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Gay German diplomat settles into SF

by Heather Cassell

German Consul General Hans-Ulrich Suedbeck stands beside a map of Germany. Photo: Rick Gerharter
German Consul General Hans-Ulrich Suedbeck stands beside a map of Germany. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Sitting in his office overlooking San Francisco Bay, German Consul General of the Pacific Northwest Hans-Ulrich Suedbeck is casual and genuinely pleased to be in the city.

Suedbeck, 56, who prefers to go by Uli, is the second gay man to hold the German consul general position in San Francisco.

His friend and colleague, Rolf Schutte, who was the first gay German consul general to be appointed to the post here, served from 2005 to 2009. Times were different when Schutte served in the diplomatic post. Schutte's late partner, Bertolt Schmidt, wasn't recognized by the U.S. State Department, forcing him to travel back and forth on a visitor's visa.

Domestic partnerships were recognized in Germany, but not across borders. At the time, Schutte took a controversial position, publicly denouncing Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage, in 2008. He was unapologetic, despite some critics who didn't believe a foreign diplomat should weigh in on state matters. (The U.S. Supreme Court later tossed out Prop 8 on a technicality.)

He also established good relationships with the Jewish community and spoke at several of the pink triangle ceremonies held every June for Pride Month.

Schutte is currently the German ambassador to Latvia.

Nearly a decade later, same-sex marriage is legal throughout the U.S., and last summer, just as Suedbeck and his family were packing to move to San Francisco, same-sex marriage became legal in Germany.

Suedbeck's family, which includes his domestic partner, Frank Vollbehr, a landscape architect, and their two young children, is recognized by the State Department, a policy implemented by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009.

The couple, who have been together for 16 years, don't plan to marry, Suedbeck said, though he refers to Vollbehr as his husband. Germany doesn't automatically convert domestic partnerships to marriage.

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last month, Suedbeck offered his thoughts on a wide range of topics.

He expressed dismay that Chancellor Angela Merkel waited for Germany's Supreme Court to push the government, which was under her control then, to legalize same-sex marriage.

"Angela Merkel is fairly middle-of-the-road politically, in my assessment," said Suedbeck. "But she is heading a conservative party, therefore, she was not exactly pushing this legal institution. That's why the Federal Supreme Court had to decide."

The court's position was Germany "would have to do it at some point. She then took it up to make sure that [it happened] pretty fast," he said.

Coming to the 'gay mecca'
Suedbeck started his position at the end of August 2017.

The nearly 30-year Foreign Service veteran took over for German diplomat Stefan Schlueter, who served in the post for three years until he retired last June.

Suedbeck has served in Afghanistan, Brussels, the Netherlands, Serbia and the Balkans, Ukraine, and many other countries during his career.

The consul general position in San Francisco is coveted by foreign diplomats, and being in the "gay mecca" and the tech mecca makes it very special for Suedbeck and his family, he said.

"We were very happy when we learned from the Personnel Department that I was chosen to be the consul general here in San Francisco," said Suedbeck, although he would be happy at any consulate in the U.S. "San Francisco is very high up on the wish list. We were very, very lucky that this wish came true. We love being in San Francisco."

Personally, it's a great place for he and his partner to raise their children because there are many other gay families in the Bay Area, he noted. The couple are also very social. They enjoy entertaining thought leaders in the Bay Area's innovative business sectors and world leaders.

Professionally, San Francisco is challenging as well as exhilarating. Suedbeck's territory includes northern California to Alaska, Hawaii, and east to Wyoming. His office serves German-Americans and Germans living in the U.S., as well as American travelers to Germany.

It's estimated there are up to 44 million German-Americans living in the U.S., according to the 2016 U.S. Census. It's estimated that 60,000 Germans call the Bay Area home, Suedbeck said, quoting an article published in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

"That's a huge basis for cooperation for creating sympathy for feeling connected [to Germany] and we want to work with that," said Suedbeck, who oversees a team of about 20 people.

One of his jobs is to help German-Americans reclaim their German citizenship their families lost when they fled the country during World War II.

