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U.S. to partners of U.N. LGBTQ staff: Get married, or get out

The State Dept. says it won’t issue visas for the same-sex partners of U.N. workers unless they’re married. But most countries do not allow same-sex marriage.
People walk past the United Nations headquarters
Only a few dozen of the 193 United Nations member states allow same-sex marriage.John Moore / Getty Images

The State Department on Monday began imposing a new policy that restricts visas for the same-sex partners of staff of U.S.-based international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The policy, announced earlier this year, ends a policy spearheaded by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that allowed these same-sex partners to obtain a spousal visa, also known as the G-4 visa. Now, according to the new policy, the United States will issue a G-4 visa to a partner only if the couple is legally married.

The State Department’s website on G-4 visas currently states: “Effective immediately, U.S. Embassies and Consulates will adjudicate visa applications that are based on a same-sex marriage in the same way that we adjudicate applications for opposite gender spouses.”

That means that U.N., World Bank, and IMF staff from countries that do not recognize same-sex marriage face a stark choice: enter a relationship that could result in prison time back home, or abandon their relationship for their career.

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that the change is “to help ensure and promote equal treatment” between straight and gay couples. Straight couples must be married to obtain a G-4 visa.

But unlike straight marriages, same-sex marriage is illegal in most countries. Only a few dozen of the 193 United Nations member states allow same-sex marriage, and a small number of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia still execute people for being gay.

For all new G-4 applications filed at the State Department after Monday, the same-sex partner must be a legally married spouse. For U.N. workers who are in relationships currently recognized by a G-4 visa but are not legally marriage, their partners will have 30 days after the new year to either get married or exit the United States.

David Pressman, who was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Security Council for special political affairs in the Obama administration, said the G-4 action is harmful in part because the United Nations is “composed of probably one of the most diverse workforces of any organization in the world.”

“If that’s how you advance equality between same-sex and opposite sex partners, then we have an enormous problem on our hands,” Pressman said. He described the policy as a “creative and cynical way to use the expansion of equality at home to vindictively target same-sex couples abroad.”

Pressman characterized the new policy as a reversal of the progress made by former U.N. General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, which does not recognize same-sex marriage. Ban still enacted sweeping policies for LGBTQ workplace equality at the U.N.

In December 2014, Russia enlisted the support of China, Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and Syria to try to reverse a policy enacted by Ban that extended spousal workplace benefits to same-sex partners of U.N. staff, regardless of whether the marriages were legal in their home countries.

Pressman said he and his staff furiously lobbied other member states so they would vote against the change, abstain or not show up to vote. In the end, Russia’s measure failed: Eighty countries voted against their changes, 48 voted for and nearly 70 either abstained or missed the vote. “We put enormous political capital behind it, and we succeeded,” Pressman said.

“What happened was the United States government, at the senior most levels of government, became fully engaged in stopping the Russians, and what that meant was that over the Christmas holidays at the ambassador level, at the minister level, we were engaging with countries all over the world.”

Alfonso Nam, the current president of the LGBTQ employee resource group U.N. Globe, said the new changes will affect those who are holding G-4 visas now, and those who will need one in the future, in different ways.

If you’re currently in New York, “then you have the option of going to City Hall and getting married,” Nam said. “If your next assignment is New York and you would like to bring your same-sex domestic partner, then you would have to either get married before you come to New York (so you can secure a visa for your partner) or you would have to come here and bring your partner here and get married here, and from then on you will be able to get the G-4 visa.”

Fabrice Houdart, a human rights official at the United Nations, said, “The problem with the new policy is that it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that LGBTI people still face a very challenging global environment.”

Getting married, Houdart said, is “something that is, in a way, more significant than entering a same-sex partnership for reasons that are not related to practical reasons, but reasons like: staying in the closet at home or facing gigantic penalties at home for being in a same-sex relationship.”

In addition, Houdart said, the policy seems to presume that same-sex partners should be able to easily visit the United States on a tourist visa where they could get married. But for people in many countries, particularly poor and conservative countries like the ones that do not permit same-sex marriage, obtaining a tourist visa to visit the United States is extremely difficult.

“Those being affected will be the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, the poorest,” Houdart said.

Houdart, who was in charge of Globe, the LGBT employee resource group at the World Bank, said that this dynamic was well underway before Clinton changed the visa policy in 2009.

“It was such an opportunity to get a staff position in the U.S. with the World Bank that they ended up giving up on their relationship,” only to regret their decision later in life. “It happened for years and years, and eventually Hillary Clinton corrected that,” he said.