“If you’re not happy with what your organization is representing, figure out your way to make a difference, build your alliances internally and get people to join you in pushing for change.”
Out Leadership meets the US’s first Senate-confirmed openly gay ambassador, Michael Guest. Guest was the United States’ first openly gay ambassador to be confirmed by the Senate, serving during the Bush administration in Romania. He advocated on the issue of discrimination against gay employees in the Foreign Service, specifically benefits denied to same-sex partners of Department employees. Frustrated by a lack of progress, he retired from his post in 2007 and made a powerful speech criticizing then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I’ve felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner – who is my family – and service to my country. That anyone should have to make that choice is a stain on the Secretary’s leadership and a shame for this institution and our country.”
In 2008, Guest co-founded the Council for Global Equality (a coalition of human rights and LGBT advocacy organizations seeking US support for LGBT-fair policies abroad) and has recently left. Here, Guest speaks to journalist Lotte Jeffs about this decision and his impressive career’s biggest challenges and achievements.
So let’s jump straight in with the question on everybody’s lips: Why did you decide to leave the Global Council for Equality?
When I co-founded the Council, I thought I’d stay with it for perhaps a couple of years — the equivalent of a Foreign Service tour, more or less. But we had such success in working with the Obama Administration, I didn’t want to leave — and then I felt an urgency of safeguarding our policy successes against reversals during the values-challenged Trump Administration that followed. The Biden Administration may not always make the right call on our issues, but there are good people there who understand our needs and who share our vision of an inclusive human rights policy. I’m ready to go.
When and where in your career have you ever felt that you’ve really had to advocate for yourself because of your sexuality?
At the State Department, and only on management issues. I used my farewell speech to focus on advocacy for parity of treatment for gay and lesbian diplomats, after three years of disappointing efforts on that front. Otherwise, I would say the State Department’s a very welcoming place. Foreign Service officers travel the world; they are posted everywhere and have to navigate foreign cultures and religions, and different ways of life. And so they tend to be non-judgmental and accepting.
How does the personal impact the professional for you?
Well, without being pejorative, work in the Department, in Washington, is kind of just a job: you do what you’re there to do. But overseas, you live in a community with other members of the embassy, so there’s a distinctly different quality to the question of personal versus professional in those settings. You do a lot of things together — barbecues, cookouts, or baseball games. You organize events at the American ambassador’s residence, or maybe several of you attend diplomatic events together. There are just different ways of interacting or bringing your personal life into your professional life overseas that don’t exist in Washington.
State Department assignments tend to last two to three years, constantly rotating us through different functions and places. When I worked on chemical weapons, arms control, or NATO policy, or nuclear arms negotiations, there was little reason for conversation to turn to LGBT or family issues. But when I headed our delegation to a major human rights conference, and the discussion was about hate crimes, I was able to talk about my personal experience as a gay man in the nation’s capital, having dealt with hate crimes personally. You could hear a pin drop, and after my statement, everybody communicated on a different level. It became a personal exploration of the issue rather than what most delegations had, which were “national talking points.” So the question of personal versus professional very much depends on the circumstance and on whether you’re stationed overseas.
And talking about being overseas, I was very interested to understand more about your time in Romania and how you experienced that as a gay person?
The US relationship with Romania is very close, and the US Ambassador is a very big fish in that particular pond. And so my assignment was national news. I was the most high-profile gay in the country: there were very few out gay people in the public eye there. The environment there is tough: very religious, very conservative, with very ingrained traditions. Two months before I arrived, homosexuality was illegal. They changed that provision of law just before I arrived; I was later told the timing was in part because they didn’t want to have problems with the new US Ambassador.
I remember being introduced during the initial rounds of parties and calls and dinners and meetings and so forth, and someone at times would take my hand to shake it, then pull me in and whisper in my ear something like “there are more of us here than you know.” It was very creepy! But taboos were being broken. People were very curious about the changes in the Criminal Code, and [the attention to us as a gay couple] became like a feeding frenzy. Eventually, that died down as people saw me focused on my job and on what I was doing for the bilateral relationship. But initially, it was very, very intense.
