The State Department has reversed course on its visa requirements for same-sex partners of foreign diplomats and the staff of U.S.-based international organizations. On Monday, it implemented a policy denying visas to such partners if they're not legally married.
U.S. diplomats had announced the decision to foreign delegations in July, saying the move is intended to render department policy consistent between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Previously, under a policy instituted in 2009 under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "domestic partners" were considered members of the family — and thus eligible for a G-4 visa.
But on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, senior administration officials emphasized said they undertook a change in policy to accommodate the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
"The purpose of the policy is the equal treatment of all family members and couples," one official said. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to address the policy at her regular briefing with reporters Tuesday.
LGBTQ activists, for their part, have expressed alarm that the move will actually harm these couples, many of whom hail from countries where same-sex marriage is illegal. Without a legal marriage, and thus without a visa, such partners face the threat of deportation; but activists point out that if they get legally married to stay in the U.S., they could also face persecution upon returning to their home country.
Same-sex marriage remains illegal in the vast majority of United Nations member states — some of which, such as Saudi Arabia, which is on friendly terms with the U.S., punish same-sex relationships with the death penalty.
"It is an unfortunate change in rules, since same-sex couples, unlike opposite-sex couples, have limited choices when it comes to marriage," U.N. Globe, a group that advocates for LGBT staff at the U.N., said in a statement released before the change.
The organization recommended that partners living in New York City "consider getting married in City Hall" before Dec. 31. After year's end, the Trump administration expects unmarried partners to change visa status or leave in 30 days.
But Human Rights Watch also noted that getting married in the U.S. still poses dangers back at home for many foreigners.
"In many situations registering a marriage could put same-sex couples at risk in a way that privately providing evidence of a domestic partnership would not have done," said Akshaya Kumar, the organization's deputy U.N. director.
"One Nigerian man (not a UN staffer) who married his same-sex partner abroad reported that both he and his family members in Nigeria received death threats as a result. Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia, Uganda, Russia and many other countries have arrested people for same-sex conduct."
According to administration officials, the change directly impacts 105 families, roughly half of whom are connected with international organizations based in the U.S. such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.
Officials, however, say they "will put processes in place" for supporting unmarried partners, pledging to consider situations on a case-by-case basis.
They noted one particular exception to the new policy: The administration is prepared to work with diplomats from countries where same-sex marriage is illegal, provided the country offers equivalent protections to LGBTQ diplomats from the U.S.
"This is certainly not an attack. It was not meant as an attack; it is not meant to be punitive," another Trump administration official explained. "It is a recognition and a codification of the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States."
Explanations such as these have failed to persuade the Human Rights Campaign, which called the policy change "unnecessary, mean-spirited, and unacceptable."
"The White House must immediately go back to a policy that is fully inclusive and takes into account the dangers faced by LGBTQ foreign diplomats, U.N. employees, and their families," said David Stacy, government affairs director for the gay-rights advocacy group.
Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under the Obama administration, also reacted with outrage to the news — decrying the move as "needlessly cruel & bigoted."