JUDGING HAGEL’S GAY-RIGHTS RECORD - NewYorker.com
JUDGING HAGEL’S GAY-RIGHTS RECORD
It’s easy to understand why having Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense appeals to President Obama. The appointment of Hagel, a former Republican senator with war-hero stature who served in Vietnam but who is not part of the right-wing defense establishment, has the allure of seeming bipartisan, and also gets Obama a big outside-the-box thinker as the leader of the hardest to manage cabinet agency in the government. And Hagel is apparently someone Obama likes and trusts. All of which are pretty good reasons to name him.
Hagel’s nomination is opposed by some on the right because he is seen as insufficiently conservative on defense issues and by some supporters of Israel who worry that he may advocate a reëxamination of our strategy in that arena. Both of these may, conversely, be reasons why Obama finds him an attractive choice.
But the Hagel nomination also presents challenges for Americans who care about civil rights. When Hagel served in the United States Senate, as a Republican from Nebraska, he consistently voted against gay rights—his record earned him a zero-per-cent rating (three times) from the Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay-rights lobby. Among other things, Hagel voted against extending basic employment nondiscrimination protections and the federal hate-crimes law to cover gay Americans.
In 1998, after President Bill Clinton nominated a prominent gay-rights advocate from San Francisco, James Hormel, to be the ambassador to Luxembourg, Hagel, then a Senator, seemed to go out of his way to malign not only Hormel—“openly, aggressively gay”—but gay Americans generally, with comments that were blatantly offensive even then; they suggested that the very fact of being gay should disqualify one from representing America abroad.
I worked on the Hormel nomination when I was on the White House staff. Hagel’s comments were very discouraging and damaging, especially coming from someone we had hoped could be persuaded that Hormel should be judged on his merits. Instead, Hagel’s remarks signalled that the extreme anti-gay right wing was increasing the pressure on Republican senators to oppose the nomination because Hormel was gay, and that moderate republicans were failing in line. Hagel recently apologized for those 1998 remarks, calling them “insensitive.”
Without a doubt, one of the most challenging and contentious defense-policy issues during the past twenty years has been whether gay and lesbian Americans should be allowed to serve in the military. Obama provided crucial leadership in ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and opened up the military ranks to gays in 2011. So it is naturally surprising to many gay-rights advocates that he would pick as his new Secretary of Defense someone who was opposed to open service when he was in the Senate. More recently, though, as part of his apology to Hormel, Hagel said that he is now “fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to L.G.B.T. military families.”
Barney Frank, a former congressman from Massachusetts who is usually the Administration’s staunchest defender of gay rights, at first said that he was opposed to the Hagel nomination because he thought the Hormel comments were “aggressively bigoted” and not “an aberration.” He added, “I cannot think of any other minority group in the U.S. today where such a negative statement and action made in 1998 would not be an obstacle to a major Presidential appointment.” On Monday, however, he softened his position considerably, saying that now that Hagel has been nominated he should be confirmed in order to advance other policy goals.
Notably, aside from his slightly contrived Hormel apology, issued after he was already publicly being considered for the job of Defense Secretary, there is no evidence so far of Hagel’s support for gay rights.
So how should the gay-rights issue be weighed when considering the nomination? Hagel now says that he is fully committed to the President’s position on expanding the rights of gay Americans not only to serve in the military but also more generally. Should gay-rights advocates take him at his word and support him, if only because he is the President’s choice, or oppose him because of the views he expressed as a Republican senator?
Everyone is entitled to their journey on gay-rights issues, and people in the civil-rights community should welcome those who have changed their position. The strength of the gay-rights movement has come from its ability to expand its base of support to include former opponents. As more people feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientation, others realize that they know actual gay people, and it becomes harder to discriminate against them. The unprecedented rise in support for same-sex marriage as reflected in public-opinion polls is only the most dramatic evidence of this proposition.
But Hagel will have to do a lot to convince people that his personal conversion is real, and he will have to do it during his confirmation hearings, where one of his other challenges will be to convince conservatives that he is not too liberal to be Secretary of Defense.
Hagel should—and, presumably, will—be pressed to do substantially more than give his assurance that he will carry out the President’s policies on gay rights. If he has truly changed his views, he needs to explain the context of that conversion and lay out a plan for making the Pentagon and the military more welcoming for gay and lesbian Americans. (“I want to hear how he’s evolved on this issue,” Tammy Baldwin, the newly elected openly gay Senator from Wisconsin told MSNBC.) He will also need to speak to the issue of gay-marriage equality and how it impacts gay military families who are among those most affected by the Defense of Marriage Act, under review this term by the Supreme Court.
It may be that as Defense Secretary, Hagel could become a real champion for the rights of gays and lesbians who want to serve their country, as is sometimes the case with parents who are converted to the gay-rights cause after learning that they have a gay child. But he will have to show not only some genuine regret for his past actions and statements about gay Americans but also a real command of the civil-rights issues facing the military in order to convince people of that. I think it can be done; I’m hopeful he does it, but it will not work if he bases his case on a weak apology and a promise to follow orders. It will only work if he shows some leadership.
Photograph of Chuck Hagel in 1998, the year of the Hormel nomination, by Scott J. Ferrell/Getty.