Pushing Policy

Madison area native Todd Larson went from the Peace Corps to the United Nations to the Obama Administration, helping pioneer the fight for LGBTQI rights within some of the world’s most complex bureaucracies.

Todd Larson grew up in the Madison area, graduating from Memorial High School. He attended Carleton College, earning a major in History with an emphasis in French. Todd served as Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, West Africa, after which he earned his Juris Doctor and Master’s Degree (International Studies) from the University of Washington, Seattle.

Todd’s first career comprised 20 years with the United Nations (UN), serving in a variety of legal and administrative capacities. His UN career entailed living in an array of countries including Namibia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Haiti. He also served for many years at UN Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and in New York City.

Todd’s second career was as senior Presidential Appointee in the Obama Administration. His title was Senior LGBT Coordinator. His mandate was to work with the White House, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID; where he was based), to help define and give substance to an emerging US foreign policy priority—the human rights and development of LGBTQI persons around the world.

Between his first and second careers Todd was—and presently is—happily retired on his family farm southwest of Madison. For when he decides his second retirement is definitive, Todd has prepared his farm to run as Bed and Breakfast.

Our Lives spoke with Todd about how he went from a theater aficionado to a major behind-the-scenes human and LGBTQI rights advocate.

What was the environment for coming out/being a LGBTQI person when you were growing up? How do you think that influenced your professional trajectory and the work and causes you focused on?

Truth be told, I was something of a late bloomer when it comes to fully assuming my gay identity. There’s a standing joke among LGBTQI Peace Corps alumni: ‘Join the Peace Corps, and come out!’ That’s fairly common, and it pretty much applied to me. There is lots of spare time to reflect. I didn’t fully assume my identity until I had returned to the States, after two years in Togo, and started law school.

That said, I was of course questioning and curious as a teenager—probably no more and no less than any other high school student. That was a different era, more hostile in some senses, but in all honesty the delay in full assumption of my gay identity was less a function of societal or familial pressure and much more a function of my personal predisposition to study and reflect on important issues before taking one route over another. Gay, Virgo, law degree: It’s a bad combination.

I came back from the Peace Corps, met a great guy—we’re no longer a couple, but he remains one of my closest  friends—and have been comfortably ensconced in my gay identity ever since.

What have some of your own personal challenges been over time, and how did you work to overcome and/or grapple with them? Especially in relation to having such personal elements tied up with your professional work.

At the beginning of my UN career, I didn’t set out to be an LGBTQI leader. I set out to be the best, most effective American serving this important international intergovernmental organization, with staff from all over the world. I am, at my core, a very proud American. Through my earlier undergrad studies overseas and my time with the Peace Corps, I had already begun to understand the value—for both America and the broader international community—of a favorably impactful American role on the international stage.

Personal experience often drives professional trajectory and political conviction, right? I experienced two seminal events early in my UN career, which in essence offered me the mantle of LGBTQI leadership. It was a mantle that I’d have been a coward to decline, as I was much less at risk than my LGBTQI colleagues from most other countries. My immigration status was not a function of my employment status; the worst thing that could have happened to me was that I’d be fired and remained in the U.S. I’d not have been sent back home to possible death.

Back to the two pivotal events, though.

First, I was partnered with a great guy—also a UN employee—who was assassinated in the course of his employment, serving at an international hot spot back in the early ‘90s. Because the UN didn’t recognize our relationship as a bona fide “family unit”—in the same way that opposite gender marital unions have always been recognized by the UN—I had no official standing as his partner in the aftermath of his death.

I had no right to obtain details of the circumstances surrounding his death. No right to interface with the UN’s insurance firm in order to ensure his biological family would receive the full insurance benefits to which they were entitled. While I eventually prevailed on both counts, I did so only through the pulling of strings and sympathetic personal connections. That profound ignobility got my blood boiling.

Second, a few years later, I was literally fired by the head of my then-UN employing agency for being gay. Not for poor performance or professional divergence—on the contrary, my annual evaluations were consistently very favorable—but for being gay. When he learned about my sexuality, the head of the agency said at a gathering of senior staff, “This place is becoming a Cage aux Folles; let’s get rid of him.” Again, it made my blood boil.

