The Pink Embassy
As U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest prepares to end his mission to Romania later this year, retrospectives on his service are likely to accentuate the positive. Under his watch, the government in Bucharest remained firmly in the “New Europe” camp: Romania contributed troops to the Iraq War, joined NATO, and was usually strongly aligned with America.
But other observers of his tenure paint a less glowing picture, believing that a changing of the guard at the U.S. embassy is long overdue. Guest’s critics charge that his ambassadorship has sent a different message abroad than most Americans would care to transmit, exporting not democracy or free markets but the sexual revolution.
When Bill Clinton selected the homosexual hot dog heir James Hormel to become ambassador to Luxembourg, it was a highly controversial move. Senate Republican leaders placed a hold on the nomination and forced Clinton to grant Hormel the assignment through a recess appointment. However, criticism of George W. Bush for appointing Guest, an openly gay man, to the post of ambassador to Romania was muted. While party loyalty was a major factor in this contrast, it was also the case that some senators objected to Hormel not due to his sexual orientation as such but rather because he was considered likely to use his ambassadorship as a government-sanctioned platform for gay-rights advocacy. There were no similar concerns about Guest, who was a 20-year career diplomat, lifelong Republican, and former Reagan administration press aide. Yet some Americans serving their country in Romania contend that a transformation in the embassy’s culture took place nevertheless. As the gay marriage debate raged at home, taxpayers began to foot the bill for a de facto civil union in Bucharest.
When Guest was sworn in, Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized his male partner, Alex Nevarez, during the ceremony. Nevarez traveled to Romania with the new ambassador and moved in to live with him at the official diplomatic residence. He accompanied Guest as he presented his credentials to Romanian President Ion Iliescu.
Nevarez was an active participant in both formal and informal embassy events, where he would be introduced to attendees as Guest’s partner. Insiders recalled him attending a Marine Corps ball with the ambassador (something that would have been impermissible for the Marines themselves) and being mentioned in invitations, including a draft of one to be sent for a Fourth of July party at the ambassador’s residence.
All of this would have raised eyebrows as recently as the Clinton administration. One of the main arguments against Hormel was that his lifestyle would offend the Roman Catholic majority in his receiving country. The Orthodox Christians who predominate in Romania have also traditionally disapproved of homosexuality, yet our government sent them an ambassador whose partner is treated as the equivalent of a spouse.
This cultural innovation was not without impact on embassy staff. Cdr. William Dempsey was a career naval officer serving in Bucharest as chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation, managing $40 million in U.S. assistance to the Romanian armed forces. A devout Evangelical Christian and father of five, he had been accustomed to his post being a family-friendly environment. After Guest began his mission, the persistent recognition and endorsement of same-sex partners prevented him from participating in certain events to avoid having to explain homosexuality to his young children.
Dempsey met with Guest to discuss his concerns and identify himself as a source for a January 2002 Family Research Council newsletter article critical of gay activism at the embassy. Guest had reportedly told his staff members that he knew his homosexuality would invite some controversy and was willing to talk to people who were concerned.
Dempsey recalls that the two men had a civil conversation about these issues and the ambassador asserted that he was not interested in promoting any type of “homosexual agenda.” Dempsey told Guest that it was less a matter of his intentions than the tone his behavior set, arguing “as the ambassador, you are the agenda.”
Others put it more strongly. “Suddenly it was like there was a club running things,” said one Foreign Service veteran who had been stationed there. “If you weren’t part of the gay clique, you did not belong.”
According to these observers, Guest’s presence made Bucharest a more attractive assignment for other gays in the Foreign Service. They report that other people’s partners were recognized at embassy events alongside men’s wives and women’s husbands. Advertisements for the annual Christmas party invited not just spouses but partners. Guest set a precedent that would be followed by others, with the cumulative result of lending government support to positions taken by gay-rights advocates.
To be sure, the U.S. embassy in Bucharest under Guest is not the only place where officials grapple with the issues surrounding diplomats and their same-sex partners. A national organization, Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, lists “increasing opportunities for same-sex partners accompanying personnel on assignment overseas” and securing taxpayer-funded health insurance and benefits for the “partners and children of lesbian and gay employees” in its mission statement. Colin Powell has met personally with GLIFAA representatives. Although the electorate continues to debate the merits of government-sanctioned domestic partnerships, they are increasingly supporting them with their tax dollars among government employees.
But the environment in Bucharest does demonstrate the extent to which official recognition of such partnerships has institutional support within the government despite disagreement among the general public. Some Americans posted there felt that it was not feasible to challenge these new practices involving diplomats’ same-sex partners and would therefore not register their complaints.
