More than 100 days into his presidency, President Biden has yet to name picks for a multitude of ambassadorial positions in a delay unusual for a presidency at this stage, raising questions about whether he’ll miss an opportunity to exhibit America’s LGBTQ community overseas through the appointment of the first-ever lesbian and transgender person as ambassadors.
Many of these ambassadorial vacancies, which complement the diplomatic corps of the U.S. government to serve as a representation of American diversity overseas, are in key positions. Nearly 90 ambassadorial positions, including sought-after posts in Israel, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy and China, remain vacant according to an April article in USA Today.
The delay in ambassadorial appointments appears to come from pressure on Biden to refrain from the traditional practice of naming donors who bundled for his presidential campaign to the prestigious posts as opposed to foreign policy experts. Biden declined during his campaign to commit to refusing to reward donors with ambassadorial appointments, but the issue has taken hold in progressive circles.
On the other hand, many donors and bundlers for Biden’s presidential campaign were LGBTQ people, who would reasonably expect an ambassadorial appointment as a reward for helping get Biden to the White House.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, under questioning from the Washington Blade on Tuesday on whether Biden is missing an opportunity to name lesbian and transgender ambassadors in historic firsts, urged patience.
“Given we haven’t named many ambassadors quite yet — and we hope to soon; stay tuned — certainly the president looks to ensuring that the people representing him, not just in the United States, but around the world, represent the diversity of the country, and that certainly includes people who are LGBTQ, members of the transgender community,” Psaki said.
Asked to clarify her definition of “soon” in this context — whether it means days, weeks, or months — Psaki declined to provide a more definite timeline.
“I think it depends on when the president makes some decisions,” Psaki said. “And he’ll continue to consider a range of options for a lot of the positions that are out there and still remain vacant.”
At the same time, Psaki made a point to commend the work of Foreign Service officers at the State Department with whom Biden has sought to restore trust after years of scorn from former President Trump.
“I will say, having served at the State Department for a couple of years, there are incredible career service employees who are serving in these embassies around the world who are representing the United States and our values.” Psaki said. “That continues to be the case, but, of course, we’re eager to have ambassadors in place and confirmed to represent the president and the vice president and the United States.”
The appointment of members of the LGBTQ community to ambassadorships has a significant place in the movement’s history. In 1998, Jim Hormel became the first openly gay person to serve as U.S. ambassador after being named U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. But the victory came after a struggle when anti-gay senators, including the late Jesse Helms, refused to confirm Hormel explicitly because he’s gay. President Clint0n ended up appointing Hormel as an ambassador through a recess appointment, which averted the need for Senate confirmation.
Presidents regardless of party have achieved historic firsts with the appointment of openly gay men as ambassadors. Michael Guest in the George W. Bush administration was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Romania, making him the first openly gay person to obtain Senate confirmation for an ambassadorship. Former President Obama over the course of two terms appointed a record seven openly gay men as ambassadors, including John Berry as U.S. ambassador to Australia and Daniel Baer as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.
Richard Grenell, named by President Trump as U.S. ambassador to Germany, currently has the distinction of being the openly gay person with the most prestigious ambassadorial appointment. Consistent with his reputation as a firebrand on social media, Grenell hit Germany hard as ambassador to compel the G-5 country to meet its military spending obligations as a NATO partner. Grenell has something to show for his efforts: The country began to spend closer to 2 percent of its GDP on defense.
And yet for all these appointments, no president has ever named an open lesbian or trans woman for a position as U.S. ambassador, an oversight that stands out after the rapid progress on LGBTQ rights in recent years. At a time when transgender rights are in focus amid anti-trans attacks in state legislatures, the appointment of an openly transgender ambassador would also send a signal of solidarity with the transgender community.
There’s no indication Biden won’t appoint an LGBTQ person for a position as U.S. ambassador, which could be an easy achievement from him with the LGBTQ community, but the delay raises questions on whether or not they will happen, in addition to keeping the diplomatic corps from being fully staffed and functional.
Moreover, the position of LGBTQ international liaison at the State Department, a position Biden campaigned on filling after Trump let the position remain vacant, remains unfilled. During the Obama years, Randy Berry served in that role and travelled internationally to work with LGBTQ groups overseas and demonstrate U.S. solidarity with them.
It’s unclear why the international LGBTQ liaison position continues to remain vacant within the Biden administration. A State Department spokesperson referred the Blade on Wednesday back to the White House on potential LGBTQ ambassadorial appointments or the international LGBTQ liaison role.
To be sure, Biden has made several key LGBTQ appointments in the limited time in his presidency. Among them are Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, making him the first-ever openly gay person to win Senate confirmation for a Cabinet-level role, and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health, which made her the first openly transgender person to win Senate confirmation for any presidential appointment.
In the past few weeks alone, Biden has signaled he’d name openly lesbian and transgender people to high-ranking civilian positions at the Defense Department. Brenda Sue Fulton, a lesbian activist who fought to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the transgender military ban, got the nod as assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, while Shawn Skelly, a transgender national security expert who served in the Air Force for 20 years as a Naval Flight Officer, obtained the nod to become assistant secretary of defense for readiness. Meanwhile, Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Iraq war veteran who twice ran to represent Texas’ 23rd congressional district, was nominated to become Air Force under secretary.
Even the State Department itself has a person from the LGBTQ community serving as its public face. Ned Price, who conducts daily briefings with the media as State Department spokesperson, is the first openly gay person to serve in that prominent position.
The LGBTQ Victory Institute, which at the start of the Biden administration had signaled the appointment of a lesbian, transgender person and LGBTQ person of color as U.S. ambassadors were among its goals, expressed confidence Biden would name these appointments in due time.
“President Biden will roll out his picks for ambassadorships over the next few months and it presents an incredible opportunity to choose diverse and groundbreaking LGBTQ nominees,” said Ruben Gonzales, executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. “As President Biden has already made history with the number of LGBTQ women and transgender people he has nominated for Senate-confirmed positions, we predict this commitment to LGBTQ diversity will continue when ambassadors are nominated. The impact of our first LGBTQ women ambassadors, first LGBTQ ambassadors of color and first trans ambassadors would be enormous – an impact not lost on the Biden administration.”