“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
The United States celebrates June as Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 when police raided Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar frequented by the LGBTQI+ communities. While queer communities have overcome several obstacles to achieving equality and inclusivity, the US national security community is lagging. Three members of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative highlight areas that the NatSec community should focus on.
APPROPRIATELY ADDRESSING PAST WRONGS
During Pride Month this June, recognition of the importance of a diverse foreign policy and national security community is increasing at the highest levels, including through proposed legislation. The Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act of 2022 — also known as the LOVE Act — that Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), David Cicilline (D-Calif.), and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) re-introduced last week would direct the State Department to review the wrongful terminations of up to 10,000 US federal employees who “were fired by reason of the[ir] sexual orientation.”
For the national security establishment, concrete policy measures, starting but not ending with the LOVE Act, are urgently needed to redress past wrongs committed against LGBTQI+ employees.
These McCarthy-era terminations, known collectively as the Lavender Scare, especially targeted federal workers in foreign policy and national security when homosexuality was considered an existential threat to homeland security. In his book “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” historian James Kirchick unearths thousands of stories of people in familiar roles — from legislative directors and speechwriters to legal counsels — “who chose to live their lives honestly” in a time when being out, outed, or even suspected precluded their public service. From the more well-known names of Frank Kameny, Bayard Rustin, and Lilly Vincenz to public servants whose names had been buried in history, Kirchick asks and answers the harrowing question: “How did people like me, interested in politics and public policy, survive at a time when a core aspect of their very being was considered a mortal danger to the country?”
Thanks in large part to these public servants and civic activists across the district, there have been some major wins at the federal level for the LGBTQI+ community — from gay marriage to workplace anti-discrimination measures. But for the national security establishment, concrete policy measures, starting but not ending with the LOVE Act, are urgently needed to redress past wrongs committed against LGBTQI+ employees. And in the face of severe threats to Americans’ basic rights, immediate and forward-looking measures must ensure that LGBTQI+ public servants, foreign policy experts, civil society members, and political leaders have a secure place in the national security field. Important initiatives like Out in National Security and the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC elevate and archive LGBTQI+ voices in federal politics and foreign policy making. But there’s still room for even more intersectional, equity-focused campaigns, like Pay Your Interns, which works to reduce internship barriers for students from historically excluded communities.
Such initiatives can help LGBTQI+ aspiring public servants launch their careers regardless of presumed family support or preexisting wealth. For decades, LGBTQI+ public servants and activists refused to cave when the government threatened the American ideals of free expression, pluralism, and civil rights. Now, it’s more important than ever to redress past wrongs and enshrine these hard-fought rights through action and in law, not just words.
Haley Clasen is an associate editor at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network. Views are her own and are evolving as she learns.
PROMOTING INTERSECTIONALITY IN THE US FOREIGN SERVICE
Coming out in a professional setting can seem daunting and intimidating, especially when working on religious issues. I met Scandinavia’s first female imam in Copenhagen a few months ago. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed various issues, including interreligious marriages, women’s rights in Islam, and LGBTQI+ Muslims. I shared a photography project I led during graduate school that highlighted the visibility of intersectional LGBTQI+ and faith-based communities in New York City. Our simple exchange and her quick acceptance highlighted the power of our intersectional identities and their importance to our work — for me as a gay Muslim Arab-American diplomat.
We must collectively continue working to ensure diverse representation in the Foreign Service and help foster an inclusive foreign affairs community to advance US interests better.
Opening up about the uniqueness of my multifaceted identity broke down barriers and strengthened our sense of mutual trust. Bringing my full self when meeting with fellow Muslims, Arabs, and LGBTQI+ community members strengthen US foreign policy as I aim to change the status quo of representation. The power and vulnerability associated with my lived experiences help me build bridges with foreign counterparts and civil society, find common ground with partners, and share lessons from my experiences at home to strengthen US relationships abroad. This in turn, better serves US national security priorities.
