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Thomas Gallagher

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Meet Thomas

All universities seek to be incubators of intellect, talent, and ideas as they attempt to launch their graduates on to successful careers, but Monmouth University can claim a true trailblazer who broke the mold. Eleven years after graduating, Tom Gallagher ’62 became the first civil servant of any government in the modern world to voluntarily come out of the closet as a homosexual. In 2014, Monmouth honored Gallagher with its Distinguished Alumni Award and recognized him during its Founders’ Day Convocation.

After retiring in 2013, Gallagher celebrates his long career as a diplomat and a social worker, a career that filled his life with jarring juxtapositions. At times, Gallagher rubbed elbows with American presidents and foreign leaders in global conflict zones; at other times he worked directly with transvestite prostitutes and AIDS patients in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

“I loved it all,” Gallagher said. “I’m very Irish, and we are extremists. I don’t know if you’ve read Angela’s Ashes, but it’s a terrific book, and on every page the author has you laughing hysterically or crying your eyes out, and there’s nothing in between. Absolutely nothing. And that’s what my life is like. My life has been spent in the Tenderloin in San Francisco and some really wretched slums and dreadfully impoverished places in Africa, and I’ve hobnobbed with the King of Norway, the Queen of Spain, and five presidents who invited me to the White House— and I loved that too, every minute of it.

“I loved when I was at the State Department, getting out of ‘drag’ at the end of the day, ripping off my tie, and going to work at the Gay Switchboard in Washington, which was on the third floor of a head shop—a totally different world from the stuffiness of ambassadors and ministers and big shots. I just loved that I spent one part of the day in one world, and the other part in the other world.”

Gallagher, who majored in political science at Monmouth, knew he wanted to go into diplomacy from a young age—but he faced academic hurdles.

“When I transferred into Monmouth as a junior, I was interviewed by the head of the political science department, and he asked me what my long-term career goals were,” Gallagher said. “When I said I was interested in the Foreign Service, he looked at my transcript and burst out laughing and said ‘With grades like that, you have no hope of going into the Foreign Service.’”

“My first international relations course was at Monmouth, taught by Dr. Enoch Nappen, who fifty-five years later is still part of the Monmouth faculty. He gave me a ‘C’ in my first semester, and I thought my career was over and done with right there. But I got an ‘A’ in my second semester by doing a paper on Ethiopia.”

At the time, social pressures forced Gallagher to keep his sexuality a secret.

“My psychology professor at Monmouth taught me that homosexuality was a serious mental illness,” Gallagher said. “Among the cures recommended by the American Psychiatric Association were electroconvulsive therapy and frontal lobotomy. I later met that same professor at a gay cruising area on the Asbury Park boardwalk. We pretended that we did not recognize one another.”

Still, Gallagher credited Monmouth for putting him on the path to his dream career.

“I love this place. It really did change my life,” Gallagher said. “This was the first place that I was encouraged to ask questions. In the Catholic education system you learn what the Church teaches, and you memorize it, and you follow orders. Here they said ‘Gee, what do you think about that?’ And that was revolutionary. It really did change my thinking. I suppose if anything is important, that’s it.”

Five days after graduation, Gallagher entered the newly minted Peace Corps.

“I wanted to be in the Foreign Service from the fourth grade,” Gallagher said. “When a red-headed freckle-faced Irish Catholic became president of the United States in the year that I came here, he talked immediately about the Peace Corps. And I said ‘That’s it!’

“The Peace Corps application asked ‘What country do I know better than someone who has lived there for six months?’ I had never been any further away from home than Philadelphia in my entire life, so I didn’t know anything about anywhere—but having done the political science paper, and having read all nine books in the New York Public Library on Ethiopia, I figured I knew as much as anyone in America. So I wrote that down. And they put me in a Peace Corps group going to Ethiopia, which is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

While in Ethiopia, Gallagher met Emperor Haile Selassie I before going to work in Eritrea, where he witnessed the first shots in that country’s war for independence. While there, Gallagher was forced to keep his sexuality a secret.

“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 said.

After his stint in the Peace Corps, Gallagher worked for the Lyndon Johnson Administration helping to coordinate programs in the newly declared “War on Poverty.” During that time he wrote the first anti-poverty grants for San Francisco; Dayton, OH; and Leslie County, KY.

Seven months later, he joined the Foreign Service and received his first overseas assignment in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where he still had to keep his sexuality secret from others. At the time, the FBI actively sought to eliminate homosexuals from civil service.

“They bragged that they could find two a week and fire them, and they also fired a lot of straight people who were accused of being homosexual,” Gallagher said. “Many people lost their jobs just based on the accusation.

“I was totally closeted. I was actually married in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. I thought it was a secret that I could keep forever.”

Gallagher became the youngest person ever to lead a U.S. diplomatic mission when he was stationed as U.S. Consul General in Ecuador. Afterward, Gallagher was sent to a small diplomatic post in northern Nigeria in the midst of the Biafran War. That was in 1968, a year in which the world—and his life—changed profoundly.

“I was in a very depressed condition: The war was breaking out all around me, my marriage was on the rocks, I was working for a super-depressed man who later committed suicide, and I was almost as depressed as he was,” Gallagher said. “Then one week Newsweek had a cover story on ‘gay liberation,’ which was something I’d never heard of. This was right after the Stonewall riots in 1968. I had never even heard the word ‘gay’ used in any context other than meaning ‘happy.’ 

