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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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.”
Tinton Falls, NJ