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 21, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Hello, and welcome to our interview. My name is Robin Holzhauer, and this is an oral interview done on May 21, 2022, with Ambassador Eric Nelson. We’re speaking in the United States via Zoom, an online meeting platform that zoomed in popularity in 2022 with the onset of COVID when many people began to work from home for the first time. This video will be in the speaker’s view, which means only the person speaking will appear on the video. For those of you who cannot see us or have low vision, I am a white female with brown shoulder length hair, kind of between curly and straight today, and I’m wearing a red and green blacktop. Ambassador Nelson, would you like to identify yourself?
NELSON: Hi, Robin. Thanks for the invite today. I’m Eric Nelson. I’m a white male with brown hair and dressed casually for this Saturday interview.
Q: Great. This interview is part of the associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, also known as AAFSW Oral History Project underwritten by the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. The goal is to have a series of topic-focused interviews, oral interviews, with current or former Foreign Service personnel that feature discussion and insight on topics specific to the Foreign Service life. This interview will discuss challenges unique to LGBTQI employees in the Foreign Service, and 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 Department employees were dismissed for the same reason. In 1952, the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as “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 from or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality, yet into the 1990s being homosexual could result in not being hired or the loss of your security clearance at the State Department. In March 1992, several employees at the department founded GLIFAA, gays and lesbians in foreign affairs agencies, that promotes and advocates for LGBTQI issues. In 1995, then President Bill Clinton signed executive order number 12968 barring the federal government from denying security clearances based solely on sexuality and sexual orientation. As Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright extended member of household benefits to LGBTI+ family members. Because partners could not legally marry, they could not get the benefits of being a legally married couple. Member of household benefits granted some rights to partners, but they could not get the same rights as a married couple. In 1999, the first openly gay Ambassador was appointed. In 2008, GLFAA expanded its advocacy to the transgender community. In 2009, then 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 does not wish to identify as male or female. Today’s interview will focus on one Foreign Service officer’s experience with being gay in the Foreign Service and his work to bring about change in the department. Now, we get to the good stuff. Welcome, Ambassador Nelson. Before we dive into the specifics of the topic, can you just give us sort of a one-minute review of your career such as, where you served and why you joined?
NELSON: Well, I’ve been a public servant now for more than 30 years, this is my 35th year. The first two years were in the Peace Corps after my undergraduate degree. And then after graduate school, after an MBA, I joined the Foreign Service. My service has been mostly in Europe and Latin America with a year in Pakistan and my assignments have included Santo Domingo, Frankfurt, Mexico City, San Jose -Costa Rica-, Munich, Milan, and Islamabad, as well as several assignments in Washington.
Q: You joined the department back in 1990, and the Peace Corps before that, both when clearances and employment could be pulled, or you could not even be hired if you were gay. I was curious if you knew about this when you applied for the Peace Corps and the department? And if so, did you feel you had to hide or deflect things in the interview and then later when you were hired?
NELSON: I knew when I applied, but I didn’t try to hide anything. I was anticipating that the question would arise during the background interviews, and it did not. I also, after I was selected and joined the State Department, I filed a Freedom of Information Act for those files, just to see if it was an issue.,and I could not see beyond anything redacted that it was an issue. So, for me to be selected, it was not an issue. I was not out to my family at the time. But I was out to all my friends and colleagues. So I was aware, but my approach was “I’m visible.” At that time, I had a partner, (so my approach was) I am not denying it; And we will just see how it goes.
Q: And that was 1990. Is that correct?
NELSON: That was 1990. Actually, the background checks began in 1988.
Q: Okay. And was there any issue with the Peace Corps?
NELSON: With the Peace Corps? No, no, I had no issue.
Q: On your first tour, you mentioned you were out to your friends, but not your family. And so, what about your colleagues? Were you out with them? On your first tour? Did you feel there was some pressure there to keep things under wraps?
NELSON: I was very much out because my partner accompanied me to that post.
Q: How was that? Did you feel it was mostly accepted? Did you feel any hostility either from the public or from your coworkers?
