The State Department’s Ned Price speaks for America. He also just made LGBTQ history.
The Daily Beast
February 8, 2021
Ned Price just became the first out-gay spokesperson for the State Department. Tim Teeman surveys his career in intelligence—and how coming out helped unlock a powerful gay voice.
When Ned Price began work at the CIA in 2006 as an intelligence analyst he was not yet ready to come out. Part of the process of applying for the job involved undergoing a polygraph test, which Price thought might reveal that he was gay. This part of himself, then signifying in his mind a potential for leverage and blackmail, would be out in the open and could spell the end of his aspirations to work in intelligence.
Price was asked by his interviewer if there was anything they had not covered that Price thought was important. Price said he had not been asked about his romantic life. His interviewer said he didn’t want to hear about it, that it was not relevant, and brought the interview to an end. The workplace Price entered seemed fairly progressive, but it still took him some time to come out.
Two weeks ago, Price made history when he was appointed the first out-gay spokesperson at the State Department under its newly appointed Biden-era chief, Antony J. Blinken. Price is America’s voice to the world, speaking out on all areas of international policy and diplomacy. At one of his first briefings he condemned the recent anti-LGBTQ crackdowns unfolding around a university in Istanbul, Turkey. Price told reporters, “We are concerned by detentions of students and other demonstrators and strongly condemn the anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric surrounding the demonstrations.”
Last week, President Biden released a presidential memorandum, making it clear his administration’s commitment to LGBTQ rights worldwide, so expect Price to be as confidently pointed as he was about the anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Turkey as and when the occasion arises. He is settling into the layered meanings of his historic appointment, and the added power of his words when he speaks up on behalf of LGBTQ rights for America.
In the last two weeks, thanks to his history-making appointment, Price has also found himself in the unusual position of becoming news himself. One senses he has not relished that. He declined to speak to a reporter on the record for this profile, offering only one quote to The Daily Beast. “There’s no higher honor than working with the women and men of the State Department. In this role, I’m speaking on their behalf and on behalf of the U.S. government; that’s what makes it especially thrilling. I’d rather let them, their work, and America’s role in the world be the center of attention, which is why I’ll decline to comment.”
After his remarks on Turkey, Price looked at his direct messages and at Twitter to see what people were saying all over the world. There was some vitriol, but he also heard from a number of Turkish LGBTQ people, reaching out to say how meaningful it was to hear that message and from someone who was a member of their community.
In his new role, Price has to speak for America, not himself, but is in the fortunate position that his personal views and the department that he is employed to speak about are aligned.
“Ned was the most unflappable spokesperson I worked with.”
Price’s career began at the CIA, where as an analyst he spent seven years focused on counter terrorism, al Qaeda, and its affiliates around the world. In 2013, he applied successfully to be a spokesperson at the CIA.
Alongside his talent and skills, “right place, right time” seems a distinguishing feature of his career moves to date. In 2014, he joined the National Security Council as a director of strategic communications and assistant press secretary. In June 2015, the White House appointed him a spokesperson and senior director for strategic communications at the NSC. In 2016—in another case of the right time and place—he was appointed as Special Assistant to the President, a role he remained in until the end of the Obama administration.
At the NSC, Price reported to Ben Rhodes, under Obama an assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Rhodes told The Daily Beast that it was “remarkable how quickly Ned transitioned from the mindset of a CIA analyst and press officer to someone who had to cover literally the whole world at the White House, including the complicated intersection of national security and politics. Second, and more relevantly: Ned was the most unflappable spokesperson I worked with.”
The pair “dealt with a tremendous array of crises those last two years—ISIS, refugees, Ebola, Iran Deal, Russia and Ukraine—and Ned was often both the spokesperson for those issues as well as the guy coordinating U.S. government agencies.” Rhodes said.
Maybe it was Price’s intelligence background, Rhodes said, “but he never got rattled and never seemed to get tired. As someone who was plenty exhausted by the end, I ended up delegating a ton of stuff to Ned. He also excelled on the Ebola task force working directly with (Ebola czar, now Biden Chief of Staff) Ronald Klain, and worked on a daily basis with Psaki (Jen, now White House Press Secretary) and then was the comms strategist for National Security Action which Jake Sullivan (now National Security Adviser) and I co-chaired.
as confined to the CIA, a universe away from the policy institutes downtown. He found that the then-White House staff deferred to intelligence-community career professionals.
