Concerns are emerging in some circles of the LGBT community — now most notably from gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) — over the potential nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, despite the apology he issued days ago regarding anti-gay remarks made in 1998.
A handful of advocates who spoke to the Washington Blade are seeking more details over how Hagel would address remaining issues for LGBT service members — such as additional partner benefits for gay troops and the implementation of openly transgender service — beyond what was offered in the statement in which Hagel apologized and said he would be “committed to LGBT military families.”
Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based Democratic advocate, is among those saying Hagel should lay out more specific plan for addressing outstanding LGBT issues at the Pentagon.
“I think that if he is nominated as Defense Secretary, before we as a community agreed to support him, as some groups have already done, it would be important to hear from him what his plan is on implementing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal and on issues like transgender service,” Socarides said. “These kinds of questions would be appropriate for any defense secretary nominee, but they would be particularly appropriate were the nominee Sen. Hagel, who because of his comments would have some convincing to do.”
Hagel is having his name floated for the role at a time when LGBT rights supporters are pushing the Pentagon to grant additional partner benefits to gay service members — such as joint duty assignments, issuance of military IDs, use of the commissary and family housing — through administrative changes as well as the implementation of open service by transgender people. Since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, the Pentagon has said that it was looking into the benefits issue, but no action so far has been taken.
Jim Burroway, editor of Tucson, Ariz., based blog Box Turtle Bulletin, also said on Sunday the LGBT community should know more about Hagel’s evolution on these issues “before rushing to embrace him.”
“I do think there has been an unseemly rush to accept his apology, considering he apologized for being ‘insensitive’ but not quite for being wrong,” Burroway said. “A lot of other Republicans who changed their minds have found opportunities to articulate their new positions. I’m still waiting for Hagel to do the same.”
Prior to his apology, the concern over Hagel among LGBT advocates was largely over a 1998 quote attributed to him in the Omaha World-Herald where he called then-nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, Jim Hormel, “openly aggressively gay.”
On Dec. 14, Hagel issued an apology to media outlets saying the remarks were insensitive and he’s “fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.” At the time, LGBT groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and OutServe-SLDN accepted Hagel’s apology.
But Hagel also has an anti-gay record while serving in Congress. From 2001 to 2006, Hagel consistently scored a “0″ on the Human Rights Campaign’s scorecards. Hagel voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but didn’t cast a vote on the measure in 2006.
On Monday, gay Rep. Barney Frank announced he was outright opposed to the Hagel nomination on the grounds that the former senator’s 1998 anti-gay remarks and his congressional record on LGBT issues demonstrated “aggressively bigoted opposition” and that Hagel “voted consistently against fairness for LGBT people.”
Speaking to the Blade, Frank said he waited to put out the statement on Monday because he had been on vacation during the previous week, but had been meaning to make known his opposition to the nomination for some time.
“It is important that gay liberals and Democrats not appear to be giving our side a pass,” Frank said. “There’s no doubt Obama’s been very good on LGBT issues. It’s also the case that I don’t think he knew of this statement. A lot of people didn’t; it came out later. But now that it’s out there, I think we have to hold firm. That really was an awful statement.”
Frank said he though the Hormel apology was “very unpersuasive” and he was “surprised” groups like HRC would have accepted the apology on the day it was issued.
“The fact that he would call Jim Hormel ‘aggressively gay’ seems to me an indication of the depth of his dislike of us,” Frank said. “If he said I was ‘aggressively gay,’ I would have said, “‘Well maybe.’ But HRC, I was surprised. I don’t know why they would do that.”
Socarides, an adviser to former President Clinton on LGBT issues at the time Hormel was seeking confirmation, also took issue with the apology and is skeptical of the regret Hagel intended to convey in his statement.
“He did not call Ambassador Hormel or even try to communicate directly with him by email or letter,” Socarides said. “The apology did not address in any specific way why he made the original comments. As I recall, it was fairly clear to us at the time that the Hagel statement was as a result of pressure on him by right-wing groups who were demanding that Republican Senators oppose the nomination. Had he provided some context in the apology it might have been more persuasive.”
