Life

State Secrets

Fifty years in the life of Tom Gallagher, diplomat, advocate, and pioneer.

A Tom Gallagher photo collage.
The life and times of Tom Gallagher.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Tom Gallagher/Georgetown University.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Update: Tom Gallagher died on July 8, 2018, shortly after this story was published. This story has been updated to reflect the fact that reporting after he died suggested Gallagher’s memory about an encounter with a Washington Post reporter may have been mistaken.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1962

The emperor receives distinguished guests and state visitors in the Throne Room of the lavish Jubilee Palace, and today, Tom Gallagher is one of them. Haile Selassie is a darling of the West, one of the first world leaders to embrace the Peace Corps; U.S. diplomats have just assisted him in unilaterally annexing neighboring Eritrea. Months from now, the president and the first lady will welcome him to Washington with full military honors and a parade. Today, 22-year-old Tom is one of 275 Americans Selassie is welcoming to his country before they disperse for their two-year stints as secondary-school teachers.

Selassie is a small man, but he has built a palace that communicates the strength of his political power and the enormity of his self-regard. The emperor’s gentle pet cheetahs guard the palace gates when the volunteers arrive. The Throne Room is adorned with enormous crystal chandeliers, and heavy draperies cover floor-to-ceiling windows. It is a long walk from the threshold to where the throne rests on a small platform, surrounded by an enormous carved canopy.

They’d all been instructed to approach Selassie according to palace protocol: Make three small bows from the waist while approaching the throne, clasp both hands around the emperor’s extended right hand, and murmur a greeting in Amharic; the emperor is rarely seen speaking English in public. Then, step aside in an inelegant crab walk so as to avoid both turning one’s back on royalty or stepping on royalty’s yappy papillons. When someone makes the mistake of sticking a hand out, American-style, Selassie seems more amused than offended.

But after Tom concludes the official greeting, Selassie—he thinks—catches his eye and holds his gaze for just a little bit too long. Tom straightens up, takes the three stairs to the throne, sticks out his hand, and says, “Thank you for having us, your Majesty.” Selassie takes his and and replies, in English, “Thank you for coming.” He could be imagining it, but Tom knows that charged look. He’s pretty sure the emperor has just cruised him.

He’d started fooling around with boys while growing up on the Jersey shore. Not kids from school, but friends he made at the beach, summer boys who didn’t know he lived in the servants’ quarters on the edge of the Goldsmith estate. He’d cruise P Street Beach after dark or catch a guy’s eye in the toilets. By day he swore to himself that it wasn’t really who he was. He liked kissing girls! He’d leave boys behind eventually.

When he applied for Kennedy’s new Peace Corps as a senior in college, he didn’t hesitate to lie, writing on the security clearance that he’d never had a homosexual experience. Now here he is, en route to Agordat, in Eritrea, because he’d claimed that he knew Ethiopia as well as someone who’d lived there for six months. (He’d read every one of the nine books the New York Public Library had on the country for a school paper.) He’ll learn to hate Haile Selassie, but right now all he knows is their secret.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1967

Tom’s first foreign service tour has been quiet, mostly. He spent the first year in the consular section—issuing visas to Saudi students, doing passport work for American citizens—where his boss seemed bound and determined to ruin his career before it could even really begin. Six months in, he gave Tom such a terrible review that he was passed up for a promotion. But the ambassador is the legendary Hermann F. Eilts, who by then had spent two decades working almost exclusively on Middle Eastern affairs and is one of the most respected Arabists in the State Department. Eilts likes mentoring the early career guys like Tom, and he doesn’t like Blackiston much, either. He demanded that Washington recall Blackiston a year early. Now Tom’s evaluations are sterling.

His marriage seems to be working too. His Peace Corps boss had gotten him a job with the new War on Poverty project, and that was where he met Carolyn. She’s a firecracker, a brilliant woman with a master’s degree in international relations and the distinctive lilt of a West Virginia accent. Carolyn, slender and dark-haired, is sharp and serious and a little mischievous. She had wanted to be in the foreign service too, and they can throw ideas back-and-forth for hours. They laugh a lot. Carolyn seems like the answer: All he needed was a regular woman, the right one, and those bad thoughts would go away. Now he’s found her.

When hostilities between Israel and Egypt burst into war in 1967, Eilts keeps the embassy open. It’s the most exhilarating week of their lives; Carolyn turns their house into a sort of soup kitchen and emergency shelter for the embassy staff working across the street. When it’s over, they sit down in the quiet house and look at one another, saying, Damn, this is boring, and a beat later they laugh at themselves. Carolyn is the perfect foreign service wife, ready for adventure, prepared for anything. He hasn’t felt the temptation to go cruising, either. The country’s strict fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law punish homosexual behavior with lashings, with stonings, with death, and while there probably is some sort of gay culture here, it’s not visible to him. The American set socializes almost exclusively with Saudi businessmen and their wives. There are precious few opportunities to encounter strangers. Tom loves his wife, and he loves his job, and his secrets—well, he doesn’t think about them very much these days.

