I wasn’t exactly sure where that was. I knew it was South America, of course. And the reason that I wanted that position—it wasn’t at the top of my bid list, but it was on there—was because it was a rotation that was both in the consular section and the political section. I came in as a political affairs officer as my career track and I wanted to get that experience early because I wasn’t sure if the Foreign Service was for me.
So anyway, long story, but I was in Lima for two years, back in DC for a year as a staff assistant, and then up to USUN, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York for another couple years. After that, I went to the peacekeeping operation in the Sinai, the Multinational Force and Observers, for almost, again, two years. And then came to the capital of Germany at that time, in 1991. That was Bonn. So, was there for three years. And that’s when I decided, I at least needed to come out to my family. And that’s something we’ll probably get into later.
But after Germany, I finally came back to the U.S., and was here for a long time – 1994 until 2000. Mostly working on the Balkans and the Dayton Peace Initiative, and all the things that had to do with Bosnia and Serbia and Croatia and so forth. Then ended up, after a year trying to learn Bosnian, going to Sarajevo, where I was the Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé for a while. And then came back to DC, had some other positions, including in human resources and [the] Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, where (Former Secretary of State) Colin Powell was trying to improve the intake process as well as just how we took care of our personnel.
And then— sometimes the order of these later things gets a little mixed up because I kept getting put on short-term special project teams. But I was an Associate Dean at the Foreign Service Institute, developing particularly the Stability Operations training program [Division], and overseeing a range of things in the professional school there [School of Professional and Area Studies]. And then went to Vienna as Deputy Chief of Mission. That was my last overseas tour. By that point, we’re in 2009 to 2012. My partner came with me, he was, actually, my husband at that point. So very different than earlier in my career.
And I came back here, did some more work in human resources in developing internship programs and kinds of things to give back to the next generation. Then ended my Foreign Service career but continued at State for another few years, on a part-time reemployed annuitant basis, continuing that program, and basically trying to get it from where I was running it, to where somebody else could run it. And we were moving along with that until the Trump Administration decided, after a year of flying under the radar, that we reemployed annuitants were also old timers who had to be pushed out and from one day to the next, a whole bunch of us had our appointments, or what is called WAE (When Actually Employed) Contracts terminated. And so that was that was it. And by that point, I was coming up on I think, about 35 years of service with the State Department.
Q: So that’s a long and illustrious career.
HOH: It was long, it was fun, but I did it. I’ll let others just determine how illustrious or not.
Q: Well, this interview might help in that respect.
Q: So, you joined the department in 1984. And that’s when security clearances and employments could still be pulled, or you could even not be hired for being gay. I’m wondering how much you knew about this when you applied? Did you feel you had to hide or deflect who you were. You mentioned you weren’t even out to your family yet. Talk me through a little bit about how scary – or not – that might have been?
HOH: Yeah, well, I came into the Foreign Service, not being sure what I wanted to do, but I thought, well, “I’m going to try this and see what it’s like.” And so I think I had an [attitude] that said, if for whatever reason, I don’t get in or it doesn’t work out, I’ll go do something else. I knew that it would be a problem to be discovered as being gay, and I had relationships at that point, and at the end of my college years in first year or two, out of school. But in those days, even when— part of that I was living in New York, which we think of as pretty liberal – I was closeted, and many, many gay people were. And it was seen as something that was wrong, bad, and something you certainly kept secret. Because you’d get into all kinds of problems, you’d probably lose your job, you would lose friends, and all that kind of stuff.
So, I didn’t know the specifics about the department and security clearances in great detail. But I knew it would be a problem because it was basically a problem everywhere. I gave them the names of friends of mine who were close, and I had a few friends who had been very good friends who I was out to. I didn’t tell them one way or another, what I thought they should do when the security investigators would ask them. But later, those friends told me they were asked things like, “Is he the kind of person who is irresponsible?” “Does he engage in dangerous behavior?” “Does he do anything that would bring discredit to himself or the U.S. government?” And their mindset was “no”. That being gay was not something terrible, or a problem. It was just part of who I was, and that I was basically a responsible, trustworthy person. So I don’t know if somebody had asked, “Is he a homosexual? Or are you aware of homosexual behavior?” then they would have probably answered differently, and I probably wouldn’t have been cleared. But those investigators didn’t go all the way down that road, these people were able to answer in a way that meant I was cleared and got in. That was never a problem. But it was something that was on my mind. And I thought, “well, depending how it goes, I might not get in.”
Q: So, to your knowledge, they didn’t directly ask that question? They would have no reason to have, probably, in a first interview.
HOH: I think that’s correct. My friends indicated that they had not been directly asked, and they didn’t feel the need to volunteer the information. So you know, that’s how, how I got in.
Q: And you were in sort of your early to mid-20s at that point?
HOH: That’s right. So by then, I’d worked for a couple years outside of college, and I was probably— when the investigations were being done I was yeah, probably 23, 24. And I came in right before I turned 25, I think.
But then once in, I had to be really careful. Because embassies are fishbowls, and people know all about your life. And so then, basically, I did not date. I was not sexually active. I was, you know, pretty closeted. The good thing I had going for me, I was young enough that people could assume well, he’s too young to have gotten married. You know, later on, if you ever were in your 30s and you seem to be a reasonably together man or woman, and you weren’t married, people would wonder what’s going on. But that sort of was okay for several years in there (because of his younger age).
Q: Did you ever feel that you had to sort of have a full relationship with a woman to have a cover? Or were you young enough that like you said, that wasn’t an issue?
