WASHINGTON — Ken Kero-Mentz remembers opening his desk four months after coming to his job in the U.S. Consulate in Brazil. There,scrawled on letters from his then-boyfriend,was the word “ faggot.” When he went to the consulate general he was told,“This was the foreign service Ken. What did you expect?”
It was 2000 – eight years after fewer than a dozen employees formed the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies.
“I thought I had made the biggest mistake in my life,” Kero-Mentz said. “If it wasn’t for GLIFAA,I probably would have started thinking how to get out of what I’ve done.”
Last week,Kero-Mentz,now GLIFAA’s president,welcomed several hundred guests and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the group’s 20th anniversary – the first LGBT-focused event to be held under the crystal chandeliers of the spacious Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room.
Although the setting was elegant,the speakers did not forget the group’s history was not so pristine.
“There are many in this room who were alive and a few who were serving in the department back when LGBT employees were subjected to criminal investigations,” Kero-Mentz said. “They had their lives ruined and their friends intimidated. They were told they were threats to our national security for nothing more than who they loved.”
Several changes have come under Clinton’s time as head of the department. Same-sex partners were extended benefits,making it easier for them to travel and live overseas with their spouses. Transgender individuals can change their gender on their passport with less hassle,and the U.N. passed a resolution affirming human rights of LGBT people.
Clinton said the simple changes were not only the right thing to do,but also the smart thing.
“We are simply more effective when we create an environment that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work,when they don’t have to hide a core part of who they are,when we recognize and reward people for the quality of their work instead of dismissing their contributions because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.
Kero-Mentz still sees inequality within the organization. His husband,David Kero-Mentz is German and – because he is married to a man – cannot receive an American diplomatic passport or immunities afforded to heterosexual spouses of diplomats. He is denied health care,immigration and pension benefits under the Defense of Marriage Act.
Ken Kero-Mentz said he thinks President Barack Obama’s second term might bring about immigration reform that would allow him to sponsor his husband to enter the U.S. with a green card.
Continued progress was part of an overarching message Clinton had for the group. Though she plans to step down as secretary of state this January,Clinton told the group to pursue changes and praised leaders like Kero-Mentz who helped make them possible.
“It’s really due to their leadership over 20 years that GLIFAA has reached this milestone,” Clinton said. “It will be up to you and all those after you to keep the word going for the next 20 years and the 20 after that.”
Reach reporter Emily Wilkins at emily.wilki[email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.