Sen. John McCain became known as “The Maverick.” Solidly conservative on most issues, from time to time he would oppose the positions staked out by his fellow Republicans. Not the case on most LGBT issues.
From 1995 through 2012, I was a board member and co-chair of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization dedicated to the repeal of the harmful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. McCain was one of the strongest and most outspoken opponents of open and honest service, a position supported by the Republican Party.
In 1993, when newly elected President Bill Clinton attempted to fulfill his promise to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces, McCain was one of the leaders of the assault on the president’s efforts.
During the Senate hearings on the proposed DADT, he demonstrated his ignorance of the gay community and the issue. In a question to General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McCain equated transvestites to gay men.
In 2000, during the Republican presidential debate, McCain maintained that DADT was working. “I rely on people like General Colin Powell, people I served with all my adult life, who tell me that this policy is working,” he said.
During a 2007 Republican presidential debate, when asked about repealing DADT, McCain stated: “I think it would be a terrific mistake to even reopen the issue. It is working, my friends.” By then, thousands had been discharged from the service under the law while the majority of the public supported open service of LGBT Americans.
Every year during SLDN’s annual Lobby Days, we attempted to meet with McCain to discuss the issue and every year he refused. There were many Naval Academy graduates leading the fight to repeal DADT. All of us shared a profound disappointment in McCain’s intransigence and outright opposition.
Finally, in December 2010, in the lame duck session of Congress, McCain made his last stand in opposition to the repeal of DADT. In a bitter speech, he told the Senate he had talked to thousands of active duty service members and most were against repeal. He predicted doing away with DADT would lead to a breakdown of unit cohesion and damage our military readiness. When the legislation finally passed he said, “Today is a very sad day.”
McCain’s predictions about how damaging the repeal of DADT would be to the military proved to be completely wrong. The implementation of the change in the law by the military was flawless. Today, LGB service members are serving around the world with pride.
Finally, in 2016 the Obama administration lifted the longtime ban on transgender service. Unlike 1993, when all the senior military leaders opposed open service of LGB Americans, the current leadership was completely on board with this change in policy. On July 26, 2017, before the policy could be fully implemented, newly elected President Donald Trump tweeted that he would not allow “transgender persons to serve in any capacity.” The Pentagon was blindsided. How would Sen. McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, respond?
Perhaps he had already shown his hand. In April 2016, McCain came out in support of the first gay Secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning. After months of a hold on Fanning’s nomination by Sen. Roberts of Kansas, McCain argued to his Senate colleagues: “Mr. Fanning is eminently qualified to assume that role of Secretary of the Army. So I would urge my friend and colleague to allow me… to not object to the unanimous consent that I am just proposing.”
In September 2017, McCain co-sponsored a bill in support of transgender Americans serving in the military. In a statement he declared: “When less than one percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country. Any member of the military who meets the medical and readiness standards should be allowed to serve — including those who are transgender.”
Why did John McCain change so much? Perhaps, diagnosed with a brain cancer not usually survivable, McCain was facing his own mortality. Trump, who never served a day in uniform and escaped the draft with a “bone spurs” medical exemption, insulted McCain during his run for president, saying: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
McCain began to oppose Trump at every turn. He dramatically cast the deciding vote to kill the bill that would repeal Obamacare. McCain favored the Dream Act and opposed “the wall,” the central promise of Trump’s campaign. Because of her admitted involvement in torture and refusal to call it immoral, he voted against Gina Haspel, Trump’s nomination for director of the CIA. McCain became the only Republican member of Congress to speak out against an administration that is fatally flawed.
Whatever motivated McCain does not matter. What does matter is that he finally saw the light. He followed his better angels. At the end of a long and distinguished life of public service, he recognized the important contribution of LGBT Americans to our country. Indeed, Sen. McCain leaves us a Maverick redeemed.