Kaduna, Nigeria, 1969

Coming here was the worst mistake of his life.

Tom and Carolyn arrived at the Kaduna consulate in the northern part of the country in 1968, just as the Biafran war settled into a stalemate. They were unprepared for what they found: Eighteen months earlier, the American expats had witnessed a violent countercoup that killed thousands of Igbo secessionists, and no one was managing well. The other two foreign service officers at the post were raging alcoholics; the consul’s secretary sat at her desk crying all day while she typed. The couple had to piece all of this together from rumors and gossip, because no one talked about it openly.

Sometimes they took it out on the new arrivals. The first year, just like in Jeddah, he was stuck with a supervisor who hated him. The guy got fired—in delicate State parlance, selected out—but not before leaving Tom with a spiteful, nasty evaluation. He hated Tom so much, in fact, that he tried to make Carolyn miserable too. She taught in a small Catholic school; the guy decided that she could no longer accept a salary because it required paying taxes to the Nigerian government. Tom didn’t think it was a big deal; he’d done similar work as a volunteer in Eritrea, after all. Carolyn didn’t agree. She’d gone to Harvard. She had more education than he did. It was her goddamned money. So that went well.

He’d dragged Carolyn to Nigeria because he was determined to save his marriage, and it was not working. The State Department had wanted to reward him for his hardship service with a plum post, and they could have been in France instead—Carolyn loved France; she’d done her Fulbright in Bordeaux. But he wanted to control himself, he wanted to not have sex with men, and the prospect of the streets of Paris terrified him. Forget Paris, he told personnel, though he didn’t tell them or Carolyn why; send me to Africa. By now it’s clear to him that it isn’t going to work. Sex is becoming more and more of a chore, his urges more urgent. What’s going to happen when they go home?

Then, one day, the mail comes. American magazines arrive a week or two after they’re published in the States, fourth-class mail. Among them is a copy of Time with a banner on the cover, and a word he’s never seen before: “The Homosexual in America.” At home, it seems, someone—some street kid, some sissy, some freak, who knows?—has hurled a brick at the cops, and now it has bashed straight through Tom Gallagher’s closet door.

Washington, D.C., 1970

The State Department wants to send him to Paris again, and this time he’s not sure he can turn it down. But the day before he and Carolyn are supposed to leave in July, he goes to his personnel officer and tells her that he won’t go. You can’t say no to Paris, she says. He says it again, I’m not going, and then, because he is lucky, he walks out with a desk assignment in D.C. in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Not a hot job, but good enough for now.

He abruptly tells Carolyn that he wants a divorce. There’s no other way to do it, because he’s not going to tell her about his feelings for men. She won’t know the truth for many years. “You can’t leave me like this. I don’t even have a job,” she says. He’ll stay for another seven months, until the OEO hires her again and she’s settled.

It—leaving—feels terrible, but he knows it’s right. There’s another headline one day, this time in the New York Times: “Homosexuals in Revolt.” Below, there’s a familiar name—Don Kilhefner, a friend from his Peace Corps class. Nice guy. Don has started a branch of something called the Gay Liberation Front in Los Angeles. He says, “We have to decondition ourselves, to undo all that self-contempt we have,” and Tom thinks, I can do that too.

Tom never tells the men his real name. Lots know better than to ask, of course, because if you’re out at the baths it’s obvious—no one’s there to get phone numbers. No one’s going to ask to call you later. If they insist, though, he tells them he’s Jim. Jim Anderson. He’s never had a gay friend, or a boyfriend, and for a long time it doesn’t occur to him that he could have either (or, impossibly, both). He’d spent so long thinking that his sexual interests weren’t really part of who he was—were just part of some freak thing to be suppressed as much as possible—that Tom Gallagher and Jim Anderson are like separate people.

He screws up his courage one night and goes down to Louie’s, which is right across the street from the Department of Justice. Some guys say J. Edgar Hoover sits high above Pennsylvania Avenue with his binoculars trained on the door, and he can’t decide if that’s funny or not. When this guy, Bill, introduces himself, shouting over the din, he decides that maybe he doesn’t want to be Jim Anderson tonight. Swallowing his fear, he says, “My name’s Tom.”

