Here is an interesting piece about Judith Gough, HM Ambassador to Ukraine, who is accompanied on her posting by her female civil partner: “the first full discussion with a member of the press about life as an out-and-proud ambassador”.
Note the desperate improvisation of the FCO scouring its sprawling building for a simple interview with a senior colleague:
The lift will not take us to the third floor where our designated room awaits. Or the next lift. Or the next. The staircase is blocked off. And the next one. The entire floor, unbeknown to anyone, has been closed. Then a door handle comes off in BuzzFeed News’ hand. The press officer looks mortified. He apologises. When we try to get a coffee from the internal café, the queue is too long for us to wait. He apologises again. We walk and walk and cannot find a room anywhere…
The interview is interesting on many counts. Not least its clever unearthing of my extended 2010 piece for the Independent on the history of the FCO’s evolving attitudes towards homosexuality:
In the 1980s, the Foreign Office, like the rest of Whitehall, was busy implementing the recommendations of a National Security Commission which had identified “character defects” exposing a person to blackmail or undue influence by a foreign hostile intelligence service. These included male homosexual tendencies “which may remain latent or manifest themselves in a broader gamut of forms from inconspicuous stable relationships through promiscuity or exhibitionism to paederasty”. The report, warmly welcomed by the Thatcher government, recommended that homosexuality be a bar to recruitment to the FCO. If homosexuality came to light, the officer concerned might have to leave. A story circulated that a young male UK diplomat in apartheid South Africa had been quietly asked to leave post because of an affair with a black ballet dancer – not so much the fact that he was black, but because he was male.
Finally, after the press officer’s chair collapses, the interview starts:
We pause for a moment, air cleared, and start again. Diplomats are famed, if nothing else, for gliding through social situations like silver service waiters.
What? I think they mean to say: ‘Diplomats are famed for, if nothing else, gliding …’
The glissando quality of diplomats happily established, the interview gets going:
But what happens at a reception in Ukraine when Gough is introduced with her female partner?
“You get used to the double take,” she says. “But I get that for a couple of reasons. One is because often when I’m introduced to people they think I am the ambassador’s wife. So I get the double take. I’ve had said to me, ‘Oh, but you’re young and female, you can’t be the ambassador.’ And then if you introduce a female partner, yes, you get another double take. But on the whole in those situations people are polite.”
Gough says that in the countries in which she has served – South Korea, Georgia, and now Ukraine – she has not encountered problems from those hosting her but instead “the reaction of other diplomats from other countries. I’ve had some quite biting comments.”
Read the whole thing. Ms Gough gives a businesslike account of herself and the policy issues involved in sending a lesbian civil partnership couple at ambassadorial level to a country like Ukraine, where ‘Western’ liberal social policies are, putting it mildly, controversial:
Last week, Human Rights First issued a letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, calling on him to raise concerns with his Ukrainian counterparts over the possible cancellation of the Equality Festival. Ambassador Pyatt spoke out in support of Ukraine’s LGBT community.
“Ukraine’s LGBT community is under attack, and the Ukrainian government and police forces are not doing enough to protect their basic human rights,” said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord. “We thank Ambassador Pyatt for publicly supporting the rights of Ukraine’s LGBT community, and urge the U.S. government to press Ukraine to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions.”
… Human Rights First notes that there is a possibility for similar violence to occur during Kiev Pride, which is scheduled to take place in June, and calls on the United States to work to support the rights and protection of Ukraine’s LGBT community.
Not all her colleagues on the Kyiv diplomatic circuit are supportive:
But what does Gough say when other ambassadors fling judgements at her?
“A couple of things,” she begins, “One is: I’m here because I’m good at my job and I have the right expertise, and the second is: I represent the UK and we are a diverse country based on a certain set of values. I therefore reflect that country.”
It’s diverse/democratic from the UK government point of view to send a lesbian couple to lead the UK’s official diplomatic presence in Ukraine. But is it principled or wise?
Part of me wonders about the current criteria for choosing which countries are not going to be deemed suitable for such diversity:
“To be sure, Sir. The situation is as follows. The relevant Departments advise that we should not fly this particular flag on an Embassy or High Commission in any country where gay rights are, er, lacking, diminished or controversial. If we did, the locals could well think we were mocking and/or patronising them in a public, insolent way. Unwise. And, dare I suggest, counter-productive. This naturally rules out all of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and much of Latin America.”
“I suppose so. Therefore?”
“Well, Russia and CIS countries are out for similar reasons, as are all Muslim countries. In our multilateral missions such as the UN/EU/NATO this ingenious gesture could provoke controversy – and possibly also adverse publicity – on a scale and intensity which might be … unhelpful.”
“The best available advice suggests that this would not be well received, Sir. Not in an election year.”
“But crikey, every year is an election year in the USA!”
“What about the Balkans?”
“Again, too prone to excitable over-reaction, Sir. All that grilled meat, no doubt. Although some Montenegrin men are tall, dark and, well, very … dishy!”
“Calm down, Carruthers. So what are we left with?”
“The best place for such a gesture is an unthreatening part of the world. A bland, Bambiland area where religious pieties plus national identities and symbols and thus the role of national embassies are all essential targets of postmodern pastiche. Where Uncontestable Principles favouring gayness and queeritude in all their most luxuriant manifestations are now paramount, if not yet unambiguously obligatory.”
“You are, I think, talking about the European Union?”
“Precisely so, Sir. It is most gratifying if not humbling that you follow my chain of reasoning with such precision.”
Now that Ukraine is now (at long last) formally accepted by the EU at least as being part of the ‘European’ space, Ukraine too gets this gay favoured nation treatment from London. Putinist Russia rubs its hands and stirs up an equal and opposite reaction wherever it can, jeering at ‘Western decadence‘ as a way of denigrating Europe’s wider political and philosophical appeal.
The hard fact remains that the FCO would not consider posting Judith Gough and her partner to many countries in Africa or the Middle East. Why? Because the host governments and wider populations would treat this posting as an explicit official insult to their values and traditions, and make that clear. The Ambassador’s local professional credibility and impact would be close to zero: HMG is prioritising its so-called liberal values over respect for us – to hell with them and their ridiculous diplomats!
Instead the FCO, arguably in a sensitive step-by-step way, sends such couples to countries where it concludes that the official position on gay rights is at least reasonably open, whatever the local population might think. See eg China. Ukraine now is in a brutal struggle over its role in the greater civilisational scheme of things, but it has signed up officially to ‘modern European values’ as part of its aims for deeper integration with the European Union, so those values is what it gets from London.
This in turn seems to reflect a curious unspoken patronising if not nervous ‘double standard’. It’s OK to shake a fist of EU gay rights policy defiance at the Orthodox churches of central and eastern Europe. And at any mainly Catholic country, including the Vatican itself.
Not, of course, at Islam. God forbid.