NELSON: That was a very positive experience. We felt welcomed. We, of course, got minimal support. But everybody welcomed us.
Q: Did you feel at all that you had to live your life any differently overseas because you were gay compared to your straight colleagues?
NELSON: No. Not in the places I was serving.
Q: Was that a factor in the posts that you chose? Were you looking for posts that might have been more – the countries that might have been more gay friendly? Or bosses that you knew that might be more (sympathetic), or was that not a factor?
NELSON: It has always been a factor. I think for anyone who has any, any LGBTI member of the Service who has family , it is a factor. Because the issue is, is your family going to be accepted? Is your family going to be welcomed? Is your family member going to receive privileges and immunities? For the first 20 years of my career, it also meant that I had to pay for the transport of my family to and from post. It was a big issue, I could not afford to make myself available to serve in Africa or Asia, because just the air tickets alone would have really, really set me back, moving my partner in and out of the country. And at times, many countries would not give a resident visa or resident permit, and that meant the partner had to leave every three to six months. That was at your expense. So, if you are in the far reaches of the Asian Pacific or Africa or even the Southern Cone of Latin America, it is a huge issue. That definitely limited my availability.
Q: If there had been an evacuation or anything like that, would your partner have been taken care of?
NELSON: No, he would not have been. I mean, I think people would have done what they could, but he would have been treated like any local citizen, any local American citizen.
Q: You are one of the founding directors of GLIFAA, tell me a little bit about how that came together. Did you feel like you were kind of drawn into it (advocacy) slowly to do this? Or did you come in right away saying, we have to change things?
NELSON: That was 1992 and I became involved because a close friend of mine was one of a number of people at that time who were pulled into investigations by Diplomatic Security solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. People just started to connect with each other and say, “this doesn’t make sense. This is not right. Why is this happening?” Several of us got together and said, “we need to organize to advocate for equal treatment.” I was in that small cohort of people that was at the beginning, and I volunteered to be a founding officer. I was the officer for partnership and policy. I think for the organization, in those early days, the challenge was just getting people to feel comfortable coming forward. A lot of people were concerned that just by attending a meeting or lending their name to the group, they too could become a subject of an investigation and face a negative impact on their career. I was happy as a first tour officer, going into my second assignment, saying “I’ve got little to lose, I’ll sign up. I’m happy to be visible as an officer.” My approach was, “I’m going to take this one assignment at a time.” Others had a lot more invested, decades of service, and they were worried. It took a while for people to get comfortable. We were very careful in the beginning, even about how we shared lists of who attended meetings. That is how difficult it was to start the organization.
Q: Interesting, I would have thought it might have been different without tenure, you had more to lose, whereas someone who already had a network of people in contacts would have felt more secure. But you are saying it was the opposite?
NELSON: For me, it was the opposite. I just felt like you need to be part of the change, or it is not going to happen.
Q: How did you all get together? In the early 1990s, there was no social media, even email and the internet were not very popular, especially in the department. We did not even have it then (like the department does now). How across the globe, did you come together and know who each other was and decide, we are going to do this together.
NELSON: It was very much word of mouth. Who knew who and passing the word to people who might be interested. I don’t remember exactly how we advertised in the beginning. Most of the communication at the beginning was through email. Of course, people were careful whether to choose a personal email or work email.
Q: Were there any concerns for the original founders that they would all end up getting investigated and kicked out?
NELSON: Actually, I was the only one of the five — four of them had already been investigated or were undergoing investigations — I was the only one who had not been pulled in yet.
Q: You really were taking the risk.
Q: What inspired you to do that then? Because you were not many years into the service, but still, this was something you wanted to do as your career. How did you overcome that fear?
NELSON: Well, I knew that it would be difficult to have a career if this was going to be an issue throughout the career. I thought it was important to advocate for equal treatment early. In 1992, President Clinton had just been elected. People were optimistic. As you mentioned, James Hormel was the first nominee as an openly gay candidate to be an ambassador. However, “don’t ask don’t tell” came soon after that and it became much more difficult for us to actually push for equal treatment, as there was a lot of opposition to our equal rights.
