More than 13 years ago, I walked into the State Department as a Student Trainee, one of just a couple undergraduates that year to be hired through what is now the PATHWAYS program that allows current students to start their career in diplomacy. My journey to that point started long before, as a little kid that loved geography and politics. I also walked through that door as someone who was openly gay to my friends and family, but quite unsure of how that part of my identity would impact my budding career.
I soon found the State Department’s employee affinity group for LGBTI+ people, Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies or GLIFAA. Many of my older friends in the group had joined the government at a time when just being openly gay or lesbian could lead to immediate termination from the government. By the time I joined, we were safe from that, but how open one could be depended greatly on where you worked and especially who you worked for. Through GLIFAA, I was able to gain great advice and navigate a difficult path in that regard, and was pleased to serve on the board in 2005-06, including helping put on our Pride event at State. I never imagined these two facets of my identity -- as a gay man and an American diplomat -- would converge beyond occasional social interactions with other GLIFAA members and our allies.
Dr. Reisser addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland – June 2015. [Image courtesy of Wesley Reisser]
Then in 2009 things started to change with the actions taken by the Obama Administration and Secretary Clinton to integrate LGBTI issues into our foreign policy. In 2010, I transitioned to the Bureau of International Organizations, which is the part of the Department that works on issues at the United Nations (UN). There I began to work on human rights issues in the Middle East. I also became the bureau’s first-ever point person on the human rights of LGBTI persons. In that capacity, I joined a small group of officials from State Department working on how to address LGBTI issues in the areas that would eventually become the Presidential Memorandum on International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of LGBT Persons.
At the UN, this meant working towards statements and resolutions on LGBTI related themes. It also meant working with the UN itself to mainstream LGBTI inclusion and to do discrete LGBTI related programming. The first step my colleagues and I took was to work together with our Colombian and Slovenian counterparts to present a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council.That statement was joined by 85 UN members, almost half of the total UN membership, in March 2011, which was the largest show of support for the human rights of LGBTI persons at the UN, to that point. Just three months later, the U.S. proudly supported and lobbied for the first-ever UN resolution on the topic, led by South Africa, also at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The role played in those early days by the Human Rights Council helped lead to the selection of the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva as the site for Secretary Clinton’s landmark “Gay Rights Are Human Rights, and Human Rights Are Gay Rights” speech in 2012.
Dr. Reisser meeting with then-Secretary Clinton at a celebration after the March 2011 UN Human Rights Council Session. [Image courtesy of Wesley Reisser]
Thankfully, my work and that of my colleagues continued beyond those historic actions. We worked to forge a second UN resolution -- led by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, again with strong U.S. support -- which was passed in Geneva in 2014,. In addition to working as a part of U.S. delegations promoting these universal values around the world, I also worked with various other nations and countless parts of the State Department to ensure that this work would be integrated more broadly.
However, nothing has touched me more than to meet the brave LGBTI human rights defenders that work day in and day out on these issues in places where life for LGBTI people is dangerous, far more so than it is here at home. In Montenegro, I met with activists that have been attacked on the street and at their LGBTI center by right-wing groups, despite their government taking important positive steps. They told me that action at the UN not only makes them feel safer, but has helped open more space to engage on these issues at home. And in 2015, I had the privilege to be in the chamber when Ambassador Power and the Chilean Ambassador to the UN hosted the first-ever Security Council Arria Briefing on LGBTI issues. This important meeting brought international attention to ISIL’s brutal campaign against LGBTI people including throwing gay men off tall buildings, just because of who they love. These moments, and many like them, have seared into my mind just how essential this work is.
Despite continued reticence from some UN members, I am convinced that we have built a space to address human rights violations against LGBTI people at the UN and can use this platform not only to speak out, but to expand international consensus that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people deserve to be treated the same as everyone else. As an openly gay man , being able to do this work for my LGBTI brothers and sisters around the world has been the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.
IO Assistant Secretary Sheba Crocker presenting the UN Association “Tex Harris” Human Rights & Diplomacy Award to Dr. Reisser for his work on LGBTI human rights, along with UNA-NCA President Ambassador Donald T. Bliss, and UNA-NCA Executive Director Paula Boland. [Image courtesy of Wesley Reisser]
The critics are many, including many here in the United States. They not only criticize the United Nations, but also the United States’ engagement at the United Nations, including on LGBTI issues. I know, however, that the work being done right now on these issues remains as important as ever. Hopefully someday full acceptance will come for everyone to live their lives open and honestly, like I can do here.
Editor's Note: This story is part of a series for 2016 Pride Month, focusing on the careers and journey's of foreign affairs professionals working on foreign policy at the U.S. Department of State. It also appears in the Department's Modern Diplomacy publication on Medium.com.
For more information:
- Check out another Pride Month blog from Ambassador Ted Osius focused on a defining dialogue he had with a young Vietnamese student.
- Read more from Dr. Reisser about how the United States is Demonstrating #GlobalLeadership through the United Nations and International Organizations to Advance LGBTI Rights.
- Read President Obama's 2016 Pride Month Proclamation.