Navigating DC's Closed Corridors

Gay Employees Try To Activate Slow Changing State Department

Oregon-born Aaron Jensen has dedicated the past seven years of his life to the Department of State. Despite his dedication, our government still refuses to grant Jensen and other gay employees the same benefits offered to straight officials. The unspoken discrimination made big headlines last year when former Romanian Ambassador Michael Guest blasted Condoleezza Rice and others for their inaction on gay equality.

Jensen hopes that he won’t have to do the same. That’s why he heads up the 400-strong Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, which strives to revamp the Department’s employment policies. Our editor recently sat down with Jensen to talk shop. The results are intriguing, particularly because Jensen – who spoke in fairly calm, nearly monotonous tones – attempts to toe the line while also advocating for gay rights. It’s an odd combination, to be sure, but not surprising considering the circumstances.

Andrew Belonsky: First, what exactly is your role – what’s your job?

Aaron Jensen: My job job?

AB: Yeah.

AJ: I’m a desk officer for the State Department, but I’m not going to focus or really talk about my professional job.

AB: Okay… So you work for the State Department. Why did you decide to work there?

AJ: It’s what I always wanted to do – since about college. It sounded really great – a diplomatic corp that goes around representing the United States’ interests to various countries in the world. You really get to know what it’s like to live and work in a foreign country.

AB: And where have you traveled?

AJ: Guanjo, China, Madrid, Spain and Kabul, Afghanistan.

AB: How many languages do you speak?

AJ: Really just Spanish and Chinese.

AB: Afghanistan must have been a struggle, must have been a challenge.

AJ: Yeah, it was a challenge. I didn’t speak the local language, so I relied on translators when I dealt with Afghans who didn’t speak English. The main challenge, I would say, was social. The work was super exciting – you worked long hours, but people work long hours here.

AB: What do you mean “social challenges”? Because you were working all the time?

AJ: No. For security reasons your social group is primarily the people you live and work with.

AB: Tell me about your work with Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies.

AJ: I’m the president of the organization presently – until March.

AB: How long are your terms?

AJ: One year. I have an opportunity to go abroad – I thought I would stay another couple years, but I’m going to go abroad. But [GLIFAA is] a department recognized employee affinity group, [whose] main responsibility is advocating for gay and lesbian issues in the State Department. Our priority is trying to get equality in benefits for gay and lesbian employees and equality in benefits for families of gay and lesbian employees.

AB: You’re “department recognized”. What is your relationship with the State Department. Is it just that they respect you? That’s the “recognition”?

AJ: There are – let’s see – we are considered to be the equivalent to Blacks in Government or the State… We don’t get a budget from the department, but it’s recognized that we can meet occassionally with state officials, if they so choose.

AB: Do you guys have regular meetings with officials or is it case-by-case?

AJ: It had been case-by-case, but the director general, the head of human resources, basically – he’s going to meet quarterly with all affinity groups. We also have members from the US Agency for International Development, the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Foreign Commercial Service…

AB: Do you get involved in international advocacy?

AJ: Never.

AB: You’re primarily concerned with employee equality, but are there other issues with which you engage, make statements?

AJ: Almost never. Never. Never, ever, ever do we advocate on U.S. foreign policy. No. That’s not our purview. Just advocacy for State employees.

AB: And that’s an internal decision?

AJ: Yes. We do have speakers from various international GLBT organizations, but we ourselves do not speak out publicly on any foreign policy issues.