“The article quoted a gay activist named Don Kilhoefner, one of my old Peace Corps buddies, who was identified as the Executive Director of the Gay Community Services Center of Los Angeles. What he didn’t tell Newsweek at the time was that the Gay Community Services Center of Los Angeles was a Monday night meeting in the back room of a laundromat, but it’s grown since then.

“The State Department actually assigned me to L.A., and I made a beeline for Don’s center, which by that time had moved out of the laundromat and into an Addams Family-esque house full of lesbian hookers and transvestite prostitutes. I became director of the counseling program at the Center and became super-involved in gay liberation.

“While I worked there I resolved that while I did not seek publicity, I would also never again deny being gay in any social situation where my sexual orientation was relevant.”

After returning to Washington, Gallagher joined the Gay Activist Alliance while continuing to work for the State Department. When the organization began planning a national conference on the relationship between the gay community and the federal government, Gallagher decided to speak out.

“I realized that as a federal employee I had something to say on that subject, and I volunteered to speak,” Gallagher said. “When the day of my speech arrived I was scared to death. I assumed that I would be fired, and I had no money in the bank and no alternative employment—and I did not wish to humiliate my mother.

“At the end of my speech a member of the audience asked what the State Department thought about my sex life. I replied that they didn’t know. ‘I guess this is a coming out party,’ I said, to a rousing standing ovation. It felt great—but the article about my speech in the Washington Post the next day confirmed to me that I had no future at the State Department. So, before they could fire me, I resigned from the job that bills itself as ‘The Best Job in the World’—a job I had wanted since fourth grade.”

Gallagher spent the next twenty years as a social worker in San Francisco, working with “street crazies and AIDS patients.” During that time he took the reins of the largest public mental health clinic in California. His clinic won several awards for its AIDS services at the height of the epidemic.

In 1994, Gallagher returned to the U.S. Department of State, where a directive from the Clinton Administration had ended the federal policy of firing employees for their sexuality. Nevertheless, the anti-gay culture was slow to change.

“They’re sort of subtle,” Gallagher said. “When I went back to the State Department after my twenty-year exile as a social worker in California, I walked up to an old friend and put my hand out, and he said ‘Yeah, I know who you are’ and walked away. The prejudice was still there.

“When I reapplied to return to the State Department, my security clearance was delayed for seven months. When the person in charge of hiring me called security services to ask why, they said ‘Well, one of his friends said he was a gay man, and we were wondering if he was a homosexual, or if he was carefree and frivolous.’ I said to tell them I was all three.”

After his return, Gallagher served in the State Department’s headquarters in Washington as a country officer for Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was responsible for the American response to the two largest wars since 1945, which broke out in those countries.

Gallagher said he hopes that he served as a trailblazer for LGBT federal employees.

“I hope so. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of publicity when I did my coming out thing. The Washington Post did one story, but that was all, so I didn’t become a nationally known figure. But everyone at the State Department who is gay now knows who I am, and they are kind enough to show their gratitude.”

In 2002, Gallagher was recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for being the first federal employee to discuss his homosexuality openly.

“She is enormously supportive of gay rights,” Gallagher said. “She gave two speeches in which she had announced that it is the policy of the government of the United States to support gay rights worldwide. That’s astonishing. Forty years ago I would have never dreamed that a secretary of state would have said that.”

Gallagher says the United States should flex its diplomatic muscle to improve the quality of life of LGBT people around the world.

“I think there’s a lot we can do. We can raise hell when the Ugandans decide that all gay people should be executed—and we did—and that’s a very good example. I’m quite sure the American ambassador in Kampala went to the Ugandan president and said ‘If you do this, we’re going to have a lot of problems approving your foreign aid program in the U.S. Congress next year.’ It was a soft sell. He didn’t go in and call him dirty names or yell and scream and threaten war—just ‘Let’s talk practical here: you’re going to alienate the United States Congress if you do this; do you really want to do this?’

“In places like Iran, we can’t use diplomacy very effectively, but we can do a better job than we have over the last sixty years in supporting the idea of democracy, and change will eventually come. It won’t come overnight—it didn’t come easily in this country, and it won’t come easily anywhere else, either.”

Now retired, Gallagher has settled down in Tinton Falls. He continues to take occasional assignments in the Foreign Service, and he returns to Monmouth University occasionally to encourage students to place the pursuit of their passions above the search for a lucrative career path.

“Follow your dreams,” he said. “I was at a presentation here some months back which was designed, I think, for seniors who were looking at careers, and the message was: it’s okay if you majored in history, you can still get a job in an insurance company. I thought ‘oh no, don’t say that.’

“If you want to become an anthropologist, go be an anthropologist, even if it might mean you’re going to be working for $40 a week, digging ditches in southern New Mexico somewhere. If it’s anthropology that you really want to do, or sociology or psychology, do it, fight for it, go for it.

“I was a social worker for twenty years, and that is one of the most demeaning professions of all, but I loved every minute of it.”

Gallagher says he will continue to advocate for LGBT rights worldwide.

“The fight is not over,” Gallagher said. “Being gay still merits the death penalty in a dozen or so countries around the world—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.”

Hometown

Tinton Falls, NJ


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