As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, the LGBT civil rights movement is no monolith. Opinions on messaging, strategy, tactics, etc. are both widely varied and a dime a dozen. The current divisive issue du jour is that of former United States Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a distinguished Vietnam War veteran whom President Obama officially nominated yesterday to serve as Defense Secretary in his second term.
The controversy surrounding Hagel centers around remarks he made in 1998 about philanthropist James Hormel (left), who was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be ambassador to Luxembourg the previous year. The nomination was held up, however, because of Hormel’s sexual orientation — he is a gay man, and would become the first out gay U.S. ambassador in history. Then-Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was one of the most outspoken opponents of the nomination, telling the Omaha World-Herald in a 1998 interview:
“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. [Emphases mine]“
In light of the uproar surrounding James Hormel, President Clinton appointed him to the ambassadorship in a recess appointment in 1999.
Hagel’s homophobic slur against Ambassador Hormel, along with renewed attention to his anti-LGBT voting record (he voted against both employment nondiscrimination and hate crimes protections and received a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign three times), has raised questions about the former Senator’s ability to impartially lead a post-DADT Defense Department; the list of politicians, activists and organizations expressing concern about or even outright opposition to Hagel’s nomination includes the Human Rights Campaign; the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Log Cabin Republicans; GetEQUAL; Garden State Equality; Sen. Tammy Baldwin; former Rep. Barney Frank; Richard Socarides; and James Hormel himself.
In December, Hagel apologized for his anti-gay remarks in a statement, saying:
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”
Many people, myself included, found Hagel’s apology rather canned and conveniently timed. Still, many of the aforementioned activists and individuals either walked back their criticism or even accepted the apology outright. (Those issuing pro-Hagel statements include HRC; the Courage Campaign, Barney Frank, and James Hormel.) Many of them rightly pointed out that 1998 was just two years after President Clinton signed the now-infamous (and paradoxically-named) “Defense of Marriage Act” that wrote marriage discrimination into federal law, and noted the seismic shift in public opinion on LGBT rights that has occured in the intervening years.
Still, questions remain. In an editorial about President Obama’s second-term cabinet nominations published today, the New York Times writes:
“…it will be important to hear Mr. Hagel explain at his confirmation hearing how his views have changed and how he plans to make sure that all service members are treated equally and receive the same benefits regardless of sexual orientation. It would also help if he acknowledged that his past comments were not just insensitive but abhorrent.”
In my view, the paper’s editorial board gets it exactly right. I am certainly a believer in forgiving people for repugnant statements they’ve made and bigoted views they’ve had in the past. After all, President Obama himself didn’t finish his “evolution” on marriage equality until March of last year (and he still needs to go further in expressing his support). However, as the Times rightly notes, asking the LGBT community to forgive and move on after only a tepid, perfunctory, likely-ghostwritten “apology” from Hagel for his skin-crawlingly awful comments verges on a slap in the face.
The way I was raised, when you say or do something wrong and hurtful, you have to candidly admit you were wrong and sincerely apologize before the healing can begin. Thus far, Hagel has not done this. He must.