Twenty-Five LGBTI next generation leaders to watch

Participants hold a giant rainbow flag during a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade in Hong Kong November 8, 2014. Participants from the LGBT communities took to the streets on Saturday to demonstrate for their rights. (REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

The dramatic economic and political challenges defining the 21st century for the United States call for a deepening commitment to our shared values and dedication to expanding the diversity of thinkers, leaders, and policymakers. Those values and ideals are enshrined in our founding documents: the belief that we are all created equal, endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are more than a pinnacle to strive for; they are the values that millions of Americans are sworn to uphold. Living those values is what draws nations together. Openness to all Americans is one of the things that ensures enduring US leadership.

The next generation of Americans—our future leaders, strategists, diplomats, and innovators— are more diverse, open, and tolerant than ever.  It takes decades for leaders to grow and develop. In the 21st century, the United States cannot afford to close ourselves off from anyone. By reaching out to previously marginalized and underutilized groups and deliberately incorporating them into our talent development pipelines, we can build bridges within the United States and around the globe. Including these groups requires focus and strategic human capital planning across the whole of the national security enterprise.

In recognition of these challenges, former US President Barack Obama issued a memorandum titled “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Workforce” in October 2016. It instructed federal agencies engaged in diplomacy and national security activities to promote a more inclusive work environment and invest in policies to recruit and retain diverse workforces.

While many groups have made strides in recent years, this has always been particularly challenging for LGBTI Americans. For far too long, they were forced to suppress or hide their authentic selves and even their families in order to serve the nation or risk expulsion and ostracization. They have always served and fought for the United States, but only within the last two generations has the country begun to recognize them and accept the breadth and depth of character, leadership, knowledge, and skill that the LGBTI community contributes as citizens and, in particular, to foreign policy and national security.

The government agencies, contractors, non-governmental organizations, and other groups that comprise national security and foreign policy enterprises have been some of the least diverse and most hostile to growing diversity, especially toward LGBTI Americans. Nonetheless, LGBTI Americans make up 10 percent of all US veterans and continue to serve, often at a greater rate than the nation as a whole.

As part of the Atlantic Council’s commitment to constructive leadership and engagement, it is important to elevate the voices and the profiles of these LGBTI Americans to meet the global challenges we all face. Together, Out in National Security and the Atlantic Council take great pride in recognizing the caliber of talent LGBTI Americans offer their country. At a time when LGBTI Americans’ rights remain under threat, recognizing the rising generation of LGBTI Americans dedicated to the security of the nation and foreign policy is an important step in expanding US leadership and engaging the country in a positive dialogue. Their dedication to leading the United States today and into the future makes that future more secure and helps to ensure the rights of all LGBTI Americans. Together, we honor the contributions of twenty-five LGBTI American professionals in government, think tanks, academia, the military, and non-governmental organizations. They were selected on the basis of their professional contributions and service to their communities.

Luke Schleusener is the executive director of Out in National Security.

NAME: Alvaro Zarco

POSITION: Policy adviser, Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Alvaro Zarco large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Zarco: I am fortunate to live in a city that celebrates its diversity. It is my hope that with more members of my community visible in national security, young people in every town and city across the country can live freely and without the stigma that continues to affect too many.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Zarco: US foreign policy and national security decisions affect millions of people at home and abroad. I believe that our foreign policy and national security decisions are best shaped when there is a diversity of ideas and backgrounds at any decision-making table.

NAME: US Navy Lt. Andrea Reese Howard

POSITION:  Reactor Controls Officer responsible for the safety, operation, and maintenance of the nuclear reactor aboard the USS OHIO in Bremerton, Washington

LOCATION: Bremerton, Washington

Andrea Howard large

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

Howard: The most challenging aspect of national security—and specifically weapons of mass destruction policy—is the reconciliation of short-term strains with long-term gains. The ability to absorb disruptive technologies and spikes in international politics must occur without sacrificing the larger march toward deterrence, stability, and eventual nonproliferation. Socially, too, the military can embrace short-term strains of fully inclusive LGBTI policies to promote long-term diversity in military planning and fighting.

