Former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said he is proud to have helped arrange for former President Gerald Ford, during Ford’s retirement years, to become the first U.S. president to become a member of a gay rights organization.
In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade last week, Simpson talked about how he sees no contradiction in his longstanding role as a conservative Republican and his support for equal rights for LGBT people, including equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
“All I know is we have made great strides for gays and lesbians and transvestites,” he said when asked if he thought Congress would soon approve the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, a bill calling for banning job discrimination against LGBT people.
Saying he isn’t always certain about the proper terminology to use in discussing LGBT issues, Simpson said he is certain about his longstanding commitment to fairness and equality, even if he is at odds with many of his Republican colleagues.
“Let’s just keep making these strides and it will happen,” he said referring to ENDA, which is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate before Thanksgiving.
“It will happen because other people know these people and they love them,” he said. “And I’m very pleased. Anyone who is on the side of justice and freedom and caring about fellow human beings is pleased about what’s going on.”
Simpson said his own views on gay rights were shaped by his and his wife of 59 years, Ann Schroll Simpson’s, longstanding belief in fairness and equality for everyone and by gay people they came to know over the years.
“I had a gay cousin who was a war hero in World War II — a wonderful man,” he said.
Simpson said he’s also proud to have been named about 10 years ago by the national gay magazine The Advocate as “one of the ten coolest straight guys in America.”
Simpson spoke to the Blade on Oct. 23 just before delivering opening remarks at a performance at D.C.’s All Souls Unitarian Church of a gay-themed mock trial of deceased former U.S. Sens. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisc.), Styles Bridges (R-N.H.), and Herman Welker (R-Idaho).
The script for the mock trial, which is performed as a play, was written by Wyoming writer, minister and former politician Rodger McDaniel, a friend of Simpson’s, who based the script on his recently published book, “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.”
In his book, McDaniel reports, based on extensive interviews and historical documents, that Hunt, a Democrat, committed suicide in 1954 after McCarthy and the other two senators conspired to blackmail him by threatening to publicize the arrest of Hunt’s son in Washington one year earlier for allegedly soliciting an undercover vice police officer for gay sex.
McDaniel’s book and the mock trial describe in detail how the three senators, all Republicans, wanted to force Hunt to resign from the Senate, which would have tipped the closely divided body from Democratic to Republican control. A GOP-controlled Senate at the time would have strengthened McCarthy’s campaign to purge large numbers of gays and others he accused of being communist sympathizers from their government jobs.
The alleged scheme unfolded in the midst of the nation’s “red scare” triggered by McCarthy’s allegations that communists and communist sympathizers were working in high level U.S. government jobs and in the U.S. military.
Simpson told the Blade he was appalled over the facts that McDaniel brought to light in his book, prompting him to agree to write the forward for the book.
Simpson’s discussion with Gerald Ford over gay rights took place shortly after Simpson accepted an invitation by gay Republican activist Charles Francis to become chairperson of the Advisory Board of the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay-straight alliance that Francis and two other gay Republican advocates founded in 2001.
“I picked up the phone,” Simpson said in describing his conversation with Ford. “Charles asked me to call him. I said OK. And I called and I said, ‘Jerry this is Al Simpson.’ And he said, ‘I’m 80,’ or whatever it was. But he said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
According to Simpson, Ford told him among the reasons he would be happy to join the RUC’s Advisory Board was the false rumor he and his family endured in the 1970s that he ignored a gay man who saved his life in an assassination attempt in San Francisco. As Ford left a hotel where he spoke, the gay man, who was standing in a crowd of people watching Ford, saw a women point a pistol at Ford and deflected her arm, causing her to fire at the ground.
“He said, ‘That’s the biggest damn lie,’” Simpson quoted Ford as saying in referring to the rumors that he never thanked the man who deflected the gun. “So Jerry said just for that reason, sign me up. And he went right on the letterhead, and boy that helped,” Simpson said.
Francis said Simpson has continued his outspoken support for LGBT rights since becoming involved in the RNC. He noted that in 2003, Simpson signed on to an amicus brief that RUC filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the case that led to the overturning of state sodomy laws known as Lawrence v. Texas.
Asked whether he has received flak from some fellow Republicans and others over his support for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, Simpson said, “Everything I’ve done has had flak. I’m 82 now and I’ve effectively pissed off everyone in America. So yeah, but I just say we’re all God’s children. We’re all human beings.”
Simpson’s longstanding reputation for speaking bluntly emerged when he told the Blade how he reacted to attacks from the Rev. Fred Phelps, the anti-gay minister who heads Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. For more than 10 years, Phelps has led protests of gay events, including funerals of gay people, while carrying signs saying “God hates fags.”
“I remember writing a letter to Rev. Phelps,” Simpson told the Blade. “And I said, ‘Dear Rev. Phelps: For all your good work for God and Christianity I want you to know that some dizzy son-of-a-bitch is writing me letters, homophobic letters, and signing your name,’” Simpson said, grinning. “’And I know that you wouldn’t want this to continue so I’m hoping you will help me track this person down and find out who it is — yours in God.’”
Added Simpson, “That must have really pissed him off. But I couldn’t imagine doing anything more delightful for him.”
Simpson continued: “So I have been called out by the goofys and the nuts. And they’re not all religious. So don’t blame it on religion. Don’t use that. That’s not fair. There are plenty of non-religious people that are homophobes.”
As a graduate of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Simpson said he, like nearly all Laramie and Wyoming residents, was outraged over the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, then a gay student enrolled at the university.
“The two crazy sons of bitches that killed him are crazy sons of bitches,” he said. “They weren’t part of the university. They weren’t part of the community. They were a couple of sadistic bastards.”
Simpson praised “The Laramie Project,” a play about the Shepard murder and the response to it by Laramie residents.
“I see it’s playing at Ford’s Theater right now,” he said. “It’s a great portrayal.”
But he added, “There’s only one weakness in it. It didn’t show the power of the president of the university and how restive he was to the horror of the crime. It didn’t show the force of how he said this is appalling, it’s grotesque, and it didn’t involve the university students.”
Alan K. SimpsonAlan SimpsonAll Souls Unitarian ChurchAnn Schroll SimpsonbisexualDying for Joe McCarthy's Sins:Employment Non-Discrimination ActENDAgayGerald FordHerman WelkerIdahoJoe McCarthyLawrence v TexaslesbianLGBTMatthew ShepardNew Hampshirered scareRepublican PartyRodger McDanielStyles BridgesThe AdvocatetransgenderUnited States SenateWestboro Baptist ChurchWyoming
Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou