The Struggle for Equal Rights: LGBTQ Advocacy in the Foreign Service
While working at the U.S. embassy in Seychelles in 1985, David Buss fell in love with a Peace Corps volunteer, David Larson. After their relationship became common knowledge, Buss was investigated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Allegedly, the State Department was concerned that foreign persons could blackmail Buss because of his sexual orientation. Buss did not buy this. He said that the investigation was a “witch hunt,” meant to intimidate him and to identify other LGBTQ+ State Department personnel. Buss soon learned of dozens of other similar ongoing investigations. He decided to take action.
In 1992, Buss and Larson hosted a now-famous brunch—bringing together federal employees from several different departments—in an effort to establish an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. After a series of meetings, the “Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies” (GLIFAA) was formed. Buss was the first president. The founding members were so worried about the consequences of these meetings that one of the first rules of the organization was that there would be “no outing of or speculation about anyone present at the meeting or not present.” GLIFAA fought hard for concrete non-discrimination policies and for official recognition of their romatic partners. After founding GLIFAA, serving as its president, and nurturing the organization through its formative years, Buss retired from the State Department in 2006. He was finally able to marry Larson four years later.
David Buss was born and grew up in Homewood, Illinois. After high school, he was recruited by the CIA. While visiting his girlfriend in Kinshasa a few years later, Buss was offered a job working for the embassy’s commissary, which he accepted. He went on to serve as a GSO in Port-au-Prince, Dar es Salaam, and Nouakchott. While working as the Chargé d’affaires in Seychelles, Buss met and fell in love with his future husband, David Larson. Buss eventually returned to Washington, where he passed the Foreign Service exam and became an FSO in 1992. He continued to work in embassies across the world, finally ending up at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Buss retired in 2006 and moved to Poughkeepsie, New York with Larson, where they live to this day.
David Buss was interviewed by Mark Tauber on March 15, 2016. Read the full oral history HERE.
Drafted By: Elise Bousquette.
“This was my really first encounter with an American who was . . . not at all squeamish in his sexual orientation. It began to give me thoughts of my own long-suppressed suspicions that I probably was gay as well.”
A Budding Relationship: [T]here was a new contingent of Peace Corps volunteers that arrived [in Seychelles] about six months after Nancy [Buss’s wife] and I had been at post, and among those volunteers was David Larson, who was training science teachers . . . . During the course of our friendship David disclosed–he wasn’t very public about it–but he disclosed that he was gay. This was my really first encounter with an American who was very proud, highly educated, and not at all squeamish in his sexual orientation. It began to give me thoughts of my own long-suppressed suspicions that I probably was gay as well.
. . . . David was there for our 13th anniversary party. It wasn’t long after that that basically I think I realized I was falling in love with him and certain about my orientation.
With great difficulty, I disclosed to Nancy what had happened and that I felt that I could no longer sort of live a lie, deceive the world for what I really was and, although I loved her very much, and continued to love her, and we remain the best friends even today, we decided we needed to separate.
. . . . [A] few months after Nancy’s departure, the Peace Corps representative, who had been an avid tennis partner of Nancy’s, realized what was going on, and that Nancy hadn’t just left for another job in Washington. She found that David and I were having a relationship. She decided to have him removed from the Peace Corps for his inappropriate lifestyle. So, that transpired and by this time, of course, everyone on the island seemed to be learning about our relationship. It was a very uncomfortable time.
“They wanted dates of my first encounters, and people with whom I had an encounter, and did I know anyone else who was gay in the Foreign Service. It was a witch hunt.”
The Investigation Begins: It was in ’89 that learned from Nancy that SY [the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Security] was investigating an allegation of my sexual orientation. They had learned, apparently a regional security officer had learned on a visit to the Seychelles that, I believe it was from a secretary that was out there, that I had had an affair with a Peace Corps volunteer. They asked Nancy what she knew about it. She telephoned me to tell me that I was being investigated and I was furious. That’s the way they went about it. I called security to find out why a criminal investigation division of security was going to my ex-wife to investigate an allegation rather than coming to me. It was the criminal investigation division of SY that handled this. I went to an initial interview when they began asking a number of very personal questions. I said I would like to return to complete the interview with a representative of AFSA [American Foreign Service Association] and a lawyer. They said that would be fine and that’s, in fact, what eventually happened.
Q: In the initial interview did they describe the reasons they were investigating you?
. . . . They claim that what they had to do, let me see if I’ve got it here . . . . The disclosure I would have to sign during my first interview: ‘This is an official administrative inquiry regarding misconduct or improper performance of official duties. This inquiry pertains to an allegation that the employee is a homosexual.’ They wanted to ‘obtain information which would assist in the determination of whether administrative action is warranted, to determine suitability for assignments to certain sensitive positions or to geographic areas.’