HOH: I didn’t feel like I had to because I just I worked a lot. I think that— you know, when I was in Peru, there was some woman who was interested in me who kind of kept following me around and I kind of just said, “No, I’m not interested.” That became a little source of, I think, gossip for some people in the American community. But, no. Basically, when I was in Washington and New York, because those were domestic, you could keep work and home life separate more. And then after that, I went to Sinai with the Multinational Force and Observers. You’re out in a quasi-military environment in the middle of the desert. So there wasn’t an opportunity, you know, for dating. And so those questions just didn’t come up very much the way and the issues, the opportunities for me didn’t really come up the way they would when eventually I got to Germany and that overseas tour.
Q: Did you pick the Sinai was part of it because you knew that isolation would be helpful, or was that not a factor?
HOH: It was not a factor. Although in retrospect, it turned out to be kind of helpful. No, it was because I was in New York. And they had a housing program to help people assigned there be able to live there, because the apartments were very expensive. I remember at the time, when I got there, my salary was about $19,000 a year, and the apartment that the mission rented for me, which was no great shakes, cost over $20,000. So they basically said, “if we want people to come and work in the U.S. mission to the UN, we have to have a housing program.”
Anyway, that sort of fell apart because the people running it abused it and started providing housing to people who were not in the Foreign Service, which was not what Congress had intended. And so as this whole thing fell apart, it was suddenly becoming financially very difficult to stay there. The Ambassador at the time was Tom Pickering, and I was his assistant. And he really wanted me to stay. And I said, you know, “Ambassador Pickering, I think you could do almost anything in the State Department, but you can’t fix this in time to save me and I’m losing money now significantly every month.”
So I went to the Sinai because it was seen as remunerative. And that it was also a chance to learn about a peacekeeping operation from the inside. And I very much had that interest, too. I also wanted to get a little exposure to the Middle East. I kind of concluded after that, interesting as the region is, it’s not where I want to spend more of my career, you know, so there were various reasons to go there. But the short answer, your question is no, it didn’t have anything to do with the goal of being able to stay closeted.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about Bonn (Germany), and how that was a turning point for you, personally, and let me know if it was professionally too. I think Germany is kind of known as being more forward thinking, or liberal, on gay issues. Tell me a little bit about how that influenced you.
HOH: So I got to Germany, and, again, started out as a special assistant to the Ambassador before I ended up in the political section
Q: —and this is in the early ‘90s, right?
HOH: Right. So, I arrived in ‘91. I was there three years, ‘91 to ‘94, during which we had three different ambassadors. But there was— I was in the political section with a group [of Americans] that was following German foreign policy. And [also resident in Bonn] there were a group of us who were from different embassies, who all thought, “well, we’re among those who really know what’s going on here.” And we would get together monthly. And it was a variety of countries.
But there was a diplomat from a NATO country that I was attracted to, and it was mutual. And so we started to get together, go to things together. But again, both of us were closeted, and keeping it secret. But I thought, well, at least we’re in Germany, so it’s not like a hostile government that is going to try to blackmail me the way could happen in the Soviet Union or, or People’s Republic of China. He’s from a NATO country, a close ally. So again, this isn’t really a problem and kind of, you know, love conquers all or nature takes its course, whatever you want to say. You know, it just sort of felt right and not dangerous.
But as that progressed, I thought, you know, “this is a problem because I nevertheless, am dating a national of another country.” I know, I’m supposed to go to Diplomatic Security and tell them about this. It’s kind of like if you just meet somebody and you go out for drinks once or twice, it’s not a big deal. But once it becomes a real relationship, you have to do that. And I thought, that’s going to create problems for me. And why? I’m not out to my family, they might have suspected.
And so I remember, I went home for vacation during that time, with the express mission of coming out to everybody, which was really hard because I was home for less than two weeks, kind of every day had a major coming out discussion. You know, I could meet my brother for like four hours at Grand Central Station when he came down from New England and I was there and with my parents and it was really just exhausting. But I was really glad because when I got back to Germany, I thought, Okay, now anybody I care about knows. And so I don’t have anything to be ashamed of, and nobody can blackmail me. This makes me no longer a security risk if I ever was. Now, the issue was the guy I was dating was a little older and closeted and did not want anyone to know.
So in the end, I didn’t ever say anything to the Diplomatic Security (DS) folks, and didn’t really say anything to my colleagues in Germany, but at least I kind of felt, well, if there ever were a case where things came to a crunch. I would just, you know, say to DS, “yeah, this is you know, who I’m seeing this is who I am, but no big deal, my family knows.” They would then have to make a decision, and what are we going to do, but by then were up in like ‘92. And things were starting to change, you had talked about some of the executive orders that have changed, but the main thing that I was aware of was DS was not kicking people out for being gay, the way that had been the case just a few years earlier.
Q: So if this wasn’t a short interview, I have so many other questions I’d like to ask you about that answer. But, um, tell me a little bit more about your decision to join GLIFAA. Was that easy or difficult? Especially because when it was first formed, culturally, it was still not easy to be gay. And why did you decide to do that?
HOH: So a lot of the formation of GLIFAA I missed out on because it was in that period when I was overseas. And I maybe I knew one or two of the people tangentially, but it wasn’t something that was really on my radar. I didn’t get back to Washington until ‘94.
