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Like many employers, the CIA is looking to diversify its workforce. As part of those efforts, the spy agency has begun reaching out to a group that was once unable to get security clearance: lesbians and gay men. CIA officials recently held a networking event for the gay community in Miami Beach, and NPR's Greg Allen was there.
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GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's a warm November weeknight on Miami Beach. Sunbathers have left the beaches, the clubs aren't yet open. But at the LGBT Visitors Center on Washington Avenue, it's almost a party. A few dozen people are enjoying drinks and appetizers. It's an event sponsored by the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the CIA.
MICHAEL BARBER: This is the first time we've done a networking event of this type with any of the gay and lesbian chambers of commerces in the United States.
ALLEN: Michael Barber calls himself a straight ally. He's the spy agency's LGBT Community Outreach and Liaison program manager. Over the past year, he and others at the agency have begun working to get the word out that the CIA has changed.
For many years, the CIA and other federal agencies routinely denied security clearances to gay men and women. President Bill Clinton signed an executive order ending that practice in 1995. And today, Barber told the gathering the CIA even has a program for gay couples.
BARBER: We actually have LGBT employees serving overseas with their partners. So you can do it.
ALLEN: Some gay CIA employees joined Barber to talk about their careers at the agency. One of them, Tracey Ballard, is a pioneer. She's a technical intelligence officer who came out to her supervisors in 1989 knowing that admission could cost her security clearance and her job.
TRACEY BALLARD: It was a leap. You know, I had one or two peers that were supporting, but it was a difficult time frame.
ALLEN: Ballard kept her clearance and her job but says those first several years were uncomfortable. Some gay employees who weren't out weren't comfortable being seen with her. Other straight employees still held onto a notion that dates back to the McCarthy era - that gays are a security risk because they are subject to blackmail.
Many hundreds of gay men and women were purged from government agencies in the '50s and '60s, but Ballard says that charge - that gays are a blackmail risk - was always false.
BALLARD: If you do research within the community over the decades, you'll find that, you know, it really wasn't an issue. LGBT people were not blackmailed in any type, any way or form. That was their way of ensuring that we were not employed.
ALLEN: At the CIA today, more than 200 employees are members of the agency's LGBT resource group. The spy agency is one of the founding partners of Outserve, an organization that represents gay active military personnel, including those with the CIA. There were always gay men and women doing important jobs at the agency. But until recently, few were comfortable being out. Michael Barber says that now has changed.
BARBER: Part of the reason we're doing outreach is to change that perception in the community, that this is no longer an issue for holding a security clearance, that we want the best and the brightest regardless of your sexual orientation.
ALLEN: Aside from a brief PowerPoint presentation, this is a pretty informal and chatty affair. Sebastian Paris, a Miami lawyer, says he attends many Gay Chamber of Commerce events but was surprised when he heard about this one.
SEBASTIAN PARIS: I'm like, what is going on? Are they opening up a gay department in the CIA, or maybe they need people to understand the gay culture for their investigations that involve gay people? I have no idea. So I have to go and check this out, what this is all is about.
ALLEN: After a few minutes with Barber and Ballard, Paris said he's ready to consider trading in his job as a lawyer for one with the nation's premier spy agency. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.