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Former ‘ex-gay’ leader to march in Pride parade

Alan Chambers says he ‘repented,’ has new mission of inclusiveness



Alan Chambers, gay news, Washington Blade
Alan Chambers, gay news, Washington Blade

Alan and Leslie Chambers have abandoned ‘ex-gay’ causes and now advocate for marriage equality.

Alan Chambers says he and many of his compatriots who operated the nation’s preeminent “ex-gay” organization for 12 years before they shut it down in 2013 have undergone a fundamental, personal change in their Christian beliefs and views on homosexuality.

Chambers, 44, an ordained minister who served as president of Exodus International from 2001 to 2013, is scheduled to deliver two sermons at the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday morning.

But instead of advocating for Exodus International’s past call for “reparative therapy” to help people change their sexual orientation from gay to straight, Chambers says he plans to tell the story of how he and others involved with Exodus have changed and now believe God loves and fully embraces LGBT people for who they are.

“And by change I mean we changed our opinion,” he told the Washington Blade in an interview. “We’ve changed our beliefs. We’ve changed our understanding in many respects,” he said.

“We’ve become affirming of people and supportive and affirming of marriage equality and feel like there are a lot of amazing relationships out there,” Chambers said. “And we believe that’s something that is a right that people have and should have and that God can bless those relationships as much as he can bless heterosexual relationships.”

In a development that would have been unthinkable during his earlier years at Exodus, Chambers is scheduled to march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday as part of a contingent organized by the National Cathedral.

Chambers acknowledges his current views represent a major break from his past statements and actions.

During most of his years as president of Exodus International he fulfilled the role of poster boy for the organization’s mission to persuade people who were troubled over “same-sex attractions” to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight by embracing God and Christian beliefs.

Often accompanied by his wife, Leslie Chambers, Alan Chambers pointed to what he said was his own success in leaving a gay or bisexual lifestyle through reparative or “conversion” therapy that Exodus International and other ex-gay ministries promoted but that was debunked and condemned by the world’s major medical associations.

In 2013 Chambers shocked many of the conservative Christian leaders and organizations he worked with for over a decade by announcing Exodus International was disbanding permanently. To the dismay of those remaining supportive of “ex-gay” ministries, he publicly apologized to the LGBT community for the “pain and hurt” that Exodus had caused.

Chambers said the decision to close Exodus International followed his realization that reparative therapy did not work and often brought about feelings of shame and despondency when people were unable to change their sexual desires.