And on an everyday level with your partner, were you more conscious of having to moderate your behavior in the country, and how did that feel?
It was tough at times. When we went out together, there would be cameras and eyes on us all the time. It was very intrusive – we had had no experience dealing with that.
Did you ever feel the pressure of being a role model in this very high-profile position in which you were very publicly out?
I did feel a certain pressure. I was the first out gay to be confirmed by the Senate, and I knew that there were a lot of eyes on the Bush Administration, which really was not a gay American’s best friend. Religious and conservative political groups in the US were trying to get me recalled. There were anti-gay groups and conservative groups in Romania trying to get me recalled as well. And so I knew that what I did and how I handled myself would be watched very carefully and could, in fact, determine whether there would be another gay man or a woman appointed to that kind of position. Alex and I carried ourselves with a certain understanding that we had to be mindful in public about the job I had been sent to do.
Many LGBTQ+ people feel that they have to prove themselves in a way our heterosexual colleagues do not. Did you ever feel you had to be extra brilliant at your job because of your sexuality?
I constantly focused on the objectives of my job, objectives that I announced publicly and privately from the start. I wanted the government to see me as focused on an agenda and on achieving the things that I had set out to do. I think I succeeded. By the time I left, there was no question that a gay man could do the job.
I would never say that I felt I had to be brilliant. But I did know how to do my job; by that point, I was a pretty seasoned diplomat. It was a very different time; we had Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and not enough money was being given to AIDS research. And being out, both in that context and in such a public role in that conservative country, had its complexities.
What do you think is the best way to connect with people from other countries and cultures who perhaps don’t share the same worldview as you?
To be respectful of other people, and to be patient with how their views might differ from yours. Take time really to be a good listener, and be responsive. In my case, I tried to travel as much as I could to every corner of Romania – places where American ambassadors hadn’t been seen before. I wanted to understand the country, but also for people to see that a gay ambassador didn’t have a pitchfork, horns, and a tail. So I went to every artisan crafts fair, to show interest in the culture. I’d talk to people in pubs, on street corners, in shops, at restaurants. I just tried to make myself accessible and to humanize the label of LGBT. And on any difference of worldview, I tried to be open, accessible, and really willing to listen.
You are obviously so passionate about meeting people and connecting in person. How has the pandemic affected you?
Personally, my father passed away from COVID, and my mother followed him very shortly thereafter. My husband Alex and I love to travel, but we had to cancel a dream trip to Nepal. In terms of work, I’ve gone blissfully to very few conferences. You know, some conferences are good. And some are like, why did they do this? But I do miss the chance to have direct face-to-face conversations, to work through a plan, an agenda, or a problem. I think we’re all going to be extremely glad to have this pandemic behind us.
Did you ever feel that your sexuality was an advantage in that it enabled you to connect to people differently than, say, heterosexual men in the same position wouldn’t be able to?
Well, it certainly didn’t have a disadvantage. I mean, people at a professional level don’t refuse to talk or negotiate with you because you happen to be gay.
But I do think that those of us who are in the LGBT community learn to read a room better, in ways that we don’t quite appreciate or understand. We learn to gauge whether a person is going to be difficult because of this issue or not, and how to frame our approach to them. [LGBT people] also are practiced in knowing how to present ourselves, not always in a direct fashion, maybe a little more elliptically until we can suss things out. So I do think [being LGBT] can be an advantage in negotiation. But I also wouldn’t overplay it. It’s not as if because I’m gay, someone on the other side would give away a state secret!
I think the very act of having to come out as a gay person makes you somehow more emotionally intelligent and evolved. Straight people haven’t had to constantly explain themselves in the way we do through coming out.
Coming out is like wading into a river. It happens for all of us. And it happens multiple times. You go out into this river, and you don’t know how deep it is, you don’t know where the currents are going to take you, you don’t know if the currents will surge, or how dangerous or how swift they are. The first person I told I was gay ended our friendship over it. He literally walked away. And so, you just learn to adapt, because you have this life experience of people reacting to you, negatively or not, because of the question of your sexuality.