Socarides added the apology was “clearly written by someone else, probably by a White House staffer” and “seemed contrived and lacked the kind of context it would need to connote genuine regret.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request to comment on whether it had a role in crafting the Hagel apology or to provide any assurances that the next secretary will address the outstanding issues for LGBT service members in the wake of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Over the weekend, President Obama addressed the potential nomination of Hagel during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying that nothing in Hagel’s record — including his anti-gay remarks — disqualify from the role of defense secretary and that his apology reflects “positive change” in the way the country sees LGBT issues.
“And I think it’s a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people’s attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country,” the President said. “That’s something that I’m very proud to have led, and I think the anybody who’s serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.”
The LGBT community itself is divided on Hagel as defense secretary. Opposition is largely coming from commentators — or in Frank’s case, a lawmaker who soon to leaves Congress — as most LGBT groups have accepted the apology from Hagel.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, is among those saying that the LGBT community shouldn’t view Hagel so harshly considering his apology.
“It was two years after Bill Clinton signed DOMA,” Keisling said. “We’ve forgiven Bill Clinton for something worse than name-calling. The point, largely, of the social justice movement is educating people, and then embracing them when they come over to your side.”
Asked whether LGBT groups should demand a commitment to openly transgender service in exchange for supporting the Hagel nomination, Keisling said those demands are underway and talks have already started at the Pentagon.
“I think we’d like that issue to get raised in confirmation hearings for whomever it is — whether it’s Chuck Hagel or somebody else,” Keisling said. “But the conversations are already starting over at the Pentagon and the next secretary of defense is going to have to be answering to that, regardless of who it is.”
John Aravosis, the gay editor of AMERICAblog often critical of HRC and the Obama administration, was also unprepared to criticize either entity over the Hagel apology or his potential nomination as defense secretary.
Aravosis was critical of the 1998 anti-gay remarks — saying they are along the lines of something the late anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms would say — but added criticizing LGBT groups like HRC for accepting the apology is tough because what kind of commitments they’ve received offline is unknown.
“Maybe they got massive promises from Hagel directly, saying, ‘I promise I’m going to bend over backwards to work with you on the policy,’” Aravosis said. “Who knows? But that’s also part of the downside of having private conservation, is the rest of us look at it and say, ‘We have no idea why you changed your mind. We’re still uncomfortable.’ That’s the sort of the dynamic we’re in.”
The Human Rights Campaign didn’t respond to a request to comment on whether it had received any private promises in exchange for accepting the Hagel nomination or if they had a role in crafting the apology.
Frank said he thinks the opposition to Hagel is so strong now from both progressive and conservatives that the chances of Obama naming him to the post are nil.
But in the unlikely event Hagel was confirmed as Pentagon chief, Frank said he has no doubt Hagel would implement pro-LGBT policy change if ordered to do so by the White House.
“I believe that he will do whatever the president tells him,” Frank said. “I’m pretty sure if he were appointed, which I don’t think he’s going to be, he would be directed to do the right thing.”
Other high-profile opposition to Hagel has come from Hormel himself, who initially questioned the sincerity of the apology in interviews with the Washington Post and the Blade. However, the former ambassador appeared to reverse himself in a Facebook posting hours later.
Also noteworthy was a full-page ad in the New York Times taken out by the gay Republican group Log Cabin Republicans in opposition to Hagel on the basis of his anti-gay remarks and his earlier stated views on Israel and Iran. Outgoing Log Cabin executive director, R. Clarke Cooper has said they were paid for by Log Cabin members, but has declined to state how much the ad cost or identify these donors.
Socarides was careful to distance his concern about the Hagel nomination from the outright opposition that Log Cabin expressed in its full-page advertisement.
“I would not automatically oppose him, like the Log Cabin Group seems to have done, and certainly would not endorse using someone else’s money to run an advertisement against him based on his foreign policy view,” Socarides said.
Frank said he was unaware Log Cabin put out an advertisement and utterly rejected the notion his opposition against Hagel was along the same lines as the gay GOP group.
“I was hoping I could to talk to you about substance and not stupid things,” Frank responded to the Blade. “I mean, you sound like Joe McCarthy, saying ‘You’re siding with the Communists.’ I didn’t know that Log Cabin had taken that ad until I wrote my statement. … Do you ever write about substance and never about a lot of political bullshit? Why did I do it? Because I don’t think the man should be secretary of defense. I was on vacation, came back and wrote my statement.”