I appealed through internal administrative mechanisms, in the direction of the International Labor Organization. I won, establishing important legal precedent; he lost—both the case, and a big chunk of his standing and credibility.

These two experiences led me, in the mid 1990s, to a group of LGBTQI UN employees in New York, which had formed an informal “employee resource group” and begun to identify an agenda. In due course, I was able to help flesh out and pursue the agenda.

How did you come to work at the UN, and what were your focuses while there?

Throughout high school and college I was totally into theater, and assumed it would be my career. That passion began to shift when I studied in France during undergrad—seduced by the thrills of living in another country and culture, and interacting with folks in a language other than my mother tongue. I entirely abandoned theater following my next international experience, two years in West Africa with the Peace Corps.

I assessed that I had three basic career options after law and grad schools: 1) foreign service, but I recognized that route would have me spending on average half my career serving an Administration with which I didn’t share political conviction, and I wasn’t comfortable with that prospect; 2) international non-profit organization, which I did test out immediately following law and grad schools, but I found the single mandate focus, and single-minded constituency, too restricting; 3) international, intergovernmental organization.

I set my sights on the UN, spent 20 years there, and wouldn’t change that period in my life or professional trajectory for anything.  

You were instrumental in getting certain LGBTQI employee rights implemented at the UN. Talk about what you and others accomplished in that arena, and some of the work that went into achieving it. How difficult is it to change things within an organization like the UN?

Settle in comfortably: this is necessarily a fairly detailed accounting. And note that I, of course, didn’t act alone, but worked alongside scores of courageous, brilliant advocates within the UN—wearing my caps as advisor to both UN GLOBE (the Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees’ advocacy group) and FICSA (the Federation of International Civil Servants’ Organizations). 

Rightly or wrongly, as referenced above, it is well-established practice at the UN that one’s employment benefits and entitlements are a function of recognized “family status.”

Until about a decade ago, I could have been a single straight guy on day one, met and married a woman on day two, adopted her six children on day three, and on day four would have been earning significant additional annual benefits and entitlements such as  movement stipends, education grants, dependency allowances, etc.

By contradistinction, until about a decade ago, I could have been in a same-gender union of 20 years, and raised from birth the six biological children of my partner or husband—and I would not have earned even one penny of additional employment benefits or entitlements. The UN would not have recognized my family status.

This was, clearly, screamingly unfair. So near the end of Kofi Annan’s (recently deceased; may he rest in peace) second and final term, when Secretaries General can be relied upon to take more courageous decisions, we convinced him to begin to rectify the injustice. It wasn’t all in one step, of course. We diligently increased the pressure in advance, over a period of years, through our array of formal internal appeals on behalf of aggrieved staff (at one stage I even drafted a pro forma appeal, and we circulated it to staff around the world), and by our appearances—some decidedly unwelcome—at an array of regular internal UN administrative convenings.

Kofi Annan initially agreed to recognize only same-gender marriage, but that would have covered only a very privileged few. Working alongside a sympathetic member of his inner circle, we convinced him to also recognize same-gender domestic partnerships. However, he opted to limit UN recognition, as employer, to only those staff whose unions were recognized in their countries of origin. He wouldn’t budge further. 

It was a far from perfect first step, as it left behind the vast majority of UN staff—many coming from countries of origin where LGBTQI people were still being jailed or killed for loving who they loved; these staff were very far from gaining any domestic recognition of their unions. 

In another sense, though, this imperfect first step was also strategically very sound, and we recognized that. We therefore didn’t dig in our heels about it. Why? Because it violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the human resources administration of international, intergovernmental organizations: that an employee must not be discriminated against as a function of nationality. The imperfect first step set the stage for an eventual and definitive showdown.

Allow me to illustrate. If a woman is from a country of origin where she is prohibited from working in a mixed-gender workplace, the UN as employer doesn’t tell her, “Sorry, we can’t employ you, because our workplaces are of mixed gender composition.” The UN as employer sets a neutral standard for human resources administration, under which that woman would be allowed to work at the UN—irrespective of related injustices in her country of origin.