Q: What were some of the initial or first things that GLIFAA worked on?
NELSON: I think the initial urgency at the top — at the beginning — was pushing back on diplomatic security for equitable treatment on background checks and eligibility for security clearances. They were applying rules to us that they were not applying to straight colleagues. We pushed back on that, and fortunately, within a few years, they updated the practice. And as you know, the executive order came from the President that this should not be an issue for background checks. That was our early priority and we achieved that within a few years. After that, it became much more about the reality of our families, and that we too, have families and the department ignored them. And that made our service very difficult, and in the lives of our partners, even more difficult. We were pushing hard in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for acceptance and support of our family members.
Q: What was maybe one or two issues that you pushed for early that either has not happened yet, or that took a decade – that you thought would be easier to get through but took a long time.
NELSON: I remember on my third assignment, I was in Mexico City, and the Director General of the Foreign Service — who was the head of Human Resources — was making a tour of posts. He stopped in Mexico City and a typical event on any of those visits is a town hall meeting with employees. At that meeting, I stood up and asked the Director General, I said, “Sir, I’m a gay male, I have a partner. This is my third assignment. It is very difficult without any benefits for my partner. It is difficult for him to obtain employment and he could not even obtain immunizations at post— just a lot of obstacles. The Fortune 500 is recognizing that they should be including all diverse candidates and supporting them. When is the State Department going to do that?” And he said, shockingly, “Well, if that is what is important to you, and that’s what you need, you’ll probably have to leave and look for employment elsewhere.” I was just stunned. That was the bottom line. He did not dress it up at all and he was barely diplomatic in his response. I was stunned at how blunt he was and how he had no compunction in having to say that, but worse, was the question that came after me was from a colleague who was talking about eldercare issues. In the 1990s, the department became more and more aware of how employees were really challenged to provide eldercare to parents back in the United States, who needed support and needed assistance. The department did nothing to help them. And his answer to that question was, “I’m glad you asked, because we’re looking at what we can do, and we’re creating some new benefits.” It was amazing to me that he could look at the regulations and say, “we’re going to find creative ways to support our employees and their emerging family needs when it comes to elder care. But we’re going to ignore it, when it comes to the issues that LGBTQ employees have around their family members.” I was just stunned. I think, fortunately, I was one of the first (to ask the question). As he continued his tour around the globe, a number of colleagues spoke up and pretty much gave him the same comment at various town halls. By the time he got back to Washington, I think they realized, we’ve got an issue. Shortly thereafter, Secretary Albright approved the category of members of household, which at least recognized that we have these family members who don’t fit into the categories that we’ve created but should be taken care of to the extent that we can. The member of household categorization was the first attempt by the department to try to support the families that were serving at posts overseas. One of the problems; however, was that they stopped short of being more expansive because they felt constricted by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. They would say, “but you’re not married, so we can’t treat you like a spouse”. It was lost, the point that were not claiming that we were married. We were just claiming that we’re a family. And the Foreign Service Act allows the Secretary to support families to the extent that he or she deems necessary. And there’s discretion in that Foreign Service Act for how they define family. In fact, one of the early interpretations that’s been around for ages is that a single ambassador could have a family member added to their orders, who would help them host events, as they were serving as Ambassador. I think it had to be some kind of relation— it could not be a girlfriend, a boyfriend, or a friend. The department had the ability to look at the reality of what employees needs are for family support and the reality of the family’s needs for support. Yet they were too afraid to go look at the reality of what our partners needed until Secretary (Hilary) Clinton expanded that and had the courage to say, “I’m going to give benefits up to the full extent that I can within the Foreign Service Act to treat these partners equally as other family members.” There were many, many benefits still that were not available because we could not get married under federal law. Of course, that was finally resolved by the Supreme Court. One of my objectives, too, with speaking out at that town hall, was to, because I knew what the Director General’s answer was going to be, but I wanted my colleagues to be aware. My colleagues have always been supportive. I have never had a negative experience that I remember, at least that I was aware of. I think a lot of people were ignorant, unaware, or unconcerned of what the disparate treatment was. I thought that it was very important for us to make it clear to all of our colleagues, who I think overwhelmingly support diversity, inclusion and equity, that these are the challenges that many of your colleagues are facing, and we hope you care about it too, and stand with us to ask for equitable treatment.
