Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State | US Department of State
What do you currently do as a Foreign Service Officer?
I am working for Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken as his advisor for sub-Saharan Africa, legal issues, and multilateral diplomacy efforts in the United Nations. At the moment, I am advising him on diplomatic strategy in the UN Security Council and General Assembly to bring humanitarian aid to Aleppo. In Africa, we're watching a number of situations in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) very closely.
Long hours and weekend work is not uncommon, but it is certainly worth it to personally prepare the Deputy Secretary to make a range of foreign policy decisions day in and day out.
You were posted in Syria for a bit. How do you feel about the current situation in the country?
Syria was my first tour in the Foreign Service; I arrived in Damascus in July 2008 for a brief tour and then returned for two years from 2010 until we closed our embassy in February 2012. I still know folks who are living in Syria. I think of them every day. I think of the hundreds of people that I interviewed for visas, many of whom did not meet the legal qualifications of a tourist visa by the virtue of their own admission that they were fleeing for their lives. They rolled up their sleeves in some instances revealing torture marks from electric wands by Syrian police, and parents whose visa applications were denied pleading for their infant children to be given a visa in order to escape violence while the family remained in Syria. The memories from that tour are still with me, as is the beauty of the country of Syria and the kindness and Syrian people.
While I am heartbroken by the current situation in Syria and the scale of displacement, loss, and depravity we have seen play out over the past six years, I remain hopeful that peace will be restored in part thanks to U.S.-led international efforts to drive ISIS fighters out of northern and eastern Syria and a sustained diplomatic efforts brokered by the United Nations for a political solution to the conflict.
I came into the State Department in 2005 through the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship as an undergraduate sophomore. The fellowship provides tuition assistance for undergraduates, graduate school, professional development training, and promises a full-time role in the Foreign Service upon completion of graduate school. Recipients must work in the State Department for four and a half years, equal to the number of years the Department paid for our educational expenses, in exchange for the tuition assistance.
I would not have been able to continue my undergraduate education without the Pickering Fellowship because my family and I were no longer able to afford tuition. The Pickering program changed my life.
Is your position dependent on the administration or do you stay on no matter who is in power?
Career diplomats in the Foreign Service are here to stay regardless of any change in administration. We take great pride in our apolitical service to the country through Democrat and Republican administrations alike.
How do you move from one job to the next within the Department of State?
Moving from one job to the next is a rather complicated process called “bidding.” Typically, Foreign Service tours in Washington D.C. are one year or two years. My current job in the Deputy Secretary’s office is a one-year assignment because it's very demanding with an average of twelve hour days and regular weekend work. Overseas tours are typically two to three years for American diplomats, much shorter than other foreign diplomats who spend four to five years in any one overseas posting. In hardship or potentially dangerous foreign missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. diplomats serve one-year tours.
A year before you end your tour, the Human Resources Department publishes a list of available domestic and overseas assignments. Foreign Service Officers spend weeks selecting our top choices, putting our resumes together, identifying colleagues and supervisors who are best placed to advocate for you with the hiring manager, and, of course, interviewing over the phone or in person for the position. It is not always a smooth, clear-cut process. Your success in landing our top roles depends largely on your reputation for hard work, good writing, and most importantly and, I cannot stress this enough, your interpersonal skills. Bottom line, people need to like to work with you in order to advance.
How is the State Department doing in terms of gender equality?
At the State Department I'm paid as equally as a woman can be because I work in the federal government. My pay does not differ much from my male colleagues compared to my sisters in private sector. I do not face wage discrimination in the same way. I have also not faced, and nor am I aware, of many instances where women Foreign Service Officers have faced discrimination in the assignment selection during my tenure in the State Department.
In fact, I've seen quite the opposite during my tenure. I've seen robust efforts to recruit women for all jobs. The State Department is serious about improving the diversity of our service, not just women, but for LGBT, African Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans, folks from low-income or other disadvantaged backgrounds--everybody. We want our diplomatic corps around the world to reflect the breadth of experiences and communities in our country in order to best serve and represent the U.S. interests abroad.