. . . . The agent actually stated that the Department [of State] does not view homosexuality as a problem per se, as long as the individual is up front about it and is on record as being a homosexual. The thing they are concerned about, this is verbatim, is that ‘if it is not on record, that a foreign government or foreign intelligence service would discover it, they could possibly use it against the individual to the detriment of the U.S. Government’ . . . .
It was necessary for them to establish that I had not had an affair with a foreign national and that I had disclosed my orientation to friends and family, so that I would not be subject to, if you will, vulnerable to blackmail. Anyway, I raised many objections to the course that the questions were taking. They wanted dates of my first encounters, and people with whom I had an encounter, and did I know anyone else who was gay in the Foreign Service. It was a witch hunt. Not only did I decline these, they told me that I needed a statement in my file that clearly laid out the sexual orientation and that I was not vulnerable to blackmail as a result of it. So I prepared the statement, but then the agent said they didn’t have to have a statement after all. Anyway, I thought he was acting duplicitously. Fortunately, by this time, I guess I was an FSO-01, but I’d been in the service 15 years and knew enough people, was respected by enough people in relatively high places that I decided, although I hadn’t previously wanted to make an issue out of my orientation, that I didn’t think it was fair that I was being singled out for this invasive line of questioning and behavior and that I wanted to do something about it . . . .
. . . . Meanwhile, after I had the company of the AFSA attorney in my interview with the security agents, I told them that if anyone else came to them with a similar concern that they should please contact me and I would be happy to assist them to assuage whatever feeling they have to try to work together to resolve any questions that they might be having about their continued employment. Again, this was ’89, and it was over the course of the next, I would say, 18 months that I learned, much to my surprise, that there were like a dozen others who either were in the midst of an investigation or had been investigated and had gone through similar interviews as I had. This culminated in the famous brunch that David and I hosted in the spring of ’92.
“There was enormous fear still among most of us that outing could be detrimental.”
Buss Fights Back: Q: [Y]ou had mentioned the famous brunch. This was the sort of first founding meeting? Let’s pick up there because this is now a pretty historic moment. It’s a group of other people, principally gay men?
The first meeting was all men. Most of the meetings were all men. We had input from females, but for the most part they preferred not to attend.
Q: So, the initial bunch you’re talking about establishing a professional organization?
Yes . . . . We have the alliance with AFSA on our side to help guide up but also, again, I knew enough people in the administration that I could also benefit from their guidance.
. . . . Everyone at that brunch knew someone else or multiple people who either had had experiences similar to ours or could be helpful in establishing the organization, including a couple of really great legal minds who volunteered to take on the drafting of by-laws.
Q: So, this was 1992 when you had the initial meeting. As I recall, there were one or two at least additional organizational meetings.
Oh, yes. The first meeting was called, I think, maybe, for a couple of weeks later to which everyone who knew someone was invited to attend. We had people showing interest from outside of State as well.
… In the early days it was a cluster of mostly State generalists, most of whom had experiences similar to my own, but, as one might expect, there had often been a foreign national involved. So their cases were less cut and dried and there was one also which, unfortunately, we tried to keep our distance from who was alleged to have had a relationship with a minor.
By word of mouth, those of us who attended that brunch in early March of ’92 disseminated information that there would be a general meeting and I believe that meeting took place the following month. Surprisingly, we had more than 50 show up at that first meeting. That would have been in April of ’92. There was a unanimous vote to incorporate and employ the organization with the goal of working to advance the objective of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
We developed a draft statement of purpose to determine that we needed to do research first on those foreign laws and other agency regulations and treatments of gays and lesbians; to determine that we really needed to do outreach both in the Department and on the Hill (i.e., Congress) and other agencies, and of course have a social committee as well. One of the very, very first standing rules would be that there would be no outing of or speculation about anyone present at the meeting or not present – no disclosure of anybody who did or didn’t show up at a meeting. There was enormous fear still among most of us that outing could be detrimental.
“Dear Friend, I’m sure that by now I’m not the first to tell you how he almost swallowed his gum upon discovering the article ‘Gays in the Foreign Service’”
The Accomplishments of GLIFAA: [C]an I read you the opening line of a letter we received from somebody stationed abroad in Budapest?
Q: Of course, yes please!
This is dated July 17th, 1992. ‘Dear Friend, I’m sure that by now I’m not the first to tell you how he almost swallowed his gum upon discovering the article ‘Gays in the Foreign Service’in the July issue of the Foreign Service Journal.’ He goes on to explain his history of being out and honest about his sexual orientation and the few obstacles that he had faced over the course of his career. Anyway, he was just actually delighted that there was suddenly going to be voice for our group. The agenda then for the next meeting, by which time we had already come up with a draft set of by-laws and statement of principles, we developed, describing the formation of the group, the issues, the objectives, our strategy for success, security issues, partner issues, and how to form core agenda for the year ahead. Elections were held and I was voted in as first president
. . . . [W]e worked very, very swiftly on a number of items and in our first official newsletter, which only appeared in February of ’93. We had held meetings already not only with AFSA, but the Under Secretary for Management, the Director General, the Assistant Secretary for DS [Diplomatic Security], and the Deputy Director of the State Transition Team [the team managing the transition in the State Department from one Presidential Administration to the next] for the incoming Clinton Administration. All of them, at that point, had received a copy of our statement of principles and briefed on why we had to come together. We had also, by this time, received assurances from Tony Quainton [Anthony C.E. Quainton], the head of Diplomatic Security at the time, that he was putting an end to the investigation of sexual orientation per se as a specific requirement for investigation.