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Howard: For me, the most challenging aspect of being “out” in national security is welcoming the feeling of foreignness in my own workplace. In a male-dominated, conservative-leaning military, there are moments of subtle pushback around the subject of gender and sexuality. But the most rewarding aspect of working in national security is overcoming this tension with coworkers, demonstrating merit to earn trust and ultimately strengthen the unit’s ability to uniformly confront external challenges. Serving openly in the military allows the United States to not only project hard power, but also a more perfect meaning of freedom.

NAME: Blake Dremann

POSITION: Chief, Readiness, Nuclear Enterprise Support Office, Defense Logistics Agency at the US Navy

LOCATION: Alexandria, VA

Blake Dremann large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Dremann: I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience. I have never been openly discriminated against and leadership has been supportive of me as an open transgender person.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Dremann: My best advice to the younger generation is to be yourself and be the best at the job.  Everything else should follow.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Dremann: Diversity is important because policy decisions have the potential to affect more than just “average” Americans. Different perspectives and demographics have been shown to lead to better solutions and stronger teams. Diversity has also been shown to break down barriers to prejudice and myths.

NAME: David Young Kim

POSITION: Research Analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center

LOCATION: Washington, DC

David Kim large

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Kim: People from diverse backgrounds can enrich our national security and foreign policy pool by providing perspectives and approaches that may differ from the traditional framework of how experts approach this subject. For instance, we honor Pride Month in many US embassies around the world, even in places where being openly LGBTQIA can be dangerous. Conversations about LGBTQIA human rights can provide a platform to speak out about US ideals and values (freedom and equality) while inviting others who may not have had exposure to the LGBTQIA community to join the conversation.

NAME: Erin Clancy (On Twitter @eclancy)

POSITION: Political adviser at the US Mission to the United Nations and an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow

LOCATION: New York City

Erin Clancy large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Clancy: It is an honor to represent the United States of America every single day as a queer woman of color at the US Mission to the United Nations. I’ve spent my career working in (or working on) countries where freedoms for LGBTI people are still a dream on the distant horizon, but I know that my personal example, my personal journey, sends a message to governments and citizens around the world that the most powerful country in the world has a queer, woman of color representing the American people. The privilege I feel from being an out American diplomat is important because of the State Department’s own tragic, recent history of discriminating LGBTI employees during the Lavender Scare days during the McCarthy era.  I am proud to be a part of the legacy that progress toward civil rights, equality, and inclusion as an out career diplomat.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Clancy: My advice for the next generation of LGBTI foreign policy and national security practitioners is simple: you belong here and your contributions are valuable. Do not think for one minute that you cannot represent our country because of who you love, what you look like, or how much money you have. We need your courage and your light making America and the world a safer, more free place.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Clancy: Diversity is a fundamental US value that is essential in defining who we are and what we stand for. In order to best protect our values from the threats facing the United States, we must reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity in American life for all people, including the LGBTI community. Diversity keeps the United States safe and prosperous.

NAME: Francisco A. Bencosme

POSITION: Asia Advocacy Manager at Amnesty International USA

LOCATION: Washington DC

Francisco Bencosme large

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

Bencosme: The national security field is a monster that feeds on elitism and implicit biases making it more difficult for diverse individuals to break in and once they are in to thrive.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Bencosme: There’s a community out there—we are here for you. Connect and play the game and then break the game while doing so. Make sure there are opportunities for others so when you go up you lift not just yourself but your whole community.

NAME: Jason Coleman

POSITION: Deputy Budget Officer at the US Department of State

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Jason Coleman large

Q: How did you first get involved in foreign policy and national security?

Coleman: My initial service abroad was inspired by my need to escape the myopic worldview of my upbringing and experience the true diversity of the world. Upon my return, my mind, heart, and soul had committed to being a part of the development of US foreign policy and related national security imperatives, as an out and proud civil servant.