For his part, a few months after Dempsey made his objections known, he was informed that he would be moved out of Bucharest early. Despite receiving the highest possible marks on his last performance evaluation, conducted before Guest arrived in Romania, he was told verbally that he had become “disruptive to the collegial atmosphere” at the embassy. Officially, however, his reassignment was not attributed to his criticisms of Guest, and Dempsey emphasizes that there was never any formal reprimand or penalty against him.
Others who have worked in Bucharest claim that the cultural shift at the embassy was not limited to the formal approval of same-sex relationships and make graver charges. These witnesses claim that promiscuity among some Americans stationed in Romania increased to levels that threatened to jeopardize the mission’s reputation and subject U.S. government employees to blackmail. They stated that some diplomats were engaging in homosexual relations with Romanian citizens and other foreign nationals.
Such dalliances led some to ridicule the U.S. diplomatic presence in Romania as the “pink embassy” and the “Bucharest bathhouse.” A letter sent by a group of Romanian NGOs and individuals to President Bush and Secretary Powell in January named high-level appointees responsible for having “transformed the U.S. diplomatic addresses in to havens of debauchery,” and further alleges that “(b)ased on reports and pornographic photos circulating around newspapers…” they “… use their privileged positions to corrupt young Romanians, paying them for sexual relations, by both cash and visas to the U.S.” The signatories of this letter include the Union of War Veterans, the National League of December 1989 Combatants, and three former Romanian parliament members.
An erstwhile gay lover of a former high-ranking official at the USAID mission in Bucharest has described such conduct in a sworn statement. He says that he lived with this official for four years in his government housing under the guise of serving as household help. There he claims to have witnessed U.S. government employees engaged in lewd acts and entering into other compromising positions.
According to his deposition, these acts included multiple sexual encounters with young Romanian men, some of whom may have been minors. The high-ranking USAID official’s taxpayer-provided residence was said to be the site of wild sexually charged parties where participants allegedly used drugs and viewed pornography. He states that this official has made sexually explicit photographs of himself available on the Internet. He accuses other officials of paying for sexual favors as well as offering foreign nationals visas in exchange for money or sex. Asked for comment, the USAID press office said it was unaware of any such allegations. Calls to the Inspector General’s office were not returned.
This goes beyond moral and cultural tensions over homosexuality. If true, these serious betrayals of diplomatic responsibility are incompatible with the professional climate required to represent this country abroad effectively. Contrary to a firm U.S. policy against illicit sexual liaisons and the corruption of minors, they would constitute illegal acts using taxpayers’ property and money with the potential to harm national security.
In addition, our national reputation has suffered enough recent damage in Romania due to the case of Kurt Treptow, a prominent historian the U.S. embassy in Bucharest placed on the Fulbright Commission. Yet Treptow was a convicted sex offender. He videotaped himself engaging in sexual acts with children as young as seven, some of whom were allegedly orphans, and was sentenced to seven years in Romanian prison for pedophilia and child abuse.Bucharest Business Week, an American-owned English-language newspaper that has been persistently critical of Guest, has published stories arguing that the incident was not a mere oversight but a symptom of a larger problem with the climate of the embassy. In its tenacious coverage of the scandal, BBW has reported that Guest’s former public affairs officer, Kiki Munshi Skagen, had her writings published by Treptow’s publishing house and then helped select him for the commission. While embassy officials dismiss claims that this was a conflict of interest, saying that personal knowledge should only enhance awareness of a candidate’s qualifications, this familiarity apparently did not help disclose Treptow’s criminal behavior.Defenders of the U.S. mission have responded by claiming that the BBW is journalistically irresponsible and sensationalistic, attempting to create a scandal where none exists. The embassy’s current public affairs officer, Mark Wentworth, has described the publication as “inexplicably inclined toward” conspiracy theories. But the incident remains a potential drag on Romanian public perceptions of the embassy.
This obviously does not necessarily mean that appointing an ambassador of a certain sexual orientation leads directly to a total collapse in standards of behavior, as even some critics of the current state of affairs at the embassy in Bucharest concede. Dempsey, for example, told TAC he had no direct knowledge of any of the more lurid allegations and does not believe that Guest would condone such activities.Whoever is posted as U.S. ambassador to Romania will be responsible for maintaining acceptable standards of conduct. Whether redefining marriage and the family to include nontraditional arrangements would have any impact on their ability to do so is something Americans are presently discussing. There is a reason this debate is occurring and why bureaucrats with control of taxpayer dollars and an international platform should not seek to circumvent it.