Price had always considered himself to be progressive, not partisan—and his White House colleagues were either career officials or been around since the beginning of the Obama campaign; and Price was proud to work alongside them on foreign policy areas such as Cuba, Iraq, and the Paris Climate Accords (which the Biden administration just re-signed America back up to).
At the Obama White House, former deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told The Daily Beast, Price combined a deep knowledge of topics with a “sharp savvy in seeing how those issues would play out in the domestic political environment. He was very good at corralling NSC bureaucracy. He knew the White House was the tip of the spear, but wanted to make sure it never got out ahead of any particular agency. He reads the room. He makes sure his point of view comes across, but not in a bombastic or unprofessional way. He keeps in mind that government is a collaborative enterprise. He’s always fighting for the greater good. He is also a good friend, fun to be around, and knows when not to take himself too seriously.”
Liz Allen, whose close friendship with Price began when she was the White House’s deputy communications director, recalled very intense working days traveling the world with the president, the pressure offset by fun nights out. Price’s expertise in the intelligence field is coupled with an ability to communicate “better than anyone” Allen knows at the intersection of both arenas.
Allen, who now works private communications consulting, told The Daily Beast that Price may take his work intensely seriously, but also has a “fast, hilarious, insightful, observational wit,” which brought much-needed levity at charged moments.
She speaks as warmly of Price as other former colleagues, noting he is a generous host who hosts “fun, raucous weekend brunches that can last all day.” At after-work happy hours featuring colleagues, staffers, and journalists Price “can enliven a table and room unlike many others,” Allen said. Price and his partner, Richard Hudock, senior director of communications for NBC News, have been together for three-and-a-half years.
Price’s father would take his son to protests, not the beach, when on holiday.
Price grew up in Dallas, fascinated with the world. He was christened Edward, but has always been “Ned,” never Edward or Ed. His grandfather had been called Edward, and his parents thought the name always too formal and called their son Ned. A teacher once called him Edward, was swiftly corrected, and the name was never heard again.
Price’s father was an attorney, his mother worked at the Dallas Museum of Art. From an early age Price traveled to places near and far—going to Cuba, aged 17, for example—and rather than go to beaches as other families might on vacation, Price’s father would find whatever protest was going on and take his son there. His father was interested in civic activism and engagement, sparking in his son the same. Price was extremely studious at school and college—working so hard, perhaps, to avoid questions about who he was, and issues he did not want to broach at the time.
He went to an all-boys school from fifth to 12th grade; he made his best friends in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades and they remain some of his closest friends today. Some of those friends are also gay, and as an adult Price realized they were going through similar experiences at the same time manifesting in different ways. They were on the same journey, but with different paces. The shared experience has helped them understand each other better, even if they could only finally be open with each other much later.
Price’s closet formed early, in part because of oppressive machismo of the boys’ school. There were a couple of kids at school other pupils assumed to be gay because of how they spoke, acted, or what they wore. Seeing the taunts and bullying those kids endured left its inhibiting mark on the young Price.
Price continued to fend away the truth about himself throughout college, where he had a girlfriend, and thought to himself he could make a heterosexual life work. Then Price’s best friend from school came out to him. Price took it as a signal that if his buddy could make it through this then he could too. It was a necessary, welcome kick.
Eventually, he came out. It was a process for his parents, as it can be for so many, but they—indeed all the most important people in Price’s life—were accepting and loving.
The police officer asked Price: “You’re not gay, are you?”
Price knew he wanted to go into foreign policy, but didn’t know what that meant until he went Georgetown University, where he studied international relations at the School of Foreign Service. Graduating summa cum laude, he arrived in D.C. in August 2001. Ten days into his first semester, 9/11 happened. Price watched the Pentagon burn and later smolder from on top of one of the dorms. It clarified his determination to go into public service.
Five years later, Price started working in government. He was afraid of being discovered to be gay, He didn’t know what was and what wasn’t considered disqualifying when it came to a career at the CIA and in national security. Openness was only just becoming institutionalized.
David K. Johnson’s brilliant book, The Lavender Scare, powerfully described the persecution of lesbians and gay men in the federal government in the 1950’s. Up until the mid-1990s, if you were out in the intelligence field, you were ineligible for security clearance—a persistent hangover of a 1953 executive order, signed by then President Eisenhower, directing federal agencies to investigate employees who might pose security risks. “‘Sexual perversion,’ code for homosexuality, was considered a fireable offense,” as Shane Harris wrote in a 2015 Daily Beast article, detailing the history of LGBTQ people working in the security services.