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

Coleman: My work is increasingly impacted by challenging interactions with coworkers and other stakeholders who bring heterosexual male-centric values and approaches to the workplace. Conduct arising from what is often called “toxic masculinity” makes it more difficult for many openly LGBTQI employees to succeed in a national security setting. Personally, it took great discipline and practice for me to navigate these challenges while not reverting to the closet.

Professional success in any setting requires the ability to be yourself, feel safe, and believe that your contributions are valued. With respect to foreign policy and national security, in particular, our country cannot afford to lose the expertise of dedicated public servants just because some cannot release their grip on a heterosexual male-centric culture.

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Coleman: For years I have been deeply impacted by the scene in the movie Clue, where a State Department official was blackmailed for being gay. After all, being discovered as gay during a security clearance investigation could lead to termination well through the late 1990s.

Even today, my interactions with some managers domestically, as well as overseas travel to certain countries, often necessitate a brief return to the closet and heteronormative code-switching. I’m disappointed that even after nearly twenty years of being out, I still often feel pressure to conceal that I’m gay and not advocate for issues important to LGBTI communities in order to protect myself against negative attention and derision. I want to help eliminate that pressure for myself, my peers, and those who will follow.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Coleman: Eric Lembembe, an openly gay Cameroonian activist, taught me why diversity is important in foreign policy and national security. I met Eric while on a work trip in Belgium as he was presenting his work advocating for LGBTQ rights in Cameroon. Over the course of numerous enjoyable conversations, I learned about his hardships being gay in Cameroon and what it was like for him to be so isolated in a country he loved.

Several years later, Eric was tortured and murdered because on his sexual orientation and advocacy. As I mourned him, I committed to standing up and contributing the voice of Eric, and those who suffer as he did, as often as possible. Their voices will only be heard if decision-makers are diverse enough, or have sufficiently diverse experiences, to factor in the broadest range of experiences and barriers.

NAME: Jay Gilliam

POSITION: Director of Global Leadership at the Human Rights Campaign

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Jay Gilliam large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Gilliam: As a development practitioner and LGBTI human rights advocate on a global level, my career experience is not always seen as part of the network of foreign policy and national security experts. So it’s been difficult to break into networks of policy wonks.

I was lucky to be part of the Obama administration’s efforts to make the promotion of LGBTI human rights a priority in its foreign policy, an effort spearheaded by LGBTI appointees. I have also been lucky to be part of a network of LGBTI staff through GLIFAA, the employee group representing LGBTI staff at foreign affairs agencies, in which we were able to support Obama administration efforts to make supporting LGBTI human rights. Networks like these and ONS have been crucial for me in providing space to meet others, share experiences, and lend support to my efforts.

NAME: Joe Cooper Whimple

POSITION: Strategic adviser at the Pride Network

LOCATION: New York City

Joe Cooper Whimple large

Q: How did you first get involved in foreign policy and national security?

Whimple: I served as a transgender person in the US military, which was remarkably complex given our current political climate. I was part of a military organization that encouraged integrity and forming close bonds with colleagues, yet I would face harsh disciplinary action if I allowed anyone to know that I was transgender. This was especially troubling because I was a human resource supervisor for my troops and it was my role to ensure that everyone under my watch was both satisfied and safe while serving. Post-military, I ended up engaging in initiatives to improve both LGBTI employment and progress around the transgender military ban.

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

Whimple: One challenge of working in national security would be constantly seeing protections of LGBTI people being revoked. Another concern is traveling to certain areas that do not have progressive policy based around LGBTI people.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Whimple: Without diversity, both foreign policy and national security would be remarkably weak.

