The Washington Times - February 4, 2009, 05:01PM

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised gay diplomats Wednesday to work toward securing better rights and benefits for them and their partners, whose treatment is now much worse than that of married straight couples.

During her first town hall meeting with State Department employees since taking office two weeks ago, Mrs. Clinton pledged to look for ways to provide “training, benefits and protections” to same-sex partners who accompany Foreign Service officers to overseas posts.

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“This is an issue of real concern to me. Even though all of our personnel share the same service requirements, the partners in same-sex relationships are not offered the same training, the same benefits and the same protections that other family members receive when you serve abroad,” she said. “I view this as an issue of workplace fairness, employee retention, and the safety and effectiveness of our embassy communities worldwide.”

Currently, same-sex partners are designated as “members of household,” which allows them to live with diplomats in government-funded housing but offers no other benefits. For example, they have to pay for their transportation when traveling to a new post, while the State Department covers those expenses for the families of straight employees.

A diplomat who asked Mrs. Clinton about the issue during the town hall meeting, Ralan Hill, said that his partner would be left behind if an embassy evacuation were to take place in the country he was posted to.

“The department actively discriminates against me and my family in a number of areas by limiting our access to benefits routinely and customarily provided to other families,” Mr. Hill said.

Gay partners are not entitled to embassy access, either, though chiefs of mission are authorized to grant such access and most of them do. As for embassy employment, spouses of diplomats are given priority, while same-sex partners are treated as any other U.S. citizen applying for a position.

When a diplomat marries a foreign national, that person is entitled to fast-track processing for a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship. Gay partners are not eligible even for a U.S. entry visa.

Mrs. Clinton warned that there are legal limits to what she can do because gay marriage is not recognized by federal law.

“We are reviewing what would need to be changed — what we can legally change. A lot of things we cannot legally change by a decision in the State Department,” she said. “But let’s see what we can determine is within our realm of responsibility, and we are moving on that expeditiously.”

— Nicholas Kralev, diplomatic correspondent, The Washington Times