The former U.S. senator whom President Obama is reportedly considering for defense secretary on Friday apologized for using anti-gay remarks 14 years ago to describe a gay nominee for U.S. ambassador.
In a statement, received by the Washington Post and other media outlets, Chuck Hagel responded to comments that he reportedly made in 1998 about then-nominee for U.S. ambassador Jim Hormel, now a San Francisco-based philanthropist, in addition to expressing a newfound commitment to LGBT rights.
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel was quoted as saying Friday. “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.”
The comments about Hormel, published in 1998 by the Omaha World-Herald, came to light in recent days amid questions about whether Hagel would support LGBT service members as defense secretary. At the time, Hagel reportedly denigrated Hormel for being “openly aggressively gay.”
“Ambassadorial posts are sensitive,” Hagel was quoted as saying at the time. “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.”
Representing the conservative state of Nebraska as U.S. senator from 1997 to 2009, Hagel was known for his opposition to LGBT rights, from 2001 to 2006, Hagel consistently scored a “0” on the Human Rights Campaign’s scorecards between 2001 and 2006.
In 1999, he voiced opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, telling the New York Times, ”The U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.” Hagel voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but didn’t cast a vote in 2006.
Hagel’s record in the Senate was troublesome to LGBT rights supporters, who 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.
According to the Washington Post, LGBT advocates held phone calls in recent days with senior White House aides — including senior adviser to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett — over concerns about the Hagel nomination. The aides reportedly told the activists that any defense secretary nominee would “live up to the principles” on LGBT rights already established by Obama.
During a news conference on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to concerns over the potential Hagel nomination by emphasizing the former senator’s service to the country.
“I have no announcements to make about personnel matters,” Carney said. “I can simply say that Sen. Hagel has been a remarkable servant to this country, a recipient of two Purple Hearts. He fought for this country and has served this country admirably in a number of capacities. Beyond that, I think I’ll let the president make any announcements about personnel when the time is right.”
LGBT advocates responded by saying they appreciate Hagel’s statement on Friday and look forward to working with him on lingering LGBT issues for the U.S. armed forces.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Hagel’s statement demonstrates an evolution on the part of the former senator — and the country as a whole.
“Senator Hagel’s apology and his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former Senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues,” Griffin said. “Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we’re proud that Senator Hagel is one of them.”
On the future for LGBT military issues, Griffin added, “The next Defense Secretary should get off to a fast start and ensure LGBT military families have access to every possible benefit under the law. Every day these families continue to face unfair treatment and the Secretary can take meaningful action to remedy this discrimination.”
Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, expressed similar satisfaction with Hagel’s words on Friday.
“We are pleased that Senator Hagel recognized the importance of retracting his previous statement about Ambassador Hormel and affirming his commitment to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal and LGBT military families,” Robinson said. “We look forward to learning more about his commitment to full LGBT military equality as this confirmation process unfolds.”