NAME: Jonathan Lee (On Twitter @jonathanLLee)

POSITION: Public and Social Sector Practice Manager at McKinsey & Company

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Jonathan Lee large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Lee: It has evolved over time. When I began in national security, I was at the Pentagon prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Although as a civilian I could be out, I wasn’t yet truly comfortable being open in that work environment. After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, it was amazing to watch LGBTI personnel, both military and civilian, be more open about themselves, their lives, and their families, and just as amazing to see the degree of acceptance among colleagues.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Lee: There are many reasons but I’ll highlight two: first, having a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences enhances the analytical and decisionmaking capabilities of any organization. This is as true in foreign policy and national security as anywhere. Second, we in the United States should lead by example in terms of living our values, and having a diverse foreign policy and national security workforce reflective of our society is part and parcel of that.

NAME: US Army Capt. Joshua Samuel Felice

POSITION: Modern Military Association of America Korea Regional Director

LOCATION: South Korea

Joshua Felice large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Felice: I was a member of the Army during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and witnessed the repeal of DADT and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). With that, my biggest challenge is watching LGBTI soldiers feel alone and ostracized by their commands.

NAME: Lauren Baer (On Twitter @laurenbaer)

POSITION: Civic leader and a former candidate for the US House of Representatives in Florida’s 18th District

LOCATION: Palm Beach Gardens, FL

Lauren Baer large

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Baer: My advice to young LGBT persons interested in national security is this: above all else, be visible. Recent history has shown that the visibility of the LGBT community is a central driver of equality. When people realize that they know members of the LGBT community—when they understand that LGBT persons are their neighbors, members of their family, their trusted colleagues, and their friends—it reduces stigma, increases empathy, and makes people more likely to support equality. So, whenever possible, I encourage LGBT persons to be out in their professional environments, to, as they say, bring their whole selves to work.

I was lucky during my time in government to have had the vocal support of our most senior leadership, to know that the president, Secretaries [Hillary] Clinton and [John] Kerry, and [US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha] Power, are all advocates for the LGBT community. But even, and perhaps especially, in less supportive environments, it’s important that members of the LGBT community be visible, that they assert their presence. Doing so paves the way for others to come forward, and can pave the way for a more equitable working environment.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Baer: The United States is stronger, safer, and more secure when our leaders reflect the full diversity our great country.

NAME: Lee Rijn Tate

POSITION: Deputy Division Chief at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense

LOCATION: Arlington, VA

Lee Tate large

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Tate: Foreign policy/national security work is a great opportunity to serve the country and the world, while learning valuable, universally marketable skills. As a gay man with thirteen years of service in this realm, I have found it to be a consistently accepting, even supportive, work environment with colleagues who are consummate professionals.

NAME: Melissa McCafferty

POSITION: Lieutenant in the US Coast Guard

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Melissa McCafferty large

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

McCafferty: The tremendous lack of diversity. This is an impediment to doing the best job we are able to do because from varying backgrounds comes diversity of thought, which is needed to confront the atypical challenges of a multipolar world.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

McCafferty: Be yourself. You do a disservice to yourself and to your country by shielding who you are. By being true to yourself, you can be as impactful as you desire.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

McCafferty: Diversity brings different viewpoints, which in a multipolar world is a necessity. For too long, foreign policy has been relegated to established white heterosexual men. This means that viewpoints are alarmingly similar instead of allowing for diversity of thought, which is required if the United States is to be on the cutting edge of foreign affairs.

NAME: Ned Price (On Twitter @nedprice)

POSITION: Director at National Security Action

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Ned Price large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Price: It wasn’t all that long ago that one’s LGBTQ identity barred the door to certain national security posts, and parts of the national security community have yet to catch up with society. That’s why I also found a supportive community in my fellow LGBTQ colleagues, as they could understand the pressures of the job and the unique challenges associated with being an out LGBTQ professional in the realm. I have heard many stories of those who felt they’d jeopardize career prospects if they were to be open about their identity. We must ensure that our national security professionals need not choose between their country and their identity.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Price: I regularly meet with aspiring national security professionals and encourage them to seek out opportunities in the realm, as there’s not a sector that’s more exciting or rewarding. At the same time, I’m honest with them that elements of the national security establishment have yet to catch up with society. That’s why it’s so important that LGBTQ national security professionals have a support network, ideally both inside their place of work and on the outside.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Price: In order to protect the country and our values, our national security workforce must resemble—and understand—the American people. A workforce that is “pale, male, and Yale”—as the saying goes—is not reflective of who we are as a people. And those on the frontlines of our nation’s security and diplomacy should be able to model and represent what the United States is all about, including the diversity that we know to be a national strength.