At that point, I was working, I was— first, I came back to be the Croatia desk officer. First person who’d ever been assigned to be a desk officer for Croatia, because the predecessors had all been desk officers for Yugoslavia. It is the time of the breakup, the war, and I pursued that job and got it when I was talking to people in the European Bureau and saying, “I want an office where there’s not a lot of BS, where you’re not doing a bunch of Mickey Mouse memos and things where people spend hours and hours on things that have relatively low impact.” And one of my colleagues said, “Well, you know, a bunch of people resigned over Yugoslavia. But if that’s not an issue for you, this is really important. And most folks are so busy, they don’t have any time for making that stuff (“BS”).” And I thought, “Okay, sounds good.” But as a result, I was in a job where we were working, you know, 70 hours a week, and it was one kind of crisis after the other. And so nobody questioned “why isn’t he dating” because nobody had time for that.
And then, from that, as I moved into other jobs, the first was the Undersecretary for Public Affairs wanted to do a project on the history of the Dayton Peace Initiative and put me in charge of that as a short-term project. And then I began to talk to people who were my bosses and just said, “Hey, I want you to know, I’m gay.” At that point, I didn’t have any particular partner, that came a little bit later, but I was just coming out to people so that if this became an issue or known, they could say, “oh, yeah, I knew.”
And so that was really that was very different by the mid-90s, from the mid-80s when I came in, and let me just say one thing about mid-80s. That year that I was in Washington, I was a staff assistant in the International Organization Bureau. There was somebody I knew in my A-100 class who suddenly came back from an overseas post. I didn’t know he was gay. But it turned out, he told me, that he had been outed at post and the Ambassador there kicked him out and basically said, “I don’t want anybody like you here representing our country.” That’s an Ambassador who is somebody that is highly respected, seen as on the liberal side of the spectrum, somebody I had some direct workings with, and so somebody you would think is like almost a saint. And yet, that was just the way things were in the ‘80s. So when this guy came back, he was parked—
Q: That was a career Ambassador?
Q: Not a political—?
HOH: No, not a political appointee. So my friend, my A-100 colleague, was put in a job that didn’t require classification, because it didn’t require clearance. Because DS had suspended his clearance pending his investigation. And he was kind of in this limbo for a year and a half, you know, and as, as you know, when you have a job, and you’re suddenly pulled out of it and thrown into something else, the kind of disruption in your record all that stuff, does make you less competitive for promotion. So that was a real, real career blow for him. And frankly, there was a question of, you know, would he be fired for cause? So that’s, like, 1985 or so. Let me— that’s more like 1987 into 1988. So that, you know, was out there. Now, in the end, DS said, “Well, okay. It’s okay. Keep your clearance, go back to normal.” He kind of recovered. He had a great career after that. But in the process, there were [conversations like this:] Look, I’m out; people know it. Show me anything I’ve done that’s dangerous or dishonorable. And I’m not the only one, there’s a lot of people in [this] particular embassy. And the only response he got was, well, are you going to tell us who they are? And he said, “No.” [So] that was the climate still. Well, your career could be over with one misstep in the late ‘80s. So for me in the ‘90s, mid ‘90s, to go to a boss and say, “Hey, I just want you to know this about me.” You know, that felt like a big step.
Q: And did you feel people at that point were generally supportive? Or were they not? Or on the fence?
HOH: People were generally supportive. Probably because, partly, that’s who I picked for bosses, when I had the chance. The advice I have given people coming up in the service is, try to hire yourself a good boss. In other words, if you really find somebody good to work for, it makes a huge difference. So I think I had done that. I think probably there were a couple of people I didn’t come out to, because maybe I felt less comfortable. But by that point, pretty much everybody I ran into at least, [they] knew they had to say the right thing. What did they deep down believe? I don’t know, some I knew there were like, no problem, you know, and took steps to demonstrate to me with actions beyond their words that, you know, they didn’t care, it was fine, or this was not an issue, whatever. Or that they were supportive, you know, like, “Yeah, I know, you have you’ve faced discrimination. And this is potentially scary.” So they were supportive. And I think for this whole issue, if it weren’t for the straight allies, who figured out what the right thing to do was and did it, we would still be in a really dark place. And so, you know, hats off to those folks, as well as to the activists and the people who put themselves out there in a really difficult circumstance. So, anyway, that kind of talks about that period.
Q: Yeah, and this is a period of time when, obviously, there wasn’t social media. We didn’t even have email really in the State Department. So I’m wondering how did you coalesce, or did you not, with other people who might have been gay to have solidarity? You know, was there any sort of way that you did communicate as such with each other, especially as GLIFAA was just starting, or was that – was GLIFAA the only outlet you had to know who was who and how to talk about these things?
HOH: I think that my approach was just to be really great at your job. And my personal life is not part of my job and that’ll take care of itself. So that’s where I focused. And again, I was working on these peace things or Senior Watch Officer in the Ops Center, so always kind of really busy. But yeah, I knew some people from either external things or friends of friends. And like, okay knew this person’s gay or whatever, and we might talk about it a little bit, but it would be, you know, quieter and not making a big deal out of it.
As far as GLIFAA, I wasn’t particularly active in GLIFAA at that point. I think GLIFAA was doing stuff and getting there, but I was, again, in jobs where I was working so much, I didn’t really do much. I, you know, maybe sent them some money or joined or said, “hey, you know, keep up the great work.” But I didn’t feel like I was in a position to do very much.
Nevertheless, you know, I was a Senior Watch Officer, where diversity was really an important part of their recruiting. And so to be a white male political officer, you know, it was going to be really hard to be picked as a Senior Watch Officer, because there was this idea, “That’s who gets all those jobs, and we got to make up for that now.” But I did, again, when I was interviewing said, “Look, I want you to know this about me, because I want you to know, a) who I am, and b) that I’m not subject to blackmail.” I don’t know if I got that because they thought, well, he helps us on diversity in that score, or what, but my activism with GLIFAA came later, sort of after I came back from my next overseas tour.
