President Barack Obama signed a memorandum last week extending some benefits to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees, but implemention poses challenges in the case of gay and lesbian diplomats who serve in countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Not making promises, the State Department says it will deal with each situation individually and try to work with countries that do not recognize same-sex partners.
"We recognize that, in implementing this policy, we will have to negotiate certain privileges and immunities with other governments. And we will do so," department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday.
Asked what the United States would do if a country were to reject a gay or lesbian diplomat, Crowley said that would have to be taken into account when assigning personnel abroad.
"Obviously, this will be something that we recognize that will need to be negotiated," he said. "And that will go into our judgments, in terms of how we assign our employees around the world."
Homosexuality is illegal in 80 countries, and five of them punish homosexual acts with death, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to extend benefits to same-sex couples early in her tenure. Aides say she made it a priority shortly after arriving at the State Department.
"This is an issue of real concern to me," Clinton said at a town hall meeting with employees in February. "I view this as an issue of workplace fairness, employee retention, and the safety and effectiveness of our embassy communities worldwide."
The Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, a group representing gay and lesbian personnel and their families in the State Department, praised last week's announcement, saying it will have a "real and immediate benefit for Foreign Service families."
Group president Michelle Schohn said, "The reality is that gay and lesbian officers have always been working in countries where homosexuality is illegal. We see it as important to demonstrate American values overseas."
Same-Sex Benefits, 'Enhanced Morale'
Senior State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity last week, conceded that the new policy may create diplomatic challenges in some countries but added, "That does not govern what the State Department does in terms of what it regards is the best policy."
Extending benefits to same-sex partners of diplomats serving abroad poses unique hurdles because they will need visas, diplomatic passports, medical care and jobs in the new country.
Officials say the new policy will create "enhanced morale and enhanced efficiency" in the service.
At the Pentagon, public exposure of an employee's homosexuality is still grounds for dismissal.
"This is not a Don't ask, don't tell," one senior State Department official said, referring to the military's policy on homosexuality. "This is not an attempt to hide or dissemble.
"We're not imposing our moral standards on any other country," the official said. "We're saying that this is the policy of the U.S. government. It is enunciated by the President and by the secretary of state. We're putting this program into place because it is the right thing to do. And we will proceed down that road."
Even before Obama's memorandum, gay partners of State Department employees could live openly in residences overseas and attend official functions in a spousal capacity. The new policy expands such benefits and privileges.
In late 2007, then ambassador to Romania, Michael E. Guest, resigned after his partner was not granted the same rights as the spouses of heterosexual foreign officers.
At the time Guest, the first openly gay ambassador to serve for the United States, said he was "compelled to choose between obligations to my partner, who is my family, and service to my country. That anyone should have to make that choice is a ... shame for this institution and our country."
After news broke last month that the department would soon extend benefits to same-sex partners, Guest told ABC News, "I consider this to be not an issue of what some people call gay rights, but just fairness and an issue of principle."