Washington, D.C., 1973

Everyone knows about Bing. It’s not his name, it’s just a nickname, but everyone knows there’s only one Bing. He’d mailed a letter in a State envelope, and it when came back as undeliverable, they opened it. Diplomatic Security calls him in. Dark room, bright light in his face. The letter on the table, signed, “Love, Bing.” That’s all: a letter to a good friend, a man, and he signed it “Love.” They slide over a resignation form; no one’s leaving until he signs it. We catch two of you faggots a week, says one. It’s simply a question of national security, says the other. But Bing’s not gay. Usually that doesn’t matter—all these guys need is an accusation and out you go—but they believe him. Who knows why.

So Tom’s—well, he’s scared shitless, but he’s never been happier. He spent a few months in Los Angeles, where he caught up with Don Kilhefner, who’s running the Gay Community Services Center out of a broken-down mansion near MacArthur Park. Then he came back to find a much gayer D.C. than what he’d left. There are dance clubs now, discos. They’re in big old warehouses down by the navy yard, which feels a little safer than some of the neighborhood bars—you can park your car and be pretty sure that your cousin or neighbor won’t walk by and recognize it. When he leaves the Lost and Found one night, all sweaty skin and pounding heart, there’s a flyer on his car for a volunteer meeting for the Gay Switchboard, 387-3777, and an address in Adams Morgan. He thinks, Why the hell not.

People call the Switchboard about all kinds of stuff—where to go for VD tests or find a rap group or a roommate, which drag contests are coming up, referrals to gay-owned businesses. A lot of times they just call because they’re scared, and that’s when Tom feels like he’s doing the most. “Are you one of them?” someone might ask him, and then in a whisper confess that they’ve been having these thoughts. Sometimes he’s the first person they ever say it out loud to: I’m gay.

Washington, D.C., 1975

Tom’s next assignment is to Ecuador, but he expects that he’ll get kicked out of the foreign service before he can even get there. You have to get your security clearance renewed every few years, and he doesn’t see how he’ll make it through this time. He’d spent the past two years in Los Angeles, studying in USC’s social work program and working for Don as a co-director of the counseling program. It’s not like State doesn’t know; the department paid his tuition. They could call anyone in L.A. and figure out the truth in about two minutes. He had been open with his classmates and decided that he wasn’t going to hide in the closet anymore.

But he loves the foreign service. He’d been hell-bent on becoming an ambassador, and his rocky start was behind him. An old colleague wanted to bring Tom down to be his deputy consul in Ecuador. A court has recently ruled that the Civil Service Commission cannot discriminate in federal employment, but that doesn’t help anyone in the foreign service. The cost of living his dream would be a very cramped, small life, days and nights in some fabulous residence he can’t bring anyone home to, no possibility of sneaking out to a gay bar or whatever. Two paths, and he can’t have both. He’s pretty sure he knows which one he can’t live without.

He’s so convinced he’ll be fired, in fact, that he gets sort of reckless. When he joins the Gay Activists Alliance, they’re planning a conference, “Gays and the Federal Government.” It’s a big deal. Leonard Matlovich, the dishonorably discharged Air Force officer who just came out on the cover of Time, is coming.* (The military isn’t affected by the CSC ruling, either.) No one in the group knows a foreign service officer willing to talk in public, so Tom volunteers to do it.

At the panel, someone asks him what the State Department thinks about his being gay. They don’t know, he explains. “I guess this is my coming-out party,” and people whoop and applaud and laugh. A reporter from, Tom thinks, the Post’s Style section comes up and asks if she can use his name in her story about the conference.* Flush with adrenaline and joy, he says it’s up to her, though he knows it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out which foreign service officer had come out at the conference. He floats home on that surge of pride, but underneath it there’s still stomach-churning fear. He waits for the phone call.

Guayaquil, Ecuador, 1976

But the call never comes. Maybe the butch types in DS don’t read the Style section, or maybe he can’t be blackmailed anymore because he’s not hiding anything. (Or maybe, as later reporting suggests, the writer was from the Washington Blade.)* He’s named deputy principal officer at the consulate, and because his boss is away most of the time, Tom is more or less in charge: at 34 years old, the youngest chief of an American diplomatic mission in decades. Being here is easy, if boring; the consular section just cranks out visas all day. The most interesting thing that ever happens is when his boyfriend comes down to visit and scandalizes everyone by sunbathing on the roof of the consulate in a Speedo. Tom’s madly in love with the boyfriend, an industrial designer from Pittsburgh. It’s the kind of big love he’s always wanted. Still, he’s uneasy and restless. No one here seems to know that he’s gay or that Ralph isn’t just a friend. When he goes back to Washington, he’ll be due to have his security clearance renewed, and this time he won’t be able to lie, if they haven’t already found out. After six months, he decides to quit. This was the best job in the world, he thinks, and then he moves on.

San Francisco, 1985

He’s back into social work, and now he’s up in San Francisco, running an AIDS crisis center out of a filthy basement in the Mission District. When someone gets a diagnosis over in the public health clinic, they get a half-hour of counseling. If their counselor feels they’re in need of more—and Christ, who isn’t?—they’re referred to the Mission Center. He likes the chaos, which gets busier as the epidemic gets worse. In ’82, there were a couple new diagnoses a week in the city; by 1985 it’s two or three a day. The obituary pages of the Bay Area Reporter get longer.

The industrial designer from Pittsburgh slept with Tom’s best friend and blew that right up. Life as the town whore suits him just fine, more or less, and though he hopes for love, everyone you meet at the baths is a bath whore too. He knows he’s lucky, because he doesn’t lose lovers or best friends or brothers, but still, his whole world’s dying. One week it’s his barber; over a few months, three or four neighbors; the personnel guy at work; one of his staffers. People who passed casually but pleasantly through his days, all dropping dead all over the place. He will too, he supposes.

San Francisco, 1993

He’s over 50 and he’s somehow HIV-negative and he’s tired and the city of San Francisco calculates that he’s earned an annual pension of $33,000. “Go international,” his astrologer says. He can go back to the State Department, maybe; he wasn’t actually fired. It’s the early days of the Clinton presidency, and things seem to be changing. A group of openly gay and lesbian officers has been working internally on preventing Diplomatic Security from denying clearances on the basis of sexuality, and they’ve had some wins. The Secretary of State issues a nondiscrimination memo, and an undersecretary tells Congress that no one will be denied a security clearance solely on the basis of sexuality ever again.

He takes the oral exam and it’s fine—he’d kept the habit of reading the Economist—but now seven months have gone by and the Board of Examiners is still waiting for his security clearance. The head of the board was in Tom’s entering class in ’65, and he finally calls Diplomatic Security and asks why they’re sitting on the clearance. He calls Tom back with the answer: “One of the people we interviewed said that he was gay, and we are wondering whether that meant he is carefree and frivolous or is a homosexual.”

Tom starts laughing and says, “David, tell them I am all three.”

Tom Gallagher at a Pride march.
Tom Gallagher at the 2017 Pride march in Washington, D.C.
Tom Gallagher

Washington, D.C., 2012

Tom really needs Hillary Clinton to stop talking. He has a 3:02 train back to Jersey, and it’s after 2:30, and he decides that he just has to go. It was nice of them, really, to invite him to this. It’s a party for the 20th anniversary of the State Department’s gay-employee group, people he likes and admires but doesn’t know especially well. He probably wouldn’t have come down for it, except the group’s president told him that Secretary Clinton was speaking and that she might mention him. She hasn’t, and it’s fine. He’d started crying as soon as the Washington Gay Men’s Chorus launched into the national anthem. It’s been fun, and that’s enough.

All of it has been enough. The job’s different when you don’t have your own secrets to keep. He did Madrid, then a stint at Foggy Bottom. On the East Africa desk, his old contacts in Eritrea came in handy. In Belgium, he and a security officer, also named Tom Gallagher, managed to keep a suspected terrorist from returning to the United States for flight school in the summer of 2001. After mandatory retirement, there were gigs in posts that need short-term help—a couple weeks or a month in Guinea, Cameroon, Guatemala, Ireland, Turkey, Haiti. That’s how he finally made it to Paris, where the men are still very beautiful.

He’s already halfway out of his seat when he hears Clinton say his name. “I want to mention one person in particular who was a key part of this fight, Tom Gallagher. Tom joined the foreign service in 1965, and in the early 1970s he risked his career when he came out and became the first openly gay foreign service officer.” He can barely see anything, just all of these faces turned to him, beaming, clapping. Hundreds of people.

I wanted to take this moment just to recognize him, but also to put into context what this journey has meant for people of Tom’s and my vintage, because I don’t want any of you who are a lot younger ever to take for granted what it took for people like Tom Gallagher to pave the way for all of you. It’s not a moment for us to be nostalgic. It is a moment for us to remember and to know that all of the employees who sacrificed their right to be who they were were really defending your rights and the rights and freedoms of others at home and abroad.

His left brain is saying, “Hurry up, Hillary. I have a train to Long Branch!” but his right brain is saying, “Keep going, Hillary. Don’t ever stop!”

The secretary wraps up a couple of minutes later, and he gets up to leave as the room ripples with a standing ovation, a wave that rushes toward his retreating back, propelling him out the door.

Correction, July 2, 2018: This article originally misstated in which branch of the military Leonard Matlovich served. It was the Air Force, not the Navy.