U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died Monday after serving a record 57 years in the U.S. Senate, evolved from a socially conservative Democrat who opposed nearly all LGBT civil rights initiatives to an elder lawmaker who backed several important pro-gay bills.
“I think you can say that he moved forward and started to understand the basic humanity of all West Virginians, including LGBT West Virginians,” said Stephen Skinner, an attorney who serves as president of the board of the statewide LGBT group Fairness West Virginia.
Skinner, a native West Virginian who said he spoke with Byrd many times over the years, acknowledged that the senator said many “bad things” about LGBT-related issues.
But Skinner joined many political observers in West Virginia to remember Byrd this week more for the massive infusion of federal funds and resources he secured for his state that resulted in economic development and jobs for residents long plagued by poverty.
“I would say he was universally beloved, including by the LGBT people in the state, whose affection for him often override most of his decisions” on LGBT-related issues, Skinner said.
“Everywhere you go, we were all affected by what he did. And everybody believes he did so much for the country that everything he did for the state was deserved,” said Skinner.
Allison Herwitt, director of legislative affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, pointed to HRC’s congressional scorecard ratings for Byrd, which range from a low of 13 of 100 for the 108th Congress to a high of 60 two years ago in the 110th Congress, the most recent rating.
HRC gave him ratings in the 25-to-35 range in most years beginning in the 1990s. The ratings are based on votes, stances and attitudes toward LGBT- and AIDS-related issues.
“Over the years he’s had a very mixed record on LGBT equality,” Herwitt said.
Among other things, Byrd voted in 1996 for the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. That same year, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have banned most private-sector employers from engaging in employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In a lengthy floor speech during the Senate debate on DOMA, Byrd cited how some historians linked the decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire to homosexuality.
“But when it came to being there for hate crimes and on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ he voted for equality and moving forward,” Herwitt said. “And so he is one of those people that, over the course of his political career, he certainly has evolved on our issues.”
Byrd voted last year for a hate crimes measure that authorizes the federal government to prosecute crimes that target people for their sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure became the first LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill to pass Congress.
Earlier this year, Byrd supported a compromise provision to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a close vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Capitol Hill sources said Byrd’s staff on the committee helped draft the compromise language that was credited with persuading enough members of the panel to pass it.
Byrd’s position on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was less clear. When same-sex marriage opponents proposed the Federal Marriage Amendment before the Senate in 2004, Byrd voted to end a filibuster backed by Senate Democratic leaders, who sought to block the measure from coming up for a full vote.
A motion to end the filibuster failed by a vote of 48 to 50; two senators were absent at the time of the vote. Sixty votes are needed to end filibusters.
Some observers considered a vote for ending the filibuster a sign that senators supported the amendment. But Skinner said members of Byrd’s staff told him that Byrd “opposed messing with the constitution” on matters of same-sex marriage and planned to vote against the amendment if it reached the floor for a direct vote.
A gay former member of Byrd’s staff, who spoke this week on condition of anonymity, said Byrd was a strong advocate of full debate on important issues before the Senate. The former staffer agreed with Skinner’s assessment that Byrd, a recognized constitutional scholar, would likely have voted against the same-sex marriage amendment in a direct Senate vote.
“I don’t think he understood gays,” said the former staffer. “It was not part of his social lexicon. Yet it was clear that there had been an evolution on gay issues.”
Herwitt said Byrd appeared to have been influenced by the greater visibility of LGBT people in his home state and throughout the country.
“I think as the country evolves on our issues, so do peoples’ understanding of what LGBT equality means for people,” she said. “I’m sure in the beginning of his career, when people weren’t out and living open and honestly, it was different. As he made it through the end of his career, he was working on Capitol Hill where people who are working for you and working for other senators are out and openly gay, so I think that also has an impact.”