We had already begun developing a list of priorities for ourselves and for the treatment of our partners. At that point we were looking at only no cost to the Department or government, or benefits. Unfortunately, that continued for easily, almost a decade, I think. We kept getting rebuffed every time that we requested a benefit; if a benefit might appear to cost, we were rebuffed and we were always told it was because of OPM [U.S. Office of Personnel Management] regulations or OMB [White House Office of Management and Budget], one of the two, and that the Department [of State] had its hands tied . . . .
We pushed and pushed the Department to come out with a statement of policy with respect to discrimination employment and got a very lukewarm draft only in the spring of ’94. It wasn’t until Clinton issued an executive order [in the summer of ’95] that the Department accepted our suggested change and came out with a clear policy of non-discrimination. Again, that had nothing to do with recognition of our partners yet. It was significantly later that the members of household issues got the attention of management in the Department . . . .
So, I don’t know what more I can tell you specifically about GLIFAA during that period other than it really was, obviously, the formative years. I think it became a legitimate employee group with a clear agenda during those days.
. . . . I will tell you one other thing that I am contemplating, going through all the files, made me think seriously about wondering whether we have a class action case for reparations. The financial and emotional costs of dealing with the relocations of our family members were significant and, ‘though we were always told that it would require a change in law, same-sex partner recognition and accompanying benefits were awarded with the stroke of a pen by Secretary Clinton.
“[Larson] and I were offered “dates” with Miss Estonia and her runner-up. We . . . concluded they clearly were not particularly well-informed of events at our residence.”
Fond Memories: From my days as GLIFAA president, I had kept in touch with representatives of ILGA [International Lesbian and Gay Alliance] and learned that their annual meeting of ’95 would take place in Helsinki between Christmas and New Year’s. Helsinki was just across the Baltic from Tallinn – a ferry ride of 90 minutes. Following their meeting, they planned to ring in the New Year in Tallinn – again with a party at the tractor factory/disco. Some thirty or so ILGA representatives, from throughout the world, made the trip to Tallinn and we had a wonderful time celebrating both the New Year and progress on ILGA’s agenda during the preceding year. Since they were not scheduled to return to Helsinki until January 2, David and I invited the group to join us for a buffet at our house New Year’s Day. We scrambled home and thawed the two turkeys we had in our basement freezer, raided our consumables pantry for pounds of rice and canned vegetables, threw together a couple of sheet cakes and had what we thought was a generous meal for the throngs. ILGA reps from Japan, Greece, Russia, Turkey, Netherlands and many other countries I can no longer recall, all came together and marveled at our Christmas tree, the CD collection (Streisand and Midler are beloved everywhere!) and not least, the food and drink. Once again, the sauna was fired up and an amazing evening of cross-cultural relations was lived and we are still in contact with members of the group.
Just before our departure from Estonia, the security firm that provided guards for our residences—also presumed to be keeping tabs on us—was celebrating their foundation’s anniversary and David and I were invited as guests of honor. In a pull-aside at the conclusion of the party, David and I were offered “dates” with Miss Estonia and her runner-up. We declined the gracious offer, but concluded they clearly were not particularly well-informed of events at our residence.
. . . . Upon my retiring in September 2006, David and I left Manhattan for Poughkeepsie, NY . . . where we purchased a sprawling 100-year old home on nearly an acre of land . . . .
We garden, cook, and entertain extensively. A tradition born in Seychelles, where David and I first met, of hosting a Thanksgiving for anyone with no place to go continued for decades. We still host an annual “proper dress” Christmas Eve cocktail to keep the stemware in active service—morning-after entails hand-washing up to 90 stems. David and I married in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 2010 and spent July of that year visiting old FS [Foreign Service] haunts and acquaintances in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
Graduate of Airline Technical Training School 1970–1971
Entered the Foreign Service Reserve 1977
Port-au-Prince, Haiti—GSO 1979–1982
Victoria, Seychelles—Chargé d’affaires 1985–1988
Entered the Foreign Service 1992
Tallinn, Estonia—Special Embassy Program Deputy Chief of Mission 1994–1996
Vienna, Austria—Deputy Administrative Counselor 1996–2000
New York City, New York—U.S. Mission to the UN 2002–2006