Which of your professional awards has meant the most to you?
A couple of years before I left government, the American Foreign Service Association gave me a ‘constructive dissent’ award for my efforts to change policy towards LGBT families at the State Department. It’s seen as an award for integrity, for pushing to change policy in a constructive way. When I received it, the diplomatic reception room was full and gave me a standing ovation. In that moment I remember realizing that I had felt so lonely in this push like I was getting nowhere. People made promises at senior levels that something would change and then didn’t follow through. All I really was asking for at that point was for just one thing to change so that I could tell my husband we were in for the long term, and so that I could honor him and his unpaid service. And in that moment, I realized people were hearing that message, and that there was huge support in the building for change. After I left, something like 3000 employees at the beginning of the next administration wrote a letter to the new Secretary asking for the policies to change [so LGBTQ foreign diplomats had the same rights as their straight colleagues].
I had started this push after I came back from Romania and settled into a job as Dean of the Department’s Leadership and Management School. I was in the cafeteria at the Foreign Service Institute, which is our diplomat-ic training grounds when a guy ran up to me breathlessly and said, Are you Ambassador Guest? He introduced himself as in language training and about to go out on his first tour. He said, I always wanted a career as a Foreign Service officer. But I’m gay. And I finally decided, no, it wasn’t worth my time because there would be a glass ceiling, I can never be Ambassador. And then I read your story. And I just wanted to thank you. And then he ran off to a class. I thought, there’s so much he doesn’t know, and I realized then that I had to push the Administration to change policies that discriminate against our families when we move overseas. People didn’t internalize that these policies, too, are barriers to career advancement. And when there was no change after three years of pushing, that’s when I started reconciling myself with leaving a career that I truly loved.
That must have been so hard!
It was at first. And then I steeled myself with the understanding that I represented a country that prided itself on principles of fairness and equality under the law, but that didn’t in fact honor those principles. And yet we were still telling other countries, these are our principles, these are things you should do. I came to feel that I had a better chance of changing those policies from the outside than from the inside. Four days after news articles started to come out about me leaving, the Obama presidential campaign reached out to ask what the problems were. After Obama took office, remedying these problems was the first thing he did as president for our community.
And what were some of the discriminatory policies that you were lobbying against?
If I were in a country with a political revolution or an earthquake, and the embassy was evacuated, my partner couldn’t get on the plane to be evacuated. He couldn’t be seen by the nurse without a signed waiver from the Ambassador. His plane ticket to and from a post wouldn’t be paid for, and yet the Department would pay for a pet dog’s travel. There was a whole range of policies related to families living overseas that discriminated against gay families because partners weren’t considered to be family.
How does it feel to have wanted something to change and then to have actually achieved it?
It restored my faith in politics, I guess. I was quite jaded from that long effort. But when you see that a political leader can say, let’s do this, let’s make sure everything is done right, and then carries that change through — well, it was inspiring.
For somebody reading this who may feel at odds with the values of their organization. Do you have any advice for them?
You have to look in the mirror and ask, what am I doing here? Because values are hard to change. But if you’re not happy with what your organization is representing, figure out your way to try to make a difference, to try to make a change, build your alliances internally and get people to join you in pushing for change. Otherwise, leave.
How do you think that people who you work with currently or have in the past would describe you?
They would probably say I’m strategic in my focus, that I am serious, sometimes to a fault, and that I’m a planner. They might say that I can show my impatience, and that’s true, but they probably would say I have a wicked sense of humor. I hope they would remember me as a good colleague who really cared about issues and cared about people.
So how do you switch off?
I have a hard time doing that, honestly. I do read spy novels to escape. I like very good wines. We just moved to Miami, and so now I get to take walks by the ocean.
Can you tell me an LGBTQ+ business leader who you admire?
I couldn’t pick only one; too many friends would be angry with me! But I admire anyone who lives their values. If you show that you really do care about fairness and equality, and you bring it to the workplace, and you think about it not just in terms of your own promotion prospects, you’re in the right place. If you focus on the company as a whole and on how the company should be standing for these values overseas, then you have my respect.