I'm bi-racial, black and white, and a lesbian. When I am posted overseas and attend diplomatic receptions or meetings, I am proud of the diversity of our Foreign Service. As the American representative, when you are standing in front of a government official and you are of color and queer, you are representing the entire United States of America. It really matters that we walk the walk and talk the talk. The best part about America, in my view, is our diversity and inclusivity. I am proud that the State Department understands the national security imperative and we make sure our diplomats reflect that.
Have you always been out at work?
My first assignment was tricky because I was assigned to the Embassy in Damascus and the security situation was precarious. While I was not out to everyone at the embassy and the broader community, I told all my American friends and colleagues. But I was not out to my Syrian colleagues, government officials, and neighbors, because it was widely understood that Syrian intelligence services would routinely ask (maybe even coerce) these people to provide them with any information on our work and our personal lives that the Syrian government could use to exploit us for intelligence purposes. In fact, when asked by many Syrian co-workers and interlocutors if I was married or had a “boyfriend” I would say that I had a male partner back home.
I wrestled with my decision; but, ultimately, I did not feel that I would be safe being 100 percent out to the Syrian community. At one point in my assignment I was honey-potted, which is a term in the diplomatic and intelligence world for when a foreign government sends a romantic interest or potential sexual partner to catch your attention in hopes that you might say things, or that you might develop a relationship with this person that would provide them access to sensitive information. The Syrians had figured out that it would be best to send a woman to try to befriend me. I felt targeted. And as a result, determined the best way to remain safe and effective was to compartmentalize my personal life and my sexual orientation apart from my professional life as much as possible during my assignment.
I was also in my mid-20s and in a different phase in my feminism and queer identity. I was very concerned about being able to keep my American and Syrian colleagues safe and to keep myself safe. Now I'm older and more comfortable being out in all facets of my life despite the risks, so I don't know if I'd make the same decision about being out in Syria if I had to do it over again.
What would your advice be to young queer women working in foreign policy?
My advice to young queer women in foreign policy is simple: you belong here and your contributions are valuable.
I am a big believer in the importance of visibility. Queer women in foreign policy can and must do more to be more public and visible as members of the foreign affairs community. The State Department has its own affinity group for LGBTQ employees called Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA), but we need to do better at reclaiming the space or asserting ourselves in the space.
For instance, the phenomenon of calling out all-male panels is very much in fashion in Washington D.C., but it would be wonderful to also make sure that we're fighting for diversity across the board and being inclusive of queer women in that picture. Queer and female visibility is very important, and especially in the world of national security. You cannot be what you cannot see.
Do you think things can happen at a systemic or institutional level to help that happen?
When you join the Foreign Service, you receive a top secret clearance, so you have to go through a very extensive background check.
It includes questions about your personal life, finances, who lives with you, etc. Prior to a 1998 executive order of President Clinton, being gay could derail your ability to pass a background check for a top secret security clearance which is essential to diplomats’ work. Being gay was a blemish on your Foreign Service career. We are still overcoming that in terms of recruiting among the queer community.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t fully out on my first tour. I am out now because there's a culture of support in the State Department that did not exist when I started. The State Department at the institutional level was still coming to terms with a world where queer people can serve openly and honourably when I entered the Foreign Service at the beginning of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s tenure. The Department has made tremendous progress over the past eight years, some valuable institutional changes under Secretary Clinton’s leadership that allowed LGBTQ families to have their partnerships recognized years before DOMA’s repeal and marriage equality and thus enabled non-Foreign Service partners to accompany their spouses on overseas assignments. I believe these institutional changes helped usher in a culture of acceptance and a healthy normalization of the LGBTQ community within the U.S. diplomatic corps. Now it is important that we keep moving forward toward a stronger and inclusive Foreign Service.