In 1995, then President Clinton issued an executive order, effectively reversing that. “No inference concerning the standards” for employment, it said, “may be raised solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the employee.”
Still a decade after that, the pace of change was slow. LGBTQ employees like Price were wary of coming out, seeing their sexuality and job in uneasy co-existence. The shadow of lavender purges and secrecy still existed, and was most acute in the security services where there were few bosses fostering an inclusive workplace culture, or who emphasized organizational strength in diversity, or who prioritized diversity in terms of recruitment and retention.
The turning point for Price was the sight of a lanyard—a not unfamiliar sight at the State Department where all employees wore them, symbolizing different jobs and departments. Price saw staffers from the CIA’s LGBTQ staff association, ANGLE, wear lanyards with the group’s name on it. It gave him confidence, a sense that the CIA was evolving, to see that it wasn’t just LGBTQ members of staff wearing the lanyards, but their supportive straight bosses and colleagues. With that safety net, he began to tell people he was gay.
One night in August 2011, he was driving too fast home, excited to head out on a first date with a guy he was looking forward to get to know. He did not notice the police car behind him, its siren on.
As Price described a month later in the Washington Post, The officer ran Price’s license and took him into custody; an administrative glitch at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles meant Price’s number plate had come up as a license which had been suspended. Price recalled that he was alone with the officer at the police station that night. The officer asked where he lived. Part of Price’s answer included the information of it being close to Dupont Circle, D.C.’s historically gay neighborhood.
The officer asked Price: “You’re not gay, are you?”
Price didn’t know how to respond. Feeling intimidated and scared as it was just the two of them there, and the officer seemed possibly homophobic, Price said no, he was not. “Good,” the officer replied, “with an exaggerated sigh of relief,” Price wrote in the Post. “He then warned me to stay away from the ‘public bathrooms’ near the District’s Meridian Hill Park. He laughed heartily. I sat there, humiliated.”
Price stewed and agonized about it in the hour that it took for the cops to realize the clerical mix-up. After Price had his cuffs removed, and as the cop was saying goodbye, Price told him he was gay and had taken offense at his remarks. “I don’t care if you’re gay,” the officer told him.
“I left the station that evening indignant about the ordeal, not knowing whether to chalk it up to mere thoughtless remarks or something closer to a violation of my civil rights,” Price wrote. “It was only later that I realized what was really eating at me. It had less to do with what the officer asked and more with how I responded.”
Price didn’t identify himself as a CIA analyst in that Post story, but it was a liberating moment. To write the article was a cathartic expression of his openness. He had never done anything like it before; as an intelligence analyst up to that point, the only things he had written had been seen by people with security clearances, mostly at the CIA. (And the date he was rushing to that night went as well he had hoped; they were together for three years and remain friends.)
There were other incidents of people at work making homophobic jokes or using anti-gay epithets in his presence not knowing Price himself was gay. Such incidents are in sharp contrast to the progressive, open-minded and absolutely welcoming colleagues Price encountered at the Obama White House and now at the State Department under Blinken.
And yet, even today, one senior State Department official told The Daily Beast, “we would be fooling ourselves if we said there was complete openness. There are cultures within the national security community that are not where they need to be.” The operational side of the CIA has always been, and remains, dominated by a “good ol’ boy network,” within which some LGBTQ people do not feel able to be out.
But the official was careful also to point to the existence of groups like GLIFFA (Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies), and the now-good fortune to have a president and secretary of state who are so pro-LGBTQ domestically and internationally. Blinken immediately reversed the Trump administration directive not to display Pride flags on embassies, and the new secretary of state, addressing his workforce, made clear he wants the department to be more diverse, and look like the United States that it is representing.
“He knows the role he has is bigger than any individual who fills it at any particular time.”
At the moment of Trump’s election, Price thought he would end his career at the CIA. He stayed in post for a couple of weeks, until Price realized working under the Trump administration would not work for him.
In February 2017, Price wrote a strongly worded and, as it turned out, darkly prophetic Washington Post article detailing his concerns over Trump’s actions towards the intelligence community, and why he felt he had to leave the CIA. He received both praise and criticism when it was published.