Q: Do you feel that the help of allies, straight allies, was helpful in these pushes to advance equality?
NELSON: I think it was critical. I think when straight allies step in and say, “Yes, we should do this. This is not an issue of preference. This is not an issue of personal accommodation. This is simply an issue of equity.” That was really important for the department to get past many of the counter arguments.
Q: Do you think this tour of the DG [Director General] made it more obvious how many people were in the Foreign Service were gay – that maybe didn’t think there were that many and that’s why they weren’t paying attention?
NELSON: I think that was always a challenge in the beginning because most people were serving discreetly. I and more and more people were coming out, and more and more people were joining with expectations that they could be out. I think it became apparent to the department that this was a significant portion of the population. Also, as the Department continued to advocate for LGBT rights across the globe, we needed to realize that we needed to do our best to demonstrate that we were trying to be examples of equality and equal treatment.
Q: Did you see some of these steps, like “member of household,” as victories? Or did you see them only as half steps?
NELSON: We saw them all as incremental. We just had to keep pushing for equal treatment. It’s been a long journey. But it’s been a positive arc. I hope that those changes really last. I don’t want to predict what this new Supreme Court might be taking on with some of their decisions, but we made a lot of progress.
Q: GLIFAA, to me, seems male-dominated. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about why that might be? Was their outreach done to females, to lesbians? Why is it, even today, such a male-dominated organization?
NELSON: I’m not sure. I know that that was an early concern of ours. We were thinking where are our lesbian colleagues were. Perhaps, because it started as word of mouth, that those connections existed more among male colleagues than across genders, it was easier for us to expand that network among males. I think, perhaps too, many lesbian colleagues faced double discrimination, both for gender and for sexual orientation. Perhaps they decided they had even more to risk by stepping up and advocating. We may need a historian to study that, but that’s certainly true. Even after 2020, and all the issues of race raised by Black Lives Matter, GLIFAA was starting to survey its own members and it became even more obvious that we have our own issues and challenges of being diverse and inclusive, and really pushing for equity.
Q: I’ve noticed there seems to not be too many people of color as well.
NELSON: The first thing is to be conscious of that. I think we’re very conscious of that now. When you look at the out ambassadors, this year is the first time that we have an out lesbian ambassador. We’ve had, I think, maybe 10 or more out gay ambassadors, but again, they’re all white males so far. We need to do better. I think our progress is incremental.
Q: Could you give any insight about why and how GLIFAA expanded to include the transgender community? I know even today that some people are not exactly sure where to place them as far as sexuality. I’m sure back in 2008, it was even more of a new topic. So how and why did GLIFAA expand to include that group?
NELSON: I was overseas and wasn’t very involved in the organization at that time. I did not have good visibility in the conversations. I think one of the factors was transgender employees coming forward. Of course, GLIFAA was the place where they should come. We realized, they’re not even in our name. Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies was the original name. We needed to be their advocate. The organization even looked at how do we update our name and our presence in our call for membership. It took time. And that’s now an important issue for us, because we have more and more colleagues who identify as transgender, and they face tremendous discrimination.
Q: I’m curious how you balanced your personal views and thoughts versus any sort of foreign policy advocacy – or not – in your country (foreign post)? For example, if your country was not very gay-friendly, were you working to try to have that be an issue that you advocated for? Or did you have to at some time, say, “I can’t advocate for that here, because it’s not one of the top priorities for this country, for this tour.”