The number of requests has skyrocketed in the past couple of years, Suedbeck said. He and his staff are working on ways to improve processing requests and documents.

One of Suedbeck's goals is to connect German-Americans, Germans, and Americans interested in Germany through a variety of events and cultural exchanges, particularly focused on science and technology, entrepreneurship and business, and arts and culture. The consulate serves several thousand people annually.

"I'm still very much under the impression that, in a way, the future of the world is created in the Bay Area in very many respects and therefore, of course, also the future of Germany," said Suedbeck, who is very interested in the innovation of the technology and science sectors and facilitating dialogues between science and tech professionals in Silicon Valley and Germany.

He appreciates the West's unabashed movement forward with technology, however, from a German perspective, given its leaders' history utilizing technology, he explained, Germans take a more critical and cautious perspective to the opportunities and dangers new technologies provide.

"What we want to do is to create a bigger understanding that it is important for Germany to come here and look at what's happening," said Suedbeck, who is pushing for Germans to see new trends originating here as early as possible, "in order to start thinking about it" and to foster informed debates in Germany about tech innovations.

"Also, we want to create an understanding here in the U.S. that a slightly more cautious approach is not always the wrong one," he added.

German-U.S. relations
As confirmation drags on over the nomination of President Donald Trump's first gay appointee to become ambassador to Germany, the country has been pushing to get a U.S. ambassador in Berlin, according to media reports. At the same time, Merkel and German officials have frequently visited Trump more than recent past presidents as the two countries attempt to strengthen their relationship.

Suedbeck noted the high number of visits Merkel and Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel made to the U.S. in 2017.

"In the last year, there have been more visits by the chancellor and the foreign minister to Washington than many years before," said Suedbeck, noting that Germany is trying to work, discuss, and coordinate with the U.S. government more than ever.

At the same time, there is a great interest in Germany also in the fields where policies in California and other U.S. states differ from what's happening in Washington, D.C. It is his task to report on things like climate and energy policies, migration issues, and net neutrality, to name a few.

However, when the B.A.R. asked about Germany's pressure on the U.S. to fill the vacancy in Berlin's American embassy, Suedbeck responded, "I don't think it's Germany's role to say it has to be this guy or that woman and I'm very sure we don't say that. For us the U.S. is increasingly [an] important partner and, of course, we want a full-fledged ambassador to talk to."

Trump nominated Richard Grenell, a gay man, to be U.S. ambassador to Germany in September 2017, but his confirmation has stalled for months in the Senate.

"You can't just leave it empty," said Suedbeck. "It would be in your and our interest to have an American ambassador in Berlin very soon."

It is also his duty to highlight Germans' presence in the U.S. Germans are the largest ethnic minority in America, but as the Economist noted in 2015, they've assimilated so well that they are invisible.

San Francisco hosted the largest German film festival outside of Germany, Berlin and Beyond, and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Goethe-Institute in February, in which Suedbeck participated.

This year Germany will celebrate the 150th birthday of Magnus Hirschfeld, who was one of the first human sexuality researchers in the 20th century and who successfully lobbied for Germany to decriminalize homosexuality. The Nazis came into power soon after and destroyed much of his work, as well as persecuted LGBT people in the concentration camps. San Francisco's German and LGBT communities will host a commemoration of Hirschfeld at Pink Triangle Park in May, said Suedbeck.

The consulate will participate in a collaborative event, the German-American Year, with the eight German consulates throughout the U.S. and the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., October 3, 2018 through July 4, 2019, celebrating the friendship between the German and the American people.

Suedbeck also plans to continue his predecessors' close relationship with the local Jewish community as well as the LGBT community, he said.

"We have every intention to be as good friends as possible here, including the Jewish communities," said Suedbeck, who said he was "very happy" to continue to cooperate with them.

One project he's working on is the annual 10-day program that brings U.S. rabbis to Germany, visiting places in which the atrocities of the past took place but focusing also on the revival of Jewish life in Germany today.

"I think we've learned a lot from our past mistakes," he said.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or oitwnews@gmail.com.

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