Near the end of the the Obama Administration, the anomaly of the “haves” and “have nots” among LGBTQI employees at the UN, from their wide array of countries of origin, was finally addressed. This time around, both internal and external pressure was building and finally came to a head. The Obama Administration was, of course, brilliant. There was significant pushback, especially from Russia, but right prevailed over wrong, and today an LGBTQI employee of the UN can have their union recognized by the UN as employer, despite possible non-recognition or even overt and sanctioned hostility in their country of origin.

Aside: The Trump administration has recently rolled back issuance of visas to same gender domestic partners of foreign diplomats serving in the U.S. A very unfortunate development, but a separate matter from what I am presently talking about.  

What we got done at the UN, starting over a decade ago, was hugely important, of enormous historical proportions, and I am immensely proud of it. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, it will stand as one of my life’s greatest accomplishments (what we got done at the UN; not being hit by a bus).

Still, what we got done at the UN was uniquely internal to the UN, and—I am thrilled to say—has been entirely eclipsed by more recent, much more broadly impactful and externally focused advances at the UN with respect to LGBTQI human rights and development.

Regardless, we broke the ground and laid the foundation.

You worked with USAID during the Obama Administration, correct? Talk about some of the work you did during that time—what were some of the challenges, and some of the triumphs? What are your thoughts now to see at least some of that progress rolled back and/or threatened under Trump?

I experienced the honor of my lifetime to serve as senior Presidential Appointee under Obama, a brilliant man of sincere conviction and impeccable integrity, surrounded by a mind-blowingly competent team. Sincere conviction and impeccable integrity. I do hope those withstand the test of time as prerequisites for future U.S. presidents.

I was essentially brought in to give robust, concrete, and sustainable effect—working with the White House, the State Department, and USAID—to the tenets of a groundbreaking December 2011 Presidential Memorandum entitled “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons.” I believe the thinking was, “If he had the success he had at the UN, the most intransigent of bureaucracies, it’ll be a cakewalk for him with the U.S. federal government!”

Indeed, the Obama Administration moved mountains on this emerging foreign policy priority. Working alongside scores of right-minded, favorably disposed, and brilliant colleagues, and with the wind of a Presidential Memorandum at our back, my job under Obama was in some senses a lot easier than had been my advocacy at the UN. But I had a lot less time.

I often said to my team that if they spilled a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, it would already be a productive day, as they’d already made history—because everything we did was new and unprecedented. I am fervently committed to capturing our lessons learned under Obama, on this agenda item—our misfires as well as our successes—so that when the day comes that we have another right-minded, favorably predisposed U.S. Administration, they can take this nascent foreign policy priority to the next level, rather than starting back at square one.   

All that is a discussion for another day.

What would your advice be to newer generations of activists, civil servants, etc. for addressing such huge and important issues of human/LGBTQI rights without getting lost in what can certainly sometimes feel like too immense and complicated a task?

If you hold a sincere conviction, in the purest, most unencumbered sense of that construct, you are probably right rather than wrong, and you will probably stand on the right side of history. Your foes are probably motivated by something other than sincere conviction—fear, shame, or naked self-interest.

Always keep that in mind as you strive to act in accordance with your conviction. And if you believe that good will eventually triumph over evil—which most Midwesterners do—take heart from the eventuality that your side will prevail. It may take some time, effort, and dogmatism. With really challenging issues, you may also need to lean on the progress that generally comes from the march of generations.

Start as early in life as you are able. Conviction early in life is probably the most unfettered. Invest in the long haul. Don’t be so egotistical as to believe that you yourself, or even your generation, will craft complete and utter victory; recognize that you work on the shoulders of those who came before, and are but gaining ground for those who will follow.

Also start as early in your life as you are able because you will then have the satisfaction of watching some of your most unreasonable foes retire from the fray before you do, and/or die of old age, further opening up your path. This may sound cold-hearted, but it’s true. Revenge isn’t always a bad thing. I’m just sayin’.

When working from within a large administrative, legal, or bureaucratic context, do your due diligence to identify the existing process and/or precedent on which you can build. It is there. Even if tedious and slow, chart a course for maximally harnessing that process and/or precedent—dust it off, master it, and wield it intransigently over time, more effectively than your opponents of shorter attention span or patience.

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