Saturday, May 25, 2019

A State-less Pride

The guidance came on May 16:  "The Department will not transmit an ALDAC for IDAHOT and LGBTI Pride Month this year."

I think most people reading this journal know that LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex.  LGBTI is the official formulation at the Department of State.  IDAHOT, of course, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that is observed every year on May 17.  In countries where lgbt+ persons are most subject to discrimination, IDAHOT is often the most important commemoration of the year.

For those who do not regularly walk the halls of Foggy Bottom, let me explain that Department is shorthand for Department of State.  ALDAC stands for All Diplomatic and Consular posts.  Left out of the guidance was the implicitly understood word cable following ALDAC.  All official communication between Washington and embassies and consulates around the world takes place in the form of cables.  A cable is little more than a for-the-record e-mail to which State-specific meta-data have been added, but the Department of State is nothing if not tradition-bound.  What was sent 50 years ago using the world's telegraph network is still called a cable in these 21st century Internet days.

Having parsed the preliminaries, let me get to the meat of the May 16 guidance:  the Department of State will not be sending a cable encouraging U.S. Missions to engage in outreach to lgbt+ communities on IDAHOT or during Pride Month this year.  The guidance continued that despite the lack of a cable, there has been no change in policy.  Posts are expected to use all tools available to them to advocate for the human rights of all persons, members of lgbt+ communities included.  

Why is this significant?  As an FSO who has spent most of the past 15 years at U.S. embassies in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, I can attest that cables, especially action cables directing an embassy to do something, receive attention.  General statements that "existing guidance stands" receive much less.  If an embassy or consulate does not have staff with a passion for a particular issue, in the absence of official direction from Washington it is quite likely no action will be taken.

Moreover, a U.S. embassy is not a democracy.  All embassy staff come under Chief of Mission (COM) authority.  That's usually the Ambassador.  In the case of IDAHOT or Pride, even passion on the part of lower-level embassy officers may not be sufficient unless the COM approves.  A case in point, I can point to our commemoration of IDAHOT in Kazakhstan.  In 2016 the Ambassador declined my request to display the Pride flag inside the embassy.  In declining my request, he averred that he could only authorize official flags even though he personally understood the significance of Pride.  Thus we were unable to display the Pride flag in 2016.

Fast forward to 2017.  That winter I contacted the drafters of the annual Pride ALDAC and asked if it would be possible to include a statement in the 2017 cable to the effect that COMs are authorized to display the Pride flag.  They did include such a statement, and in 2017 I renewed my request to the Ambassador, pointing to the ALDAC cable that gives him the authority.  The flag was displayed prominently in the embassy atrium throughout the day on May 17.

So that's why an annual IDAHOT/Pride ALDAC is important.  It empowers lower level officers at U.S. missions to take action even when a COM is not initially enamored of the project.  Without such an ALDAC in 2019, I can only wonder how many initiatives will not come to fruition.

Where did the decision not to send an IDAHOT/Pride cable come from?  I feel certain the staff responsible for writing the annual cable are just as committed to lgbt+ human rights around the globe today as they have always been.  I believe the decision came from higher up, perhaps from the very top.  That would be consistent with what we have been seeing overall since the 2016 election.  Day by day, a death by a thousand cuts, our rights as lgbt+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, the rewriting of a policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a web site.  It should come as no surprise that this erosion would happen also at the U.S. Department of State.

Happy Pride. . . .