GLIFAA: 'I've had bars that have turned us away, and bars that have complained because there were gay people there'

LGBT service GLIFAA's organisers on politics, partying and Trump

Raising the bar for diplomacy: Ravi and Claudiu Buck

With foreign embassies in China now regularly hosting same-sex weddings, it’s strange to think back to the bad old days, when queer diplomats had to devise all manner of workarounds to ensure their private lives remained secret. Your own government could be as much of a threat to your career as any foreign power, with the US State Department refusing security clearance for LGBT diplomats on the assumption that they would be targeted for blackmail by foreign spies – a problem the lifting of that selfsame regulation would have solved.

It was to challenge this repressive tautology that GLIFAA, Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (though it has ditched the full version of its name, until an elegant way is found to integrate the full LGBTQ rainbow into a catchy acronym), was established within the State Department as an unofficial ‘union’ for LGBT federal employees working internationally. Since the ’90s, explains Beijing chapter organiser Ravi Buck, GLIFAA has established itself in almost every US mission around the globe. ‘Sometimes it’s only one person, and that one person might not even be LGBTQ themselves, but an ally’.

'GLIFAA started out as a protest', continues Ravi, who, with his husband Claudiu, is responsible for both GLIFAA’s political and social functions. Even after the outright ban on gay people serving in the State Department was lifted, he says, 'Same-sex couples couldn’t be posted overseas with appropriate credentials. Partners had to obtain accreditation as if they were the “personal help” – ie the maid – of a diplomat.

The Supreme Court’s decision to rule bans on equal marriage unconstitutional might have granted LGBTQ government employees a reprieve from such indignities on domestic soil, but internationally the convenience with which gay diplomats can bring their partners and families overseas hinges on the policies of the jurisdiction they are posted to.

This is why, Ravi says, GLIFAA serves a dual purpose: 'To defend the rights of LGBTQ federal employees overseas, and provide a networking and advocacy platform for LGBT issues in host countries. We keep a lookout for how things are progressing, what we can do to help'.

Influencing people, then, is just as important as guiding policy, and this is Claudiu’s business. He handles the social side of GLIFAA in Beijing, organising a monthly happy hour and regular dinners at different venues around Sanlitun. He has a firm policy of openness when scoping venues for these events, checking in advance with bars and restaurants to ensure the owners are open to running an LGBT event (for the most part, he says, they are). 'I try to find bars that do happy hours, where drinks aren’t too expensive, and are reliably smoke-free. Most important is that they’re open to hosting an LGBT-friendly night,' he says.

Even so, Claudiu admits that running an LGBT social, even for diplomats, is not without its problems. 'I’ve had bars who turned us away, and bars where other clients have complained because there were gay people there,' he says, mentioning no names. Was this, we ask, an unusual case of open homophobia in China? 'No, these weren’t locals who were complaining,' Claudiu continues. 'They were foreigners'.

Without federal funding, GLIFAA depends on membership fees and goodwill to keep itself afloat and overcome such challenges, leveraging its affiliation to the US government where it can to effect incremental change. While posted in Bucharest, where where he met his husband, Ravi discovered that approval for a local Pride parade was being held up by the authorities, until they were contacted by the US Embassy and informed that GLIFAA would be participating in the celebrations. Suddenly, the red tape was cleared by the city mayor’s office, and the parade went ahead.

In China, too, a workaround that allows LGBTQ diplomats to bring partners into the country as ‘dependants’, granting them equal status to close family members, is, in Ravi’s opinion, a compromise that is ‘better than nothing’. The ruling was the product of careful negotiations by the pro-LGBT Obama administration.

Could this kind of subtle backroom support melt away in the era of Trump? Ravi is, predictably, diplomatic. ‘The new administration probably won’t be as progressive or open as a Clinton administration might have been,’ he concedes, acknowledging that many of the last decade’s positive reforms, including full benefits for the same-sex partners of State Department employees, were pushed by Hillary Clinton herself.

'I don’t know if we’ll get a lot of pushback, but I think the Obama administration’s message that LGBT rights are human rights… is going to change. We’ll have to be stronger advocates for ourselves, but GLIFAA was born out of advocacy, and we’re up to the fight.

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