NAME: Richard Johnson (On Twitter @johnsonrc01)

POSITION: Senior director for fuel cycle and verification at the Nuclear Threat Initiative

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Richard Johnson large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Johnson: Generally, I have had a very good experience as an out LGTBQI professional, both as a former government official and in the nonprofit/NGO world.  That said, I think there have been many moments when I have selectively chosen to be less open about my orientation, either because of the traditional formality that is still inherent in the diplomatic world or because I was unsure or afraid about how a foreign counterpart would react if I was open with them. I think this is still a concern for many of us, especially given the lack of progress in LGBTQI rights in many other regions of the world where a lot of us still do work.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Johnson: One of the greatest pitfalls of working in public policy, including in the national security space, is the prevalence of “groupthink.” This tendency leads to the continuation of failed policies and stale approaches, which often accounts for our inability to find new ways of addressing entrenched problems.  The inclusion of underrepresented persons—women, people of color, LGBTQI people—in the national security decision making space not only helps to address employment inequality issues, but it also brings people into the profession who have fresh perspectives and approaches.  Persons from these communities often have more experience in building coalitions, innovating new concepts, and finding consensus, which are all very useful in crafting effective foreign policy. Even in spaces divorced substantively from social equality or human rights, these voices are useful in breaking through the “groupthink” and bringing forth new ideas. 

NAME: Richmond Blake (On Twitter @richmondpblake)

POSITION: Director of Policy and Advocacy at Mercy Corps

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Richmond Blake large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Blake: I am proud of the contributions I have made as an LGBTI national security practitioner, especially in partnering with civil society to advance global civilian security and human rights policy. That said, I have also faced discrimination while serving within a national security agency, and I have observed intolerance against other LGBTI employees. We cannot overlook the challenges that continue to face the LGBTI community. We must address them honestly and directly if we are to achieve equality in the workplace.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Blake: Do not wait to be asked to contribute—just jump in!  If you see a foreign policy challenge and you have a great idea, do your research, put pen to paper, and present your policy solutions to the public.  That’s exactly what I did as a graduate student when I offered ideas to the State Department to protect LGBTI rights globally and as a frontline political officer at a US Embassy to demonstrate how the US government can more effectively partner with civil society to advance human rights and civilian security.  Don’t highlight problems, but rather offer new solutions or better yet—demonstrate how to execute them. That’s how to contribute and achieve policy change.

NAME: Ryan L. Palsrok

POSITION: Consular section chief at the US Department of State

LOCATION: US Consulate General Casablanca

Ryan Palsrok large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Palsrok: One of the most rewarding aspects of my work has been the opportunity to support and encourage LGBTI activists and leaders abroad.  In countries where homosexuality is criminalized or highly stigmatized, this is particularly important. Heading to these countries can be challenging as it is necessary to remain culturally sensitive and, above all, safe, yet, it represents an enormous opportunity to give hope to a disadvantaged and often persecuted community.

One of the most meaningful moments of my assignment in the Dominican Republic, for example, was the night many of us from the embassy, including the then US ambassador, participated in a public candlelight vigil for the young Dominicans who were killed in the attack at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Similarly, in China, I had the chance to speak to a group of young activists at the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Center.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Palsrok: It is critical that US diplomats look like and reflect the broad diversity of the US population. This serves as a reflection of US values and can persuade other countries to also value diversity and protect and create opportunities for all of their citizens.  By placing women, racial minorities, and LGBTI Americans in key positions abroad, the United States serves as an example.  It also makes us safer.

