The State Department has stopped issuing visas to the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats sent to the United States or the United Nations in New York unless they are legally married, officials said Tuesday.
The shift, which began Monday but was announced Tuesday, is likely to make it difficult for some diplomats to bring their partners to postings in the United States because few countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East recognize or allow same-sex marriages.
The State Department said waivers would be granted in hardship cases. It said the change would affect about 105 couples or families now in the United States, including 55 that work for the United Nations or other international organizations.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has pushed for religious freedom to be paramount among human rights that the United States advocates overseas, a shift from previous administrations.
Some activists worry that religious liberty is often used to deny rights to gay, lesbian and other non-heterosexual people.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Council, which advocates for gay rights, said the State Department decision was “unnecessary, mean-spirited and unacceptable.”
“This is an unconscionable, needless attack on some LGBTQ diplomats from around the world,” Stacy added.
State Department officials defended the move, saying it was a matter of “parity” because under the new policy, U.S. diplomats in same-sex relationships also had to be married in order to receive benefits and be posted abroad together.
“The purpose of the policy is to promote the equal treatment of all family members and couples,” a State Department official said, briefing reporters anonymously in keeping with department protocols.
“This is certainly not an attack,” another State Department official said. “It is not meant to be punitive. It is a recognition and a codification of the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States.”
The new policy reverses an order by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who required all domestic partners of foreign diplomats or U.N. envoys to be given visas.
The State Department became increasingly receptive to gay members on its staff and LGBT rights around the world. A special LGBT envoy was appointed under the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has not filled that slot.
Same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, one of about 25 countries that grant marriage equality, according to activist groups.
In countries where gay sex violates the law, or gays are openly persecuted, same-sex couples obviously cannot marry before traveling to the United States.
The State Department said they could marry after they arrive, but that would require the non-diplomatic partner to obtain a separate travel visa to enter the United States.
“This will have an insidious impact on same-sex couples from countries that ban same-sex marriage or only offer civil unions,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.