Q: Okay, why don’t we talk a little bit about that, when did you join? And what were some of the issues that you pushed for, that GLIFAA pushed for during your tenure?
HOH: Okay, so I’ll jump back a little earlier. I went to Bosnia as Deputy Chief of Mission from 2000 to 2003, which meant I was kind of picked for it a year before I went into Bosnian training. The man who was going to go out to be Ambassador, Tom Miller, called and asked me did I want the job. I didn’t even know he was going as Ambassador. I hadn’t thought about that, I was going to go to the War College. And I went to see him, and he said, “Look, you can go to the War College later, you’re the perfect person for this, blah, blah, blah,” gave me the hard sell. And I said, “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m gay, I think you need to know that. I also have a partner now, and I don’t want to go anywhere else with— go somewhere without him. And so I need to know that you’re really okay with that.”
And— sorry, it’s, it’s a little bit emotional, even after all these years, because he was great. He just said, “Hell, I’ve been cutting edge my whole life.” Those were his exact words. And I remember them distinctly. He just said, “What do you need me to do?” And so he and his wife (Bonnie) were extremely supportive. He was good friends with the Director General at the time, who was Marc Grossman. He said to Marc, “I need to get a diplomatic passport for Chris’ husband or partner.” Mark Grossman said, “I can’t do that as a matter of law, you know, but we will do everything we can.” And I talked to Marc, who I’d known because he’d been Assistant Secretary when I was doing Balkan stuff. He said, “Look, we’re not going to make a big deal of this. We’re just going to do everything right. And then a little bit down the road when people say “how do we have a gay DCM or have this with a partner in a place like Bosnia,” I’m going to be able to say, “Yeah, ’cause we already doing it, it’s been no problem.” Which, sorry, which again, was tremendous support from a straight ally, who said, “this is the right thing to do.” But not just, “that’s what I think,” but “here’s how we’re going to get there.” And so I think those people deserve a fair amount of credit.
Anyway, so that’s how I got to Bosnia. The reception to introduce me at the ambassador’s residence, it listed me and Daniel, my partner. You know, “the Ambassador to the United States of America and Mrs. Thomas Miller invite you to a reception to welcome Deputy Chief of Mission Christopher Hoh and Daniel Elmer.” So it was right out there for everybody to see, in a country that was pretty old fashioned in a lot of ways, that had very conservative— whether conservative Muslim, conservative Catholic, conservative Orthodox leadership.
And so, we were kind of pushing the envelope there, and Dan was a member of household, and the Administrative Counselor just got him a residence visa, a diplomatic visa, even though he didn’t have a diplomatic passport. We never had to ask for that. Now, I don’t know what the Ambassador might have said to the Management Counselor, but later that guy told me, you know, “I went to the foreign ministry, and I just said, our new Deputy Chief of Mission is coming. And he’s bringing his partner, and we need to get him a visa.” And he said, the Bosnian foreign ministry official said, “Oh, we’ve had one of those before. We know what to do.” And they took care of it.
I was later told by a senior person in HR, you know, “you can’t ask for that. Because you’re asking for something that we do not give to foreign diplomats in Washington. If you asked for that, you’re violating the Defense of Marriage Act.” Now, this was a person who I think didn’t necessarily like that position. But they’d been told by the legal advisors’ office, this is our position. So yeah, if the host government gives you a diplomatic visa for your same-sex partner, okay, we’re not going to make an issue of it. But don’t ask for it. Don’t ask for any benefits. Or we’re going to have to call you back here. And we’re going to have to probably terminate your assignment and blah, blah, blah.
So even in that time — now we’re talking about early 2000s — things were more liberal, [but] still they weren’t where they should have been. Fortunately, when I was asked, I could say, “here’s the story. And here’s the management counselor’s name, ask him,” and so it wasn’t an issue. So that’s a little of the background of the question you just asked. Now, I need you to remind me what that question was?
Q: And that’s, I think, what you’re getting into a few things that I plan to also ask, so we can go on this thread, which is how was it, you know, working in more conservative countries, or where homosexuality is even illegal? If you were there, versus someplace like Germany, where it’s more open? How were you received? Did you have any direct or indirect issues, because of it?
HOH: So in Bosnia, it was special, because we — the U.S. initiative — had kind of ended the war, and — sorry about the phone there — and so we were held in very high esteem by a lot of the people there. And even the folks who maybe didn’t like the U.S., or didn’t like everything we had done with the Dayton Peace Accords, still kind of respected the U.S. They were also used to a large international community — that was seen as sort of exotic creatures. And so we could be a gay couple, rather visible, for anybody who cared to look, anyway. We didn’t stand on the rooftops and shout it but, you know, names on invitations, he’s living with me at home, the staff certainly was aware of it. And if anybody asked, we were very open about our relationship. So that was there for people to see. But I think for folks who maybe had a problem with that, they didn’t say anything, or do anything.
I found there were plenty of people in Bosnia, who were like, “Yeah, whatever, that’s fine.” Certainly, you know, the prime ministers, the cabinet folks, I mean, I dealt with everybody there. They completely knew, and if they— even the very conservative, Islamic people, we were very close to the party of Alija Izetbegović (first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina), who was the conservative Muslim, and they basically dominated the government or certainly had a very influential position. They didn’t care. What they cared about was the U.S. supported them and their country, and they saw me as a big part of that effort. And so that wasn’t an issue.
