Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s pick to run the department of defense, has critics from every corner of the political spectrum. Some question his commitment to the defense of Israel. Others say he’ll be soft on Iran. And there are those who say his stance on gay issues, particularly his idiotic comments against an openly gay ambassadorial nominee back in 1998, are disqualifying. On that last point I say give me a break.
President Clinton had nominated James Hormel, philanthropist and former alternate representative to the United Nations under then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to be the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. It was during the political fight that ensued that Hagel, then the senator from Nebraska, made his homophobic remark to the Omaha World-Herald.
Ambassadorial posts are sensitive. They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.
The gay political group Log Cabin Republicans (LCR) took out a full-page ad in the New York Times last month slamming Hagel for those remarks. That’s understandable, up to a point.
Hagel’s view of gay men and lesbians in 1998 was insulting and bigoted. But it wasn’t far from the mainstream. What he said came about two years after then-President Clinton signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. The debate surrounding the discriminatory legislation was so heated that the day before the signing, Clinton released a statement noting “the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it.”
Viewed through today’s 2013 lens, Hagel’s insult also sounds outdated. With most Americans favoring marriage equality for same-sex couples, nine states and the District of Columbia allowing same-sex marriage, a sitting president of the United States expressing his personal support for said marriages and influential Republicans now “openly, aggressively” pushing for marriage equality, the nation today is a decidedly more tolerant place.
That’s because people have had a change of heart. They’ve had their assumptions challenged as people around them came out, shared their stories, dispelled the myths and stereotypes and revealed themselves to be just like everyone else — only gayer.
Hagel apologized “to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights” for his 15-year-old derision late last month in a statement. This act of contrition was slapped back by LCR as “too little, too late” in a full-page ad in The Post yesterday. For his part, Hormel made it clear to me during a phone conversation yesterday that the apology was never directly delivered to him by Hagel.
Nevertheless, Hormel reiterated a comment he made on his Facebook page on Dec. 23, a couple of weeks before Hagel’s official nomination.
[I]f Senator Hagel is committed sincerely to full civil rights for LGBT people, including open service for LGBT military families, then I would be willing to accept his apology and, further, say that his comments in 1998 should not disqualify him from consideration today.
Times change. People change. And on issues of civil rights when both change, folks should be given the space to make amends for being on the wrong side of history. Besides, I can’t imagine Obama selecting someone for his cabinet who would stall or reverse the considerable actions he has made on equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
When Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out as gay in Aug. 2010, I urged everyone to give him a break. There was plenty to be angry about. As the 2004 reelection campaign manager for President George W. Bush, Mehlman was a key part of a machine that denigrated the families and relationships of gay men and lesbians across the country. He, too, apologized for the hurt he caused and promised to make amends.
If Mehlman’s apology can be accepted for playing an active role in abridging the rights and dignity of same-sex couples so should Hagel’s apology for an ignorant comment 15 years ago.
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