NELSON: Until I was a senior officer, I didn’t have much opportunity to really advocate. I was always active internally, in the mission. In terms of outward advocacy, there just weren’t many opportunities for that. In Costa Rica, where I was Deputy Chief of Mission, I found myself advocating for equal treatment of my partner there because he was not afforded privileges and immunities. I tried to advocate for that. It was a little bit difficult because of the perception that I was advocating based on my own position in my own circumstances, rather than the circumstances for everybody at post. So there I needed the ambassador and others to really carry the water because this was not a personal issue for me, this was an issue of equity. But truly, I cared about it the most because it really affected me. In Sarajevo, where I was Ambassador up until February of this year, it was interesting that there we expected some resistance because it is a conservative country. We faced a lot of negativities; my partner faced a lot of negativity. We, like any ambassador, like any U.S. Embassy mission, were strong advocates for LGBT rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were strong supporters of the community’s efforts to hold their first ever pride march. I committed to attending that pride march and supporting it. It meant a lot because I was visible as a gay ambassador, but I also came under attack for that advocacy. Eventually, people were even attacking me publicly for this position. I felt that if they’re willing to attack the U.S. ambassador for this, imagine what people in this country who have no protections, who have no status, imagine they discrimination and the intimidation they face. It was especially important for me to stand up. I didn’t describe myself as a gay ambassador— people did that for me. I just described myself as Eric Nelson and I have a wonderful, gay partner, and here we are. Again, I think it’s really about visibility. I was very lucky to be an ambassador, and therefore, have that opportunity to just be visible, and help the community there because there are many, many other ambassadors joining me in this advocacy. But mine as the U.S. ambassador, mine as a gay ambassador, really stood out and I think helped the community achieve even more progress because the officials there, of course, had a harder time objecting to this first Pride march. They had a harder time not agreeing to provide appropriate levels of security to protect the participants when they knew that the U.S. ambassador was a participant.
Q: What year did that happen?
NELSON: That was 2019. It was a fantastic event. It was the last of the capitals in the Western Balkans to have a Pride march, but the first to have one that did not involve violence. The Bosnians and Herzegovinians really did an excellent job because the security officials with whom we partner and provide assistance very intensively, they really took it seriously and they wanted to do the right thing and demonstrate that Bosnia Herzegovina, yes when it comes to this issue, you could say they had European values. It was a real success at that first event. There was also the largest event for Pride in any of the Balkans because there were thousands of participants that first time.
Q: Were you concerned at all for your security when you participated?
NELSON: I was less concerned about my security because I had a protective detail than any of the other embassy colleagues who wanted to participate. In fact, we had an emergency action committee meeting at the embassy. That’s the committee at any embassy that looks at critical security issues to decide what our posture should be. First of all, deciding was it appropriate for me to participate? Was there an inordinate risk to me as the ambassador, and was there an inordinate risk to other colleagues attending? We had to balance – there’s the “no double standard” rule that we have, where the advice that we give to our embassy community members about security measures is the same we give to the public, so it was about finding that right balance. We advised caution in participating in this event because there are security threats against it. It was an important issue that we had to deliberate on to make sure that we had the right message for our colleagues and for U.S. citizens who would choose to participate.
Q: Did you have to convince your regional security officers or were they like “okay, if you want to do it, we’re all in.”
NELSON: I waited for them to tell me. It was important to me for the committee to come to a consensus and I made it clear to them that while a lot of colleagues wanted to participate, I wanted them to understand that they were under no obligation to participate because the success of the event depended on local participation, not on our participation. It was very important for this to be visible as a locally generated event, not as an internationally inspired event. I wanted them all to understand that I was not expecting anyone to participate given that this was the first and we weren’t quite sure how this would play out and how well the security forces would respond to the threats that we were hearing. That was one of my key priorities was, “I, as the ambassador, am participating because the security officer in the committee believes that I have adequate protection.” That was important.
Q: Do you have any memories or examples of when a colleague or maybe a local staff member did something that really stood out to you that it was either very supportive or very not supportive of the equity that you were seeking, or they helped you in some way, become acclimated?