But Daniel, my partner, helped out with the Orthodox Church, was out in the countryside, doing things, all kinds of volunteer stuff, and, you know, was widely accepted. Now, that was Sarajevo, which, you know, was a relatively cosmopolitan city, compared to the countryside of Bosnia. But— so that that worked well. And I did meet with the nascent gay rights groups there and sought to encourage them. That was part of the U.S. human rights agenda. And they, I think, took particular inspiration from that, because they did face discrimination.
But I felt I was lucky because at that point as DCM or chargé, in a place like Bosnia, when you’re the United States in those days, people are not going to mess with you. And then the embassy, I think the ambassador’s wife had been supportive from day one. So that was not going to be a problem. If somebody had an issue with us, they kept it to themselves.
I know they told me, Tom Miller’s wife, Bonnie, who does counseling and a variety of things, said, you know, “we sat down with the bodyguards,” – because the ambassador had a set of bodyguards, and when I would share those bodyguards – “and talked to them before you and Dan came.” And these are big, tough, guys. I mean, they’re not only security bodyguards, they’ve been through a war, very recently. They were trained. And they said, so, you know, “what would you think if we had a senior official on embassy, you know, who was gay?” and one of them said, “I would just kill him.” You know, they started from a point of view of “God, that’s wrong, we can’t have that, that would infect our country.” They kind of brought those folks around in the months before I ever got there. And so when we got there, if they were not okay with it, they didn’t say anything. And after a short time, probably less because of me and more because of Daniel, my partner, who’s just a very engaging person. They were good friends. They’re like, “Oh, will you come to the christening of our child?” “Will you come to this birthday party?” “Oh, we’re going to have a cookout? Will you come to that?” You know, so. So I think we helped in changing attitudes. But again, it wouldn’t have happened probably without the leadership of the Ambassador and his wife at that point.
Q: Did you ever feel unsafe?
HOH: I didn’t feel unsafe, at least not from that. But I didn’t go many places, you know, where that might have been an issue. Whereas I think there were probably some younger people in the embassy, you know, who’d gone to a bar, whatever, and maybe approached somebody and got harassed, if not beaten up. But mostly people really kept their hands off diplomats, especially U.S. diplomats, in a place like that. I know that’s not the case in other parts of the world.
Q: And how did you see your personal sort of advocacy and journey versus your professional? Like you said, the foreign policy at that time was to try to help groups like that. How do you sort of put your attention to one thing or another without making it seem like “oh, that’s he’s just doing it because he’s gay, or something?”
HOH: Right. Well, I think they came together. You know, I talked about how before, I could keep my work life and personal life separate. In Washington or New York, that was relatively easy. Once you’re overseas, that’s much harder. But I think it was basically, am I going to be seen as an honest person? And so I had to make sure I had nothing to hide, because if I’m lying to you about things about my identity, then how do you know I’m not lying to you about what I say U.S. policy is or, you know, whatever issue we’re advocating for. To me, it was all one piece of just being honest and open. And that was, I think, part of my stock in trade as a diplomat. And it’s pretty much [that] being honest and open is the stock in trade of any successful diplomat. And, and so, like I said, we didn’t hide it. And in some cases, it was, you know, it was clear, including [?garbled] in the newspaper— “Oh, the Deputy Chief of Mission and his partner.” I considered him a husband because we’d had a church wedding before we went. But the U.S. law and the State Department regulations at that point, would only say members of the household.
Q: Did that affect at all your relationship? Do you think that he was not seen as a full partner by the department or was it just—excuse me—so natural that it wasn’t something you thought about?
HOH: Um, I mean, I think it was something that was a source of sadness and frustration for us, but not such a big deal, because we (had) grown up in a time when you couldn’t even be out. And so the idea that the State Department, at least, you know, was willing to have him be part of the embassy community, and that community treated him as my spouse, regardless of the laws not catching up to the reality, you know, we kind of saw the glass as half full. Now, going back and forth [to the U.S.] —and he fell and broke his elbow and had to have operations and go back and forth a lot—we paid for all that out of our own pocket. There were a lot of other things where benefits that people who were married who were heterosexual, even if they were kind of nominally married, like didn’t live together, were for all intents and purposes separated, they were getting all this embassy support, and U.S. government support. And here we were, really committed and doing a lot together and he was volunteering all over the place in ways that benefited the U.S. image in the country, but it cost us.
My view was, well, we’re better off than we would have been 10 years ago. It’s only money. And, you know, I’m paid well enough here. So, I don’t think— I know from having worked with interns a lot, that the folks coming in now wouldn’t stand for that and they shouldn’t have to. But they’re kind of incredulous when, you know, I tell them. This is how it should be. [i.e. they should be incredulous.] And I’m not saying, feel sorry for me, but just realizewe have come a long way. And it’s a good thing.
Q: Well, let’s circle back to GLIFAA then. How did you get involved with that group? And why? I know not everybody who’s gay is involved, or agrees with its position. So what was it that drew you to join in? And what did you work on?
HOH: So when I came back from overseas, I thought “I need to make up for lost time.” And GLIFAA had [recently observed] its 10th year anniversary, (it) did a little program book, they wanted to profile people, they said “we need a DCM”, they did a profile of me. And I thought, “okay, how can I help” and so I tried to be more involved, contribute, join. The Foreign Service Institute was beginning to organize the sessions under the auspices of the—I forget what it’s called now, but the center that kind of helps family members and adjusting, you know, evening sessions on being gay and having same sex partners. And—
Q: The then Global Community Liaison Office?
Q: The GCLO (Global Community Liaison Office) now?
HOH: Right. But in the Foreign Service Institute, there’s a little part of the school that has programs for family members. And, and so they were doing that. And they were doing it with support, you know, from the Undersecretary for Management Pat Kennedy, and others. And so, I tried to help with that as well.
Q: And this was, what, approximately 2004?
HOH: So I’m trying to remember. I came back in 2003. And it would have been in that period of, like, 2003 to 2009.
HOH: And then there was one year in there where I was Vice President for State of GLIFAA. And I’m sorry, I don’t have that year right in front of me, but we could look it up. And I think it was, they were looking for somebody to run and do that. And I thought, “well, I can do that. Because I not only have time and interest, but I can be out there now in a way that you know, I couldn’t 10 years ago. And really I need to do this.”
Q: Yeah, GLIFAA has sort of historically been male-dominated. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that. Why aren’t there more— hasn’t there been more women, more lesbians involved? And what, if any, tensions are there?
HOH: I think because there’s more discrimination against women. And there are plenty of people that I knew in the Foreign Service who were senior ahead of me, who are gay men and women. A few of those men were a little more open. And almost all the women just were intensely private. And I just think it’s because they’ve— they probably had more to lose, they probably had fewer opportunities if they got kicked out. And then the group that started GLIFAA was a bunch of guys and so that probably made it harder for them to come in.
When I was there, we certainly really tried. And I think succeeded to a large extent to have women in a variety of positions and actively recruited and actively encourage them. And when we had women on the board said, “What can we do? You know, how can we get more people to come and feel this is a truly diverse and welcoming environment.” And, you know, we maybe probably made some, some inroads in that. But I think that it’s just, you know, I never thought like, I’m going to really be without employment, I’m going to be unable to take care of myself. Even if I get kicked out of the Foreign Service or other things, you know, it’ll be okay. And I think, even though opportunities were greatly expanded, when I went to school and came into the workforce, I think women of that era did not have that feeling. There was a sense of, you know, the way you’re really sure you’re okay in life is you get married to a provider, or you just really push ahead in your work in a way that you’re unassailable.
So, I’m generalizing about things I don’t know a lot about, but I just think that I mean, you see it in all kinds of things, who, who are the donors, look at Human Rights Campaign, and so forth. And they’re just, there are more— there have historically been more opportunities for men than for women. And so to get to the point where you can really contribute and give back and do all that kind of stuff, you kind of need to get to a certain point in life, and fewer women got there than men. I think that’s really changing. But there’s still, I think, a ways to go.
Q: And then in about 2008, you expanded GLIFAA, to take on trans issues as well. And I’m wondering if you could walk me through that a little bit. Was that an easy or difficult decision? I think it’s— people today, in 2022, are still confused as to what exactly that all means. So back in 2008, it would have been even more so. So let me know.
HOH: Yeah, well. Here I was, right. I thought of myself as open minded and progressive. And I’ve faced some discrimination, although probably not nearly as much as many people. I’m trying to open things up. And then this issue of trans came up, I’m like, “I just don’t understand that. And I, if I’m honest with myself, I’m kind of uncomfortable with this.” And (it) came up because they said, “Yeah, you’d be State Vice President. And the head of the ticket, the president of GLIFAA is going to be a trans woman, Robyn McCutcheon.” And that was a really great thing for GLIFAA and for me, I hope for Robyn, and certainly for the State Department. But it was like, wow, I never saw this coming. And this level of kind of puzzlement and discomfort, is that how straight people think about me? Is that how straight people used to regard gay people?
And so I kind of really had to think about this and said, Well, how would I want people to accept me and it’s like, as a person, just, this is who you are, and it doesn’t matter, your gender or your sexuality. And so, of course, I worked really closely with Robyn, and just said, “Yeah, I’m gonna treat her the way I’d want to be treated myself.” I mean, this is everything I believe, of course, she made it easy. She was a great person, she was a great leader, and didn’t make a huge issue of being trans but also would talk about the kind of discrimination that was there.
It was a good thing for GLIFAA, too, because there had been a lot of progress on the lesbian and gay side. Not enough, but a tremendous amount. And people were wondering, “do you need GLIFAA? Do you need to advocate on these issues?” And then Robyn came in and slowly introduced us to other people and said, “Here’s a whole bunch of issues, like including my basic health insurance,” and that was an issue we took up with management. And it turned out that it was the State Department that pushed the federal insurance providers to start offering gender affirming care for trans people. And that wouldn’t have happened without GLIFAA advocacy to Pat Kennedy, and Pat Kennedy saying, “this is the right thing to do,” and pushing it with the other insurers.
And so, you know, I got educated quickly and came around, and I think other people did, too. But it goes to show how important it is, when you’re trying to overcome discrimination and prejudice, to have a personal connection. And you realize, “okay, now I know a person like that. Oh, now I realized that there are many varieties of whatever it is.” So today, you know, it’s a huge issue in this country. And I think what you’re finding is, people realize, “oh, actually, I know, trans people. I’ve known them my whole life. I just didn’t know they were trans.” And I think, again, that’s become a good thing. But for GLIFAA, I think it was a little bit of a, of a shift. And again, I was late to the party, but then I tried to make up for it.
Q: Well, and that leads into my question, what are some of the big things that you feel happened under your tenure? The insurance sounds like a very big thing. But some of the advances that GLIFAA made while you were vice president?