A diverse Foreign Service reaches further into a wider variety of foreign communities, helping us build new partnerships, advance US economic interests, make better visa decisions, and better understand the complicated world around us.

NAME: Shin Inouye (On Twitter @shin_inouye)

POSITION: Former press secretary and acting senior adviser for intergovernmental and external affairs at US Citizenship and Immigration Services at the US Department of Homeland Security

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Shin Inouye large

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

Inouye: Balancing civil and human rights, and continuing to move forward on progressive issues, against national security concerns and interests. That balance is not always easy to attain.

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner? 

Inouye: As someone who is both a person of color and LGBTQ I am always mindful of the broader impact of policies that might not be at the forefront of other people’s minds. This is not to say that they aren’t allies—just that they might not be considering how a specific approach may impact a larger community.

NAME: Thomas Zimmerman (On Twitter @TSZimmerman)

POSITION: Programs director at the Pacific Council on International Policy

LOCATION: Los Angeles, CA

Thomas Zimmeran large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Zimmerman: I have found the need to periodically closet myself, depending on the operating environment, to be taxing. While I make a conscious effort to be out to my coworkers whenever possible, I have found myself in environments (for example, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) where being honest with my colleagues about my relationship would put me at risk.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Zimmerman: LGBTI people have a lot to add to security discussions. While at times it can feel inaccessible, you have an opportunity to bring a greatly underrepresented  perspective to the conversation and, in the process, help make the world a safer and more just place. You never know when your experiences will allow you to see something nobody else at the table can.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Zimmerman: Diversity is important in foreign policy and national security for the same reason it’s important in all sectors: it ensures a wider range of perspectives and experiences that are essential for good policymaking.

NAME: Tony Johnson (On Twitter @TJmyked)

POSITION: National security and military capabilities analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Tony Johnson large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Johnson: I was a DADT casualty. I experienced the injustice of bad policy and joy when President Obama lifted the ban. For the most part I no longer fear being who I am, wherever I am. But there are times I feel that caution is the wisest course of action. That shouldn’t even be a worry. I want to eliminate that concern, entirely for everyone—all LGBTI persons, forever!

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Johnson: Be bold. Be seen. Be heard. It’s our country, too.

Q: What would you want Out in National Security to do for you as a professional?

Johnson: Let’s attack the insidious and crippling problem of imposter syndrome that plagues LGBTI national security professionals who may feel out of place and unwelcome in security policy circles. We should help people find their voice and give them a platform and opportunities to practice, sharpen, and promote their ideas and share their stories and perspectives.

NAME: Wesley James Reisser

POSITION: Senior foreign affairs officer at the US Department of State

LOCATION: Washington, DC

Wes Reisser large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Reisser: I have had a great experience at the State Department. Our internal LGBTI affinity group, GLIFAA, was a good resource when I joined, although it is more oriented toward the specific needs of the Foreign Service than the broader LGBTI employees of the Department. I have found every office I worked in very welcoming and open to LGBTI staff, and I was lucky to be one of the staff members who helped shape the State Department’s policy on LGBTI issues during the last administration.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Reisser: Go for it! Your voice matters and we need more LGBTI people in this space, especially from the more underrepresented parts of the community. Seek advice and mentorship from those ahead of you and be ready to join the workforce proudly and openly.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Reisser: It is essential to have a foreign policy establishment that looks like our country. People of different backgrounds bring their experience to the table and this leads to better decisions. In addition, when representing the United States abroad, our foreign policy community needs to look like our country. Only when it does can we truly preach the human rights and development agendas that our nation has long championed on the global stage.