Sources say that Price thought for several days whether it was right to take his concerns public, ultimately deciding to do so because he knew he was far from the only intelligence professional to share the concerns he wrote about. He was giving voice to the worry and frustration of colleagues who could not speak out. Whatever the pushback on social media, he wanted to raise awareness of Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community.
A few years in the relative political wilderness beckoned; during that time Price found himself most drawn to advocacy and foreign policy (he was a director of policy and communications at National Security Action, and an NBC News contributor). As an adjunct professor, he found teaching at his alma mater, Georgetown, most fulfilling of all. For Price, teaching is a practical pursuit. He hasn’t written a PhD, or a long dissertation on international politics, but his students wanted to discuss policy with someone who had been in their shoes 15 or so years prior.
And then Biden won, and this eternal public servant re-found an old calling. Price’s previous experiences working for the Obama administration meant he knew many principals in the Biden-Harris transition team, like director of national intelligence Avril Haines, Jake Sullivan, and Blinken.
When Price was asked by members of the incoming administration what he wanted to do, he said he wanted to go back into government and be a public servant again. It was Blinken who raised the idea of Price being the State Department’s spokesperson.
Officials and staffers at State feel the Trump administration did tremendous damage to the intelligence community, attacking and undermining it institutionally, as well as publicly doubting and even rejecting the intelligence they received.
The relentless demonization by Trump of intelligence professionals has undermined a more general public trust. As one official put it, “You can rebuild institutions and hire people. You can do reviews, and appoint ombudsmen for analytic integrity and empower inspectors general. But reprogramming the attitudes of millions of Americans is much more difficult.”
Within the State Department, the Trump era has led to “immense atrophy” and a “hollowing out” one official said, with large numbers of vacancies at a senior level traditionally held by career ambassadors and older members of staff with years of experience, as well as junior, entry level positions—meaning a twinned crisis within the organization lacking those with valuable long-view experience, and newer blood necessary to see the State Department into the future.
Added to all that, American diplomatic influence has waned around the world. There will, one source said, need to be a degree of humility in how America tries to regain its seat at many tables. “It’s nothing we can’t eventually overcome, but it won’t be a process that we complete in the first week, first month or even year. This will be a long-term process.”
Price has been on the job for around two weeks, with a clutch of briefings under his belt. The jury may still be out on him, but at this honeymoon stage colleagues say he has found it incredibly rewarding not only to be back in government but also surrounded by those with deep experience in policy, diplomacy, and security.
While there was “an important symbolism” in Price’s LGBTQ history-making appointment, “Ned is never one to make it about himself,” said Eric Schultz. “He knows the role he has is bigger than any individual who fills it at any particular time. He understands the goal is to repair and rebuild the relationships the country has around the world.” The Trump era, Schultz said, had led to “a hollowing out of the department, and a tragic four years in which America had abdicated its role as a moral leader in the world. It will take a lot of work to dig ourselves out of that hole.”
“I think Ned really understands the fact that him standing at that podium is a representation of the best U.S. values—inclusion, representation, and personal freedom,” Liz Allen said. “While he knows ‘it’s not about him’ he understands what his appointment represents, and he can also speak authoritatively on behalf of the U.S. government in and of itself.”
Price takes being “a symbol and example to the rest of the world regardless of the words coming out of his mouth” very seriously, said Allen. “It’s quite powerful frankly to watch someone get up and be that example, while to him he is just doing his job, day-in, day-out. I think that a sense of responsibility drives him, and he internalizes that responsibility.”
In the 2011 Washington Post article, where Price mulled his unsettling encounter with the cop and his initial denial of his own sexuality, he wrote, “I would have been satisfied with myself, had I unflinchingly admitted who I was in response to the officer’s question. But I waited; I waited for a more comfortable, opportune moment. More often than not, however, the moment is inopportune. What matters most is being able to speak the truth regardless. In addition to a couple of traffic tickets, that’s what I took away from that police station.” So yes, Price is ready to fight for what he believes in—and now with the added flex of having one of America’s most powerful political institutions right behind him.
Allen declines to speculate what her friend and former colleague might do next, but she believes “the sky’s the limit” for someone with such an embracing knowledge of policy and politics. She hopes his future involves serving in government—if Price continues to wish to do so—because he has been so effective at it to date.
“He’s in a terrific post right now,” said Schultz. “I’m sure he has an even brighter future ahead, although he’s more focused on doing the job in front of him rather than thinking long term down the road.” Schultz laughed. “I would never bet against Ned Price.”