HOH: So I think the insurance was a big thing. Secretary (John) Kerry really did a lot more to embrace the LGBTQ+ community. And that, that made a huge difference.
We worked closely with diplomatic security, and actually, the Assistant Secretary, at Pride Day, basically apologized for DS’s discrimination of gay people in the past, and, you know, came out and said, “Not only were we wrong, and did we treat people wrong, and it was bad for those people, was bad for the foreign affairs community. But we have work to do to make up for it.” And he really said, you know, “we’ve got your back, we want you to be safe when you’re overseas, we want to support you.” And he said, “I’ve got a bunch of, you know, LGBTQ people in my bureau, and in the Diplomatic Security Service. And they are people that,” you know, “we want to support and protect.” So I think that GLIFAA did a lot behind the scenes to kind of get DS to that point. And that’s something I’m particularly proud of.
There’s also just a ton of advising people. We work to advance the information about what posts— I don’t have— let me rephrase this, not whether the posts are safe or not, how safe or how risky a post exists. They’re all, I think, on a continuum. To do that, systematically, collect the information, prepare a spreadsheet, so you can find out: can you get a residence visa, if you go with a partner, can your partner go and work in this country, do the laws discriminate and criminalize homosexual behavior; all these kinds of things, to help people make informed decisions about where to go in their assignments. And pretty much, we did that within GLIFAA. Eventually HR was going to—which is now called something else—was going to take that over. Then they started not doing a very good job of it, and we basically said, we’re not going to give up on this. And, you know, until you start doing a good job on it.
So again, a lot of that was not so public or confrontational. But it was pretty tough behind the scenes to bring them along. Some of that, I think, was residual discrimination. Some of it was just bureaucratic inertia, which you always can have. Well, this is new and different. Anything new and different is really, usually hard for bureaucracy.
Q: And this is all volunteer work, correct?
HOH: Right. Right.
Q: So were there— was there an issue or two that you push for or work for that didn’t happen right away? Or maybe you’re still waiting to see it happen, 10 or more years later since you’ve been off the board?
HOH: A specific issue that comes to mind like that, no. But I’m sure if you ask some of the people now they’d say, “Well, what about this or that?”
I think it’s more about just having a culture where people can be open and honest, and you respect everybody. And you support all the people who are part of your mission. I’d like to think, you know, well, 90 percent of the folks in State Department get that and do that, but there are others who don’t, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re just insecure themselves, or they feel in competition with other people, and they’d rather tear somebody down than build up the whole team. But some of it is still prejudice on these issues.
I think we’ve seen in the last couple of years in this country, even though I’ve been away from the State Department, a political scene where it’s now much more common for people to express really racist or prejudicial kinds of sentiments. Kind of things that they might have felt before, but knew what you can’t say – now it’s okay to say. But having that go farther and turn into violence. And so, particularly, you know, killings of trans people, places that say we don’t want to have job protections for gay people, the kinds of things where they say, “Look at who’s at high risk of suicide,” and the official response seems to be—I’m not talking about State, but state and local health authorities—”Well, we don’t really care if the LGBTQ kids killed themselves.” That’s what I see happening in this country. And there’s a part of that that I think still affects some of the people within the State Department. And it’s just wrong. It’s stupid. You know, we need all the people on our team to be the best they can be. And our country needs that. And why would we kind of throw people away like that? So that’s, that’s sort of, to me, the, what I see is the unfinished business. Really changing attitudes.
Q: And that that kind of leads into a question when Ned— I mentioned that we have our first openly gay spokesperson (for the State Department, Edward “Ned” Price). And when Ned was appointed and that was raised, I think some people, especially younger folks were like, “Why is it a big deal that he’s gay? We’ve gotten to a point where we shouldn’t care about that anymore.” But do you think it is still important that that (sexuality) is mentioned? And why? And I think you got into that a little bit with your last answer.
HOH: No, I think it is important. It is important because, yeah, in an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter, right? But the fact that somebody can go out there in a very visible, public position, and just do a great job, and say, “This is who I am.” And who he is doesn’t affect his ability to do that job. Doesn’t make him any better or worse for it in really a fundamental sense. That’s important for people to see. I think it’s also important for people coming up to see diversity. Just to know that there’s somebody like them in a particular job. And so, you know, I think that’s really important. It’s— when it came to having gay ambassadors, I’m sure we had gay ambassadors in the 1800s. But the first openly gay Ambassador was a political appointee, James Hormel, who had tons of money and connections. And, I think in the end, was not confirmed, if I’m not mistaken.
Q: I think he had to be appointed during a recess.
HOH: I think that’s what happened. But that helped to blaze a trail. I got to brief him on the Balkans because he was going up for hearings, and got to tell him how much I and others appreciated what he was doing. But then it wasn’t only until, you know, a few years later, that we could put a career person forward as being openly gay. Again, we’d have plenty of gay people, men and women, as ambassadors, but always closeted and so when (former Ambassador) Mike Guest was out there in public, then that made a big difference, and he was confirmed. So now we’ve had several. And it’s become less of an issue. But you have to have some. If you don’t have some of whatever suffers discrimination, you are missing an opportunity to help bring people along and overcome prejudice.
Q: So you’ve been in for— you were in for more than 30 years, including as a WAE (When Actually Employed/Reemployed Annuitant) even longer. What issue or two do you think stands out most as something that was sort of the norm when you joined, that even to yourself, you can’t believe that that was considered normal, or that you didn’t think anything of it, in regards to being gay? It seems more like it should be two or three centuries ago, rather than 30 years ago.