NAME: Xiaobin Tuo

POSITION: C5I branch chief at the US Coast Guard District Eight

LOCATION: New Orleans, LA

Xiaobin Tuo large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Tuo: For me, being an out LGBTI national security practitioner is inextricably linked with being an out LGBTI military officer. Serving under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a challenge—it was heartbreaking and unfair to see friends and colleagues lose their livelihood and military identity because of whom they loved. Some of that feeling carries forward to today, not because of my personal experience within the national security community (I’ve never been given any grief for being gay, post-DADT), but because—looking abroad—there are some countries and some regimes that institute laws and policies that formally persecute LGBTI people and formally subordinate women and minorities, and yet we might be called upon to engage with these regimes for the broader sake of national security.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Tuo: Diversity is important everywhere, in every field, and in every discipline! But, diversity is of the utmost importance in our field. An appreciation of diverse thoughts, diverse cultures, and diverse peoples is at the core of what we do and foundational to how we engage others. Without diversity, we risk mission failure in an arena that is of vital importance to our nation.

NAME: Yaron Schwartz

POSITION: Senior manager at Tent Partnership for Refugees

LOCATION: New York City

Yaron Schwartz

Q: What do you find most challenging about working in national security?

Schwartz: In my current role at the Tent Partnership for Refugees, I am focused on mobilizing the business community to support refugees around the world and do work in multiple countries where unfortunately anti-Semitism and homophobia are prevalent.

I’ve found it challenging being myself in environments that are not accepting of core aspects of my identity. While I’ve done my best to separate my own personal discomfort with my professional work, dealing with homophobia and anti-Semitism has been my biggest challenge working in the national security realm.

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Schwartz: It’s been challenging working as an out LGBT national security practitioner in countries that are homophobic and where it is illegal to be gay. That being said, I’ve also found a great deal of meaning in being able to give back to the LGBTQ community through my professional work. In my current role at the Tent Partnership for Refugees, I’ve been able to make LGBTQ refugees a priority for my organization for the first time as I have been helping to mobilize the business community to support LGBTQ refugees worldwide.

Q: What advice do you have to younger LGBTI Americans interested in Foreign Policy/National Security?

Schwartz: There has never been a better time to be a LGBTQ professional in the foreign policy realm. Given the advancement of LGBTQ rights in the United States and globally, out LGBTQ professionals are able to thrive in their national security careers. I want these young LGBTQ Americans to feel confident pursuing a foreign policy career because we need their voices at the table. That being said, I would also caution them to prioritize their own safety and well-being when traveling abroad, particularly in homophobic and transphobic countries, and find LGBTQ mentors and peers who can help guide them in their foreign policy career.

NAME: Zaid Zaid (On Twitter @ZaidAZaid1)

POSITION: Public Policy, Strategic Response at Facebook, Inc.

LOCATION: Washington, DC
Zaid A Zaid large

Q: What has your experience or challenges been as an out LGBTI national security practitioner?

Zaid: My experience being out in national security has been positive. Earlier in my career—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—I did not see as many visible Out professionals in national security. As such, I probably kept a lower profile than I would have otherwise at the time. I had the benefit of serving with a number of other LGBT Foreign Service officers in the early 2000s, but I think that our voice was still muted, as we served during the Bush administration, which was not supportive of marriage equality and some other LGBT friendly policies.  Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the other hand, made a lot of progress is recognizing LGBT families within the Foreign Service, which was expanded under Secretary Hillary Clinton.  My experience in the Obama administration—both at USAID and at the White House—was light years ahead of where things were when I started my career, and it showed.

Q: Why is diversity important in foreign policy and national security?

Zaid: The diversity—racial, religious, and/or sexual orientation—that exists in the United States is partly what sets us apart from many other countries. That diversity, however, is often not reflected in our foreign policy and national security community. As a country, and as a foreign policy and national security community, we are stronger when that community is made up of people with diverse backgrounds because it leads to critical and creative thinking about issues, challenges, and how to approach them.  For example, in 2014 and 2015 various countries in Africa were passing anti-LGBTI laws, some punishable with death.  In response, a diverse interagency task force from the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense, among others, led by many LGBTI government officials, worked hard to respond to the threat by withholding foreign assistance as well as ensuring that US diplomats in affected countries were supported, protected, and had options about whether to continue serving in those countries. The response may have been different, and possibly muted, if LGBTI professionals had to serve in silence.