My faith, identity, and commitment to public service motivate me to build a more equitable world and to improve US foreign policy to serve people better. Serving as a foreign service officer who is also a child of immigrants puts me in the unique position of understanding the power in representation. I also understand the challenges associated with individuals not being able to showcase their identities for various — and valid — reasons. This is especially true for me when serving in Muslim-majority countries, and the societal expectations associated with being Muslim have limited the extent to which I could be out publicly. However, when possible, my overlapping and seemingly contradicting intersectional identities offer me a powerful lens to understand the local context and how various struggles for equality are interconnected and require reinforcement and perspective. This was the case when I found myself relying on my Arab background, language skills, and sexual orientation in a Muslim country to understand the LGBTQI+ community’s challenges and to identify ways the United States could support an engaged civil society.
The United States is at its strongest when we celebrate our differences and understand each person’s value to our society and the world. But much work remains to dispel misconceptions about what it means to be an American diplomat, and this starts at home. I most recently served on the board of the Muslim employee affinity group at the Department of State to help elevate and incorporate the perspectives of LGBTQI+ Muslims into advocacy work and programming to ensure we are as inclusive as possible. I hope my presence and the increased presence of future diplomats will signal that varied backgrounds and fresh perspectives are welcomed, valid, and celebrated. Our advocacy efforts will help pave the way for others to represent the best of who we are as Americans and the beautiful mosaic of our nation. We must collectively continue working to ensure diverse representation in the Foreign Service and help foster an inclusive foreign affairs community to advance US interests better.
Leyth Swidan is a Foreign Service Officer at the US Embassy in Copenhagen, where he holds the human rights portfolio. He previously served in Kuwait.
PROTECTING QUEER COMMUNITIES ABROAD
President Joe Biden has decried anti-LGBTQ+ violence and declared an “epidemic of violence against transgender women of color and girls of color.” However, America’s policy of exporting billions of dollars of assault weapons abroad often worsens violence against trans women of color. To align US policy with President Joe Biden’s lofty rhetoric, the administration should curb arms sales to countries that indiscriminately murder queer and trans people.
The Biden administration should use its ample executive authority to restrict arms transfers and protect LGBTQ+ communities abroad.
The United States is by far the world’s largest supplier of small arms and the top exporter of these arms to Egypt, Nigeria, Iraq, Brazil, and Honduras, which are among the countries with the highest rates of police violence against LGBTQ+ people. Just as queer people are three times more likely to be incarcerated and four times more likely to be victims of violent crime in the United States, anti-LGBTQ+ violence is astronomically high in many US allies.
The state frequently perpetrates violence against queer and trans people. In Brazil, for instance, lawless police forces that storm favelas are among the leading killers of queer people of color. Nevertheless, the United States continues to increase its small arms exports to state security services. Since 2009, US weapons manufacturers have been allowed to sell small arms to 167 countries, including 40 of the 53 countries Freedom House classified as “Not Free.” Some pundits argue that, regardless of these harms, the United States must provide arms to its allies to maintain its geopolitical influence abroad. But the likelihood that American adversaries will fill the void left by US arms sales is minuscule. The US sells twice as many weapons as Russia and six times more than China.
Congress has shown little interest in restricting exports of dangerous weapons, failing to pass meaningful legislation in this area for the past decade. The Biden administration should use its ample executive authority to restrict arms transfers and protect LGBTQ+ communities abroad. For example, the administration should expand the application of US laws prohibiting arms exports to security forces with a record of human rights abuses by issuing a broader legal interpretation of such laws. Biden should also reverse Trump’s decision to “unsign” the Arms Trade Treaty — the world’s binding agreement governing arms sales — and work toward voluntarily adhering to its reporting requirements. Moreover, Biden should enforce the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 as a top priority since the law currently blocks less than 1% of arms sales.
US arms exports make queer and trans people less safe and threaten US national security. The Biden administration should address these issues with the same urgency it brings to tackling gun violence at home.
Kevin Klyman is a research analyst at Harvard’s Kennedy School and previously worked for the AI lab of the UN Secretary-General. His work has been published by The Diplomat, American Prospect, The National Interest, and South China Morning Post.