HOH: Well, I mean, the idea that your clearance could be pulled. And if you couldn’t get a security clearance, you couldn’t be a Foreign Service officer, you couldn’t be in the Foreign Service, and you would be kicked out. That, I mean, to me that— it seemed wrong at the time. And growing up, it’s just like, I didn’t choose to be gay. I mean, I prayed to God make me straight before I kind of came to terms with it—and by the way, I should say, my parents had been incredibly supportive, always have been—but that was the environment. And just I said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.” You know. You don’t choose whether you’re born with a withered arm, or a disfigurement on your face, and people should accept you. And you don’t choose where your sexual attraction lies, and you don’t choose, I think, how you want to— how you feel you need to express yourself in terms of gender. Those are things that come from wherever, beyond your control, and it’s in your DNA before you’re born. And so it’s just wrong to punish people for that, let alone to deny them, you know, a chance to do a job that they could do well. So to me that that’s sort of the fundamental thing. And we’ve made a lot of progress on that. But the implementation is still far from universal and it needs to go that way.
The other is, I think, the State Department’s supporting LGBTQ people overseas. Because we have people in countries that are hostile to LGBTQ people. We have personnel in countries that will try to entrap and blackmail, our personnel, sounds kind of oh, old school, scary, Cold War, but it still is out there. And I think that, while the Department often understands the issue exists, they’re just reluctant to do too much about it. Sometimes they don’t want to rock the boat with the host government, sometimes they’re just not sure how to take on, you know, that kind of an issue. But ultimately, I think you just have to say, “look, we support our people. And we’re going to back them up. If, of course, if you screw up on an issue, that’s different, but if, if you are getting into a difficult situation, just because of who you are, we’re going to back you up.” And I wish, you know, I think a lot of those things have gotten set back in the last few years because of political turmoil and other problems in the department, but we got to keep working on ‘em.
Q: Well, thanks so much for your insights today, Chris. But before we leave, I’m just wondering if you have any sort of final examples, thoughts, or words of wisdom for current or future LGBT+ community members who are in the department or want to join the department?
HOH: I think— yeah, I mean, I think if you think you want to do this, go for it. I mean, that’s generally my view with anything. Like, go for it. You can always come up with a hundred reasons why not to do something. But if you don’t go for it, try it, and give it your best shot, you’re always gonna wonder, “should I have done that?” And particularly for somebody who’s younger or earlier in their career, you can change. So you can try this career, and then if it’s not for you, move on. And you maybe have lost a little time but probably not even that because you’ve gained some experience. I came into the Foreign Service because I was interested in foreign policy, wanted to know how the Foreign Service worked, wasn’t sure it was for me, really doubted I would be in for more than five or 10 years, and then I would, you know, do something else. And before I knew it, three decades had gone by and kind of every step of the way, it was really interesting. So the one is go for it.
The other is, just be really honest with yourself and others. Because if you are, then you don’t get in a bind, you know. You’re not only not subject to blackmail, but you don’t have to remember, “who did I tell what to?” and whatever. So be honest with how you feel and be honest with other people. And you’ll build up that trust. That doesn’t mean you always have to be harsh. You know, sometimes you’d have to say the truth in a constructive and more nuanced way. But gee, if you can’t be diplomatic, you shouldn’t be in the Foreign Service, right?
Q: And how about any thoughts or tips on balancing when you get frustrated? I imagined through your career, the progress, or lack thereof, was frustrating, but you kept going and you stayed in. How do you— How did you balance that? And how did you keep going in the face of daunting odds sometimes?
HOH: Yeah. Well, and I think there were those moments. For me, they didn’t come about because of discrimination against gays, or sense, like, “oh, I should be out in dating, and I’m not.” But there were other things. It takes a long time to rise. You will run into injustice and unfairness, you will run into stupidity, and self-serving behavior, you know. Part of what kept me going was, the colleagues are great. You know, you may always think the grass is greener on the other side, and if I could just, you know, quit, and I could work on the Hill as a congressional aide, or whatever, which is one of the temptations that had crossed my mind. What I’ve come to realize is that the State Department is full of really interesting, stimulating people, and people who are, by and large, really dedicated to doing the right thing for our country. So we may disagree on what the right course of action is, but there’s not a lot of, kind of self-serving behavior (with some people). And so that’s really stimulating. And when you’re in the middle of it, I think it’s easy to forget that. But you go outside and you realize, wow, you know, I’m not working in a place where everybody is with it anymore. And that helped me keep going.
The other was because then you form a kind of bond with people, either because you’re working through a crisis, or you’re thrown into a situation overseas. If you think about throwing in the towel and leaving, for me part of it, when the things really were bad a couple of times, it’s like, “I can’t walk out on them, I can’t leave them behind.” You know, they have been there for me in tough times, and I need to be there for them. So, to me, that makes a big difference. In the end, it is kind of a big, extended family. And you— I think need to be comfortable with that, and recognize that that’s a tremendous benefit. And, and appreciate it.
Q: Yeah, I think the fact that you still feel so powerfully 20 years later about what happened in Bosnia is testament to that.
HOH: Yeah, no, I think that’s, that’s— you’re spot on there.
Q: Great. Well, thanks so much, Chris, for giving us your time here today, and I really hope to be able to talk with you more in the future.
HOH: Well, same here, Robin. I’ve been glad to do it. And I’m really glad you folks are doing this project, and I’ll look forward to seeing the results when it’s all done.
Q: Okay, I’m going to stop the recording now then.
End of Transcript
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