Kerry apologizes for decades of State Department discrimination against LGBT workers. Why now?

The outgoing US secretary of State says discriminatory actions 'were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.'

Andrew Harnick/AP/File
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks Dec. 28 at the State Department in Washington. As the Obama administration enters its final days, Mr. Kerry issued an apology Monday for decades of anti-LGBT discrimination by the State Department.

Days before stepping aside for the new administration, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued an apology Monday for the misdeeds of his predecessors, denouncing his department's decades-long discrimination against LGBT workers.

The brief statement serves as a rare official acknowledgment of the so-called Lavender Scare in which gay and lesbian staff were rooted out as Communist sympathizers or otherwise unfit for service. And it comes just before Republicans take control of the White House, in addition to both houses of Congress, having run campaigns on a platform some criticized as the most anti-LGBT in GOP history – despite the president-elect's nonchalant departures from the party's more conservative social agenda.

"In the past – as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades – the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place," Mr. Kerry said. "These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today."

Kerry noted that he has strongly supported the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people throughout his career, and he moved to "reaffirm the Department's steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community."

The apology was apparently prompted by Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland, ranking member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who wrote to Kerry in November urging the outgoing administration to take steps to acknowledge the mistreatment and consider installing an exhibit in the department's museum, as The Washington Blade reported. 

At least 1,000 people were dismissed from their State Department jobs for alleged homosexuality in the 1950s and 1960s, Senator Cardin wrote. They were forced out "on the ostensible grounds that their sexual orientation rendered them vulnerable to blackmail, prone to getting caught in 'honey traps', and made them security risks," he added. The department's security office investigated workers suspected of being gay as recently as the early 1990s, before Secretary Warren Christopher prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1994 in the department and President Bill Clinton prohibited sexual orientation discrimination in 1998 across the federal government, Cardin wrote.

Cardin thanked Kerry in a tweet Monday, and LGBT rights advocacy groups lauded the apology as a sign of progress. David Stacy, the government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the message "sets the right tone for the State Department as it enters a new and uncertain time in our country under a new administration."

Others, however, suggested that Kerry's words fell short. David Johnson, a history professor at the University of South Florida and author of "The Lavender Scare," said Kerry misrepresented the severity of his department's wrongs.

"The apology made it sound like the State Department was just one of many institutions that was discriminating against gay men and lesbians ... that it was just sort of run-of-the-mill 1950s anti-gay discrimination," Dr. Johnson told NPR. "In fact, the State Department was unique in its level of homophobia."

The climate in both State Department and the greater United States has shifted considerably in the ensuing decades, but LGBT rights remains a divisive issue, especially among the GOP. 

Trump's views on LGBT issues, however, have sometimes put him at odds with others in the GOP. After winning the general election, the incoming president said that he is "fine with" same-sex marriage, and he had suggested during the campaign that transgender people should be permitted to use whatever bathroom they choose.

But the GOP platform, which calls for a traditional definition of marriage as heterosexual, was decried by Log Cabin Republicans president Gregory Angelo as "the most anti-LGBT platform in the party's 162-year history," leading many to question how and with what emphases the next administration will approach matters of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Already, Trump has departed from State Department tradition by mandating that all politically appointed US ambassadors resign, without exception, effective Jan. 20, instead of staying on until their replacements are confirmed.

On the state level, meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced measures with the stated aim of protecting the public from transgender people who wish to use a public restroom or changing facility that corresponds with their gender identity. After outcry last year in North Carolina – and a showdown between the state and US Department of Justice – these so-called bathroom bills face an uphill battle in Texas and Virginia.

Whether the apology from Kerry will hold any sway over the incoming administration remains to be seen – and it remains unclear whether that's even the goal – but proponents hope confessing the government's sins, then memorializing that confession, will have a long-term impact for the good.

"There is little we can do to undo hurts and wrongs of the past," Cardin wrote in his letter to Kerry, stating an intent to lead Congress to issue an apology of its own. "But we can take steps to assure that the lessons of these episodes are learned and remembered, and in so doing make a contribution to assuring that such injustice will never transpire again."

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