Gay Marriage

State Department Demands Spouses of Gay Diplomats, U.N. Staff Get Legally Married to Visit—Even if They Can't

An absurdly petty intersection of anti-gay and anti-foreigner policies.


Gay United Nations flag
Micha Klootwijk /

The State Department has implemented a new policy requiring gay foreign diplomats and United Nations staffers to be legally married in order to get visas for their spouses. This is sparking a bit of anger, because some of them simply can't do that.

After legal recognition of gay marriages became the law of the land, states, companies, and institutions began winding down programs providing benefits for the "domestic partnership" systems they had set up as an alternative. Gay couples would now need to tie the knot if they wanted to be treated the same as straight couples.

That is, on the surface, what appears to be happening with the State Department. In a letter sent in July, which attracted more widespread notice after former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted about it last Friday, the State Department announced that it is ending a nine-year-old program allowing nonimmigrant travel visas for same-sex domestic partners to join their loved ones in the United States. Starting yesterday, if these partners want come to the U.S., they have to be legally married in order to qualify for the visas.

But gay marriage is still not legally recognized in most countries. Just 28 countries legally recognize gay marriages, either across the whole nation or in certain jurisdictions within them. And letter makes it clear that a marriage must be legally recognized in the couple's home country to count. They can't come to America, tie the knot here, and then get visas.

There is an exception, and it's a bit strange. If a country doesn't recognize gay marriages, but nevertheless treats same-sex couples from the United States the same as married heterosexual couples, the State Department will issue a visa:

As a matter of principle and reciprocity, in countries where same-sex marriage is not legally available and the sending State is unable to accept the accreditation of the same-sex spouses of members of the U.S. diplomatic and consular posts abroad, the same-sex domestic partner would not be eligible for the derivative A-1 or A-2 visa and will not be accepted for accreditation as a member of the family forming part of the household, eligible for the same privileges and immunities as a spouse while the principal serves in the United States.

Partners have until the end of the year to get married or go home.

When the Washington Blade (a gay publication in D.C.) took note of the letter in August, a State Department official told it that the change is about "promoting fairness." The people affected don't see it that way. Alfonso Nam—the president of UN-GLOBE, an advocacy group for gay and transgender U.N. employees—told the Blade this policy of "fairness" will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the partners of some gay diplomats and U.N. staffers to remain in the United States.

"With this decision, the U.S. State Department is imposing the standard of marriage over all other forms of legal unions," Nam told the Blade. "This will have a negative impact on same-sex couples working for the U.N. who already face limited choices when it comes to being able to get married."

Foreign Policy reports that the change will affect at least 10 United Nations employees. Such a small number highlights how weirdly cruel and unnecessary the policy change is. There is not some big flood of foreigners in fake gay relationships using their jobs with the United Nations to sneak their way into the country. And if the intent is to try to encourage other countries to recognize marriage too, there certainly aren't enough people being affected to be influential in any way.

Instead it comes off as a pointless, petty change designed to hurt a handful of gay families from other countries. It's another piece of evidence that President Donald Trump's administration isn't just waging some war on illegal immigration; it is hostile even to legal immigration—and even, in this case, to long-term foreign visitors.