The United Nations Headquarters building is pictured during the 71st United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, Sept. 22, 2016.
The United Nations Headquarters building is pictured during the 71st United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, Sept. 22, 2016.

Gay rights advocates and members of Congress are criticizing a policy change by the U.S. State Department this week that will deny visas to the same-sex partners of unmarried United Nations and international organization employees posted to the United States.

The couples have until Dec. 31 to legally marry in order to keep the non-diplomat partner's visa. Without proof of marriage, they will have 30 days to leave the country.

The change, first reported by the Washington Blade in August, went into effect Oct. 1. It is expected to impact 105 couples, according to the State Department.

"The change in policy ensures consistent treatment between opposite-sex partners and same-sex partners by requiring that same-sex partners, like opposite-sex partners, marry to qualify for derivative diplomatic visas," an agency official told reporters during a call Tuesday.

The State Department defended the policy, explaining it is intended to match the department's own policy for family abroad, and to "promote equal treatment" of same-sex marriages.

An official added that exceptions could be granted for countries that do not recognize same-sex marriage, but "act in a reciprocal fashion to [the United States] and our diplomats."

Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called the policy change "needlessly cruel and bigoted."

Under a policy implemented in 2009 by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the United States issued visas to same-sex partners as "household members," regardless of their marital status. Unmarried heterosexual couples, however, did not receive a similar benefit from the U.S. A 2015 Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the United States.

"It is not meant to be punitive. It is a recognition and a codification of the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States," a State Department official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Critics emphasized that only 12 percent of U.N. member states allow same-sex marriage.

However, a State Department official told reporters that "most" of the affected families "are from countries where same-sex marriage is legal."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a congressman in 2015 when he said he was "deeply saddened" by the Supreme Court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. During congressional questioning earlier this year to confirm his appointment as the country's top diplomat, Pompeo reiterated that he still believed it was "inappropriate" for two gay people to marry, but added that as CIA director under President Donald Trump, he treated all couples at the agency "with the exact same set of rights."

Reporting from AFP is included in this story.