As U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius deals with geopolitical concerns like China’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea. But the personal can also be political when Osius introduces his husband, Clayton Bond, and speaks of their adopted children.
“We are here to celebrate family. Family is acceptance. Family is love,” Osius told a cheering throng at a U.S.-sponsored festival last week to promote the cause of gay civil rights across Southeast Asia.
With the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans the last major outstanding case to be decided this term by the U.S. Supreme Court, some gay rights activists are saying that even a defeat would do little to slow the global momentum of their cause in part because of Obama administration policies -- and diplomats like Osius.
As a same-sex couple with children in diapers, Osius, 54, and Bond, 38, are in the vanguard of the civil rights movement known as LGBT -- shorthand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The Obama administration has pressed the LGBT cause internationally since a 2009 speech by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she declared “gay rights are human rights.”
While an anti-gay backlash has grown in the Arab world, Russia and many other nations, the cause of gay rights has made strides globally that once seemed implausible. Voters in Ireland, a Catholic nation, recently endorsed same-sex marriage. Osius is pressing for greater LGBT acceptance in Vietnam, where the first gay pride parade took place four years ago.
Two years ago, the authoritarian government here decriminalized same-sex unions and is now considering broader LGBT issues. The nation has proven receptive to the ambassador’s unconventional family, said activist Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute of Social Studies, Economics and Environment.
“Their beautiful family strikes down many stigmas,” Binh said. “They excite many people, especially youth, to accept differences and respect other people’s choices and rights. Above all they inspire LGBT communities for fight for their rights.”
Osius, a career foreign service officer who helped open the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in 1995 and is fluent in the language, is one of six openly gay ambassadors appointed by Obama, including one as a special envoy for human rights of LGBT persons. That’s five more gay ambassadors than the one each who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Of the current six, all but Osius were political appointees from outside the foreign service.
Osius also championed gay rights within the State Department. When he entered the foreign service in the mid-1980s, the discovery of homosexuality would result in the revocation of security clearances. Many careers had been ruined before Osius and some colleagues founded a group known as Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. In 1993, the State Department dropped discriminatory policies while, with greater attention, the Clinton administration applied the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mantra to the military.
Change came in fits and starts. When Clinton nominated Hormel Foods heir James Hormel as envoy to Luxembourg, Republican senators angrily refused to consider him, and Hormel ultimately assumed the post on a recess appointment. A few years later, when openly gay career diplomat Michael Guest was named ambassador to Romania, gays were impressed that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell introduced Guest’s partner with the respect accorded a spouse.
But when Guest retired in 2007, he pointedly criticized Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, on the issue of benefits for same-sex couples. Guest said he “felt compelled to choose between obligations to my partner -- who is my family-- and service to my country.”
It was at a Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies gathering in 2004 that Osius first met Bond, who had come out a few years earlier at age 24. Two years later, they were married in Canada.
While Osius has a broad portfolio of concerns, Bond, who is on leave from the State Department and is working toward a law degree, has assumed the role of unofficial LGBT ambassador.
Their family reflects diversity in other ways: Osius is white, Bond is African-American and their 19-month-old son and 3-month-old daughter are Latino.
The children are biological siblings. Bond said they were adjusting to life with an infant son when they received word that the boy’s birth mother was again pregnant and wondering if they’d consider a second child.
Bond said they hope to set an example. On a recent day at the U.S. ambassador’s official residence in Hanoi, he proudly watched as workmen replaced the familiar signage on foyer restrooms from men and women to a new symbol for “gender neutral” -- an image that depicts a figure divided vertically with a skirt on one side and pants on the other.
“It makes me so happy,” Bond said. “This is all about affirming people’s dignity.”