NELSON: The Director General really stands out in the way that he missed that opportunity. I’m so grateful for secretaries Albright and Clinton who really looked at addressing the issue of what we can do versus what we can’t. I also remember a colleague in Pakistan. I served in Pakistan for the year 2009 to 2010, and one of our local employees was transgender. She came to us and asked for management support to help her explain to colleagues that she was going to begin her transition. That was a seminal moment. You can imagine in Pakistan, what a challenge that was. This is a woman who had already gone to the Pakistani Supreme Court and won a case saying that she had the right to, to obtain documentation for female gender. Her courage was incredible. That’s the kind of courage that really inspires all of us, and reminds us too, GLIFAA is an organization of the U.S. hires of the Foreign Affairs agencies, but we have a lot of local hires of the 180 nations where we have – the countries where we have posts who face some similar issues and discrimination.
Q: There’s a lot of talk recently in the U.S. about microaggressions and small stresses over time that can add up for marginalized groups. Do you feel like you have experienced some of that throughout your career? And if so, how did you keep the stress from getting you down? How did you power through those types of things?
NELSON: There are many that come to mind. I remember one that hasn’t happened to me recently, thank God. But I think it’s because it’s very clear that as I’ve been an ambassador, and as I’ve been a Deputy Chief of Mission, as more of a public figure that I do have a partner. But microaggressions I remember were colleagues and acquaintances, saying to me, why aren’t you married? And why can’t I introduce you to someone? It kind of puts you in a very difficult situation because it forces you to say, “Well, excuse me, but I’m not interested.” There were years where you just didn’t want to raise that with strangers and say, “thanks, but I’m not interested,” or have a cheeky answer. I remember a number of times when I felt really uncomfortable with that. People thought they were being really friendly and just had no clue who they were talking to.
Q: So, you’ve been in the Foreign Service for more than 30 years now. I’m wondering what issue that stands out to you is something that you can’t even believe was an issue when you first joined in your first years? Because it seems so far away, or it’s something that someone today might be like, “how could that have even been a thing?” But it was something you worked on.
NELSON: I think one of the few things where I think we’ve made clear progress — because in many areas, there’s still a lot of work to be done — is the fact that you could not be out in the Foreign Service. When I joined, in general, you could not be out. It was considered an exception. Now it’s presumed that people could serve openly, yet there are still colleagues who are not open. That’s a personal choice. In the early ‘90s, when I joined, that was still an exception. That’s been a real 180 for the department.
Q: Do you think it’s still important to say things like, “this is the first openly gay XYZ?” I know, when Ned was announced as spokesperson, some people were like, “why is that even a thing you have to mention in today’s world?” Do you think it is still important, and if so, why?
NELSON: I think it’s important. I don’t like to say openly gay because it sounds like something you should otherwise be hiding. I’ve never had to correct anyone, but I would say, “honestly gay”; it’s like, I am who I am; I’m being honest with you. I think it’s important because even up until a few years ago, even after Secretary Clinton really pushed further on benefits, even after the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, I was getting feedback from the senior leaders in the department that I was not a diversity candidate when it came to choosing leadership. This was their interpretation — because we are not covered by Title IX still — that the equal rights law does not, per se, cover sexual orientation yet, so we were not true diversity candidates. That was quite surprising to me to hear that, but that was the comment of someone who I thought was an ally. Saying that, “we can’t really advocate for you on that score, because you’re not one of the protected categories.” Well certainly, gay, lesbian, intersex, transgender, queer employees are part of the diversity of America. For that reason, sadly, we do have to still spell it out, because a lot of people still do not understand the limits of equality and the limits of inclusion and equity that still exist.
Q: I’m curious if you’ve ever had any other diplomats from other countries, maybe countries that aren’t as open, or are more conservative, talk to you about the issue or ask advice on how to navigate their own systems or cultures?
NELSON: No, I haven’t really had that. I’ve had many colleagues from European countries, lamenting that we were lagging behind them in this category. I know many colleagues from multiple countries who are serving without equal treatment, but I really haven’t had the opportunity to advise them. They never came to me and asked, “how could we achieve progress like you have?” I know here in Washington that that network of representatives of embassies is an important partner network for GLIFAA to reach out to and be connected to that broader global community.
