By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. intelligence community that once forced out gays and lesbians for security reasons now sees inclusivity as the best way to protect the country, and seeks to recruit spies from a wider talent pool that includes the LGBT community.
At a session titled America’s LGBT Spies (Secret Agents of Change) held at the South by Southwest tech summit in Austin, Texas, the panelists said for the U.S. intelligence community - with a $60 billion-plus budget and more than 100,000 employees - to attract the best talent, it must embrace diversity.
"We are not the organization of your grandfathers. We have gone from a very dark and closed environment to a very welcoming and open environment," said Tracey Ballard, technical intelligence officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, who came out as a lesbian in 1988.
Ballard said at that time, agents risked losing their security clearances and their jobs by coming out. She was initially ostracized by the agency she has served and seen evolve over 30 years or so of service.
She said under Cold War thinking, being gay could subject someone to blackmail, and coming out meant someone would be seen as a deviant who could not be trusted. Over the years, the intelligence community has changed to allow people to be themselves.
"We are in a competition with the rest of the companies out there for talent. If we cannot continue to bring in talent, we cannot bring in the best intelligence," said panelist Kris Gill, global programs manager for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
While individual spy agencies have sometimes made presentations or statements publicly welcoming gay employees, the presentation was the first time the U.S. intelligence community as a whole has done so.
Katrina Gossman, a senior FBI special agent, said in 2004 she became the first FBI employee to marry her partner under Massachusetts' gay marriage law. She said the Federal Bureau of Investigation initially extended her and her partner full marriage benefits, only to rescind them because of a bill passed by Congress.
Gossman, involved in the investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, said she wants to protect the nation without having to worry what will happen to her family if she is killed on duty.
"The most rewarding thing for me is catching the bad guys," she said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alan Crosby)