An organisation representing US State Department gay and lesbian personnel and their families has welcomed comments from Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton about same-sex partners.

Today the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton by 16 votes to one.

There will be a vote of the full Senate to confirm her appointment after President-elect Barack Obama takes office next week.

Mrs Clinton will become the first former First Lady of the United States to be appointed to the Cabinet. 

During her campaign for the Democratic party’s nomination for President, she said she would be an advocate for gay rights across the world if elected.

During her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Mrs Clinton was asked by Senator Russ Feingold if she will support “changes to existing personnel policy in order to ensure that LGBT staff at State and USAID receive equal benefits and support.”

She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “we should take a hard look at the existing policy” and she has asked for more briefing on the issue.

“My understanding is other nations have moved to extend that partnership benefit. And we will come back to you to inform you of decisions we make going forward,” she said.

Under the current regulations a US State Department employee’s spouse can claim several rights which are denied to unmarried partners and same-sex partners.

Other issues include the lack of training for same-sex partners to recognise terrorist threats, the lack of medical care and the need to pay for one’s own transportation when one’s partner is on duty.

Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) welcomed Mrs Clinton’s comments.

GLIFAA President Michelle Schohn “noted that LGBT US diplomats and aid workers serve overseas in some of the most dangerous locations, but continue to be denied equal treatment for their families. ”

She expressed hope that the incoming Obama administration would work to implement “overdue reforms.”

Last year Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, from Wisconsin, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, along with Congressional colleagues, and highlighted “basic and common-sense” policy changes that the State Department need to enact regarding Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).

Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Jeffrey Bergner replied that the State Department treats “same-sex and opposite sex unmarried partners of US government employees stationed abroad in an equivalent manner.”

He cited, among other things, helping the unmarried partners of employees overseas obtain residency permits and including them in the Mission phone book.

The inequalities faced by gay and lesbian State Department staff were highlighted in December 2007 when a former US ambassador left his post after criticising Condoleezza Rice’s stance on the issue.

Michael E Guest retired after more than 26 years as a form of protest against regulations that he considered as unfair to same-sex partners.

The 50-year-old, who is openly gay, served as US ambassador to Romania when President Bush took office.

Mr Guest was the first out gay person to be confirmed by the Senate to an ambassadorial post.

“For the past three years, I’ve urged the Secretary and her senior management team to redress policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees,” he said during a speech in Washington.

Guest said that these issues could have been solved simply with Ms Rice’s signature, but his pleas had never received any attention.