Q: I have kind of a flipside to my earlier question about what seems far away. What issue are you hoping is being worked on now or that is in the nascent stage now that maybe in ten or twenty years if someone’s watching this interview, you hope that they can’t believe that’s an issue that you had to work on.
NELSON: I hope it’s going to be the issue of our worldwide availability. The idea that we do not have equal access to all assignments because in many countries, still, our partners or our spouses are not treated like other spouses, so that they would not receive privileges or immunities, they might be required to leave every three to six months and reenter, because they’re not given resident status; they might face harassment and discrimination. I was, in fact, considered for a country, The department wanted to nominate me for a country that would not give it (residency for my partner) when it came to the step of agrément, where the country agrees to the candidate. They made it clear that I was welcomed, but my partner would not be. I went back to the Director General, and I said, “thank you, but no, thank you. I can’t do this to my partner, I will pass on this opportunity and hope for something better.”
Q: That’s interesting that you mentioned that because I was just thinking, since you had made it to ambassador and looking at your resume, all the places you’ve been, that this didn’t really seem to affect your career. You are one of the few gay ambassadors within the Foreign Service, but now it is affecting you and your career.
NELSON: It affects all of us because we simply are not available to serve everywhere. And that’s difficult, especially now, with ambassadorships, not all of them are going to provide welcoming environments for same-sex family members.
Q: Well, we’ve gotten through almost all my questions today. I’m very happy that you joined us. I’m wondering though, before we leave, are there any sort of final examples, thoughts, or words of wisdom to current or future members of the Foreign Service LGBTI community, or their advocates at the State Department or the other foreign affairs agencies.
NELSON: My parting thought is to reinforce how important supportive allies are. The department is very strongly committed to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. We’re not always aware of our shortcomings, and we need to pay close attention to that and work on them. The department still suffers from an attitude that we should all be happy for the opportunity to serve and it’s unfortunate we are still losing promising diversity employees who are facing discrimination or not feeling included, not feeling like they belong. We put a lot of effort into recruiting them and not as much honest effort into retaining them. I think that it’s important for us to really dedicate as much of our attention to making sure that we are modeling inclusion, equity and accessibility, and valuing diversity in all facets, so that we are not losing the talent, because a diverse workforce is the strongest workforce. It is so important for us to always look at what we can do, and not what we can’t. During our progress, we’ve made these incremental steps where we had leadership say, “yes, we can do that,” instead of just listening to the arguments of what we can’t do. Looking at the authorities we have, for example, under the Foreign Service Act, to recognize that we have families and the Secretary has independent authorities to support families, and make the best of that and become an advocate. That’s important for every employee of the State Department.
Q: Any ways for people to stay positive and stay focused? I think what you said about the department having the attitude that you’re just lucky to serve is true. I feel that that’s how some colleagues feel as well in various (social media) chat rooms. It’s not just on this issue, but other issues. It’s like, “why are you asking for more? You should just be happy with what you have.” How do you stay positive? How do you stay going forward? And maybe those who feel more discouraged can take heart in what you have to say.
NELSON: Well, frankly, I’ve always been a glass half full kind of person. In all things in life, you’re going to look at the glass half full or glass half empty. I’ve always tried to look at the glass half full and see the progress, but I’ve always looked at the opportunities that the Foreign Service has presented to me as step-by-step and tried to consider that I should be ready to leave when there are no longer good opportunities. I think I’ve been blessed in the number of really good opportunities that I have had. It’s been a rewarding, long career. Sadly, for our talented workforce, there are other opportunities and people are going to continue to make choices and I support them in that. I joke that some of them may find a quicker route to being an ambassador by leaving, making lots of money in the private sector, and becoming a donor to the right candidate 10 years from now, but we all have choices. The department should recognize that and seriously put efforts on retaining the talent that’s so important to us and that we’ve invested in.
Q: Wonderful. Thanks so much. I think that’s a great way to round out our interview today. Thank you very much. I’m going to stop our recording now.
NELSON: Thanks, Robin.
End of Transcript
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