Tom Gallagher, Diplomat Who Became a Gay Activist, Dies at 77
Tom Gallagher used to say that during his long career as a Foreign Service officer, he worked in countries where he might have been imprisoned or worse if officials learned he was gay. For much of that time his home country wasn’t welcoming either; he had to keep his sexual orientation hidden to stay on the job.Posted — Updated
Tom Gallagher used to say that during his long career as a Foreign Service officer, he worked in countries where he might have been imprisoned or worse if officials learned he was gay. For much of that time his home country wasn’t welcoming either; he had to keep his sexual orientation hidden to stay on the job.
After coming out — he is widely recognized as the first Foreign Service officer to do so publicly — Gallagher left the service in 1976. But he lived to see and benefit from a transformation that not only allowed him to resume his government career, but also saw him celebrated in State Department publications and singled out by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, at a 2012 event.
The occasion was the 20th anniversary of GLIFAA, an organization for LGBT State Department employees. Clinton cited Gallagher as a pioneer.
“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,” she said.
Gallagher died on Sunday in Wall, New Jersey. He was 77.
His husband, Amin Dulkumoni, said the causes were a staph infection and a heart condition.
Gallagher was in Saudi Arabia when the Arab-Israeli war broke out in June 1967. He spent two years in Nigeria during the Biafran war there. He worked on the American response to wars in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between his two stints with the State Department, he spent almost 20 years doing social work and volunteer counseling in California, first in Los Angeles and then in San Francisco as that city was grappling with AIDS.
“Tom’s story isn’t about all he saw so much as it is about the impulse to serve that got him there,” said Jacqui Shine, a writer who has researched his life extensively and just two weeks ago wrote an article about him for Slate.
Clinton, in her 2012 remarks, also cited Gallagher’s determination to serve, using him to represent the whole pre-gay-rights era.
“All of the employees who sacrificed their right to be who they were,” she told her audience, “were really defending your rights and the rights and freedoms of others.”
Thomas Patrick Gallagher was born on Sept. 11, 1940, in Manhattan. His parents, Thomas and Mary Josephine Murphy Gallagher, were personal servants on the estate of a wealthy New Jersey family; as a boy he caddied at the Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, New Jersey.
Gallagher said he made his career plans early.
“I wanted to be in the Foreign Service from the fourth grade,” he said in an interview for the website of his alma mater, Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Five days after graduating from Monmouth in 1962 with a degree in political science, he signed up for the Peace Corps.
“The Peace Corps application asked ‘What country do I know better than someone who has lived there for six months?'” he recalled years later. “I had never been any further away from home than Philadelphia in my entire life, so I didn’t know anything about anywhere.”
But he had written a paper about Ethiopia.
“Having read all nine books in the New York Public Library on Ethiopia, I figured I knew as much as anyone in America,” he said. “So I wrote that down.”
He was sent there, and he even met Emperor Haile Selassie.
“Had he known of my orientation, the emperor might have had me executed, which was considered the appropriate response to homosexuality in Ethiopia at the time,” Gallagher noted in the Monmouth interview.
In 1965 he joined the State Department and was assigned to Saudi Arabia. In 1966 he married Carolyn Worrell, and for a time it seemed as if he had found a niche in the heterosexual world. As Shine’s Slate article, written in timeline fashion, put it, “Tom loves his wife, and he loves his job, and his secrets — well, he doesn’t think about them very much these days.”
After a posting in Nigeria, Gallagher was given a series of assignments in the United States. One was at the personnel office; decades later, when he received the State Department’s Tragen Award, William J. Burns, then deputy secretary, cited his support of equality for female employees during this period.
But his marriage ended in 1972, and in the broader world, the gay-rights movement was ramping up. Gallagher was becoming more open about his sexuality, including doing counseling at the Gay Community Services Center in Los Angeles during an assignment in that city.
In 1975 the Gay Activist Alliance held a conference in Washington called “Gays and the Federal Government.” He volunteered to speak at it.
“I think it was sort of a ‘to hell with it’ decision,” Shine said by email. “He knew he had to get his security clearance renewed soon (in 1975 he’d been there a decade), and anyone they called in Los Angeles could tell them that he had worked at the center.”
During the panel discussion at the conference, when someone asked him what the State Department thought of his being gay, he responded, “I guess this is my coming-out party,” the Slate article said. After a brief posting to Ecuador, Gallagher left the Foreign Service in 1976 rather than go through the process of renewing his security clearance, which would have involved scrutiny of his sexual orientation. But in 1994, with the State Department’s policies having been changed under President Bill Clinton, he rejoined.
He held posts in Madrid, Brussels and elsewhere, and had several high-profile assignments involving Africa. His final job was with the Office of International Health. He retired in 2005.
Dulkumoni, whom he married in 2017, is his only immediate survivor. They lived in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.
Though he had lived through substantial changes in attitudes toward gay employees in the United States, Gallagher was quick to note that there was more to do.
“Being gay still merits the death penalty in a dozen or so countries around the world,” he told his alma mater, which gave him a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2014. “Saudi scholars debate the question of whether it is more Islamic to stone homosexuals or to behead them. Brunei, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa and Uganda have recently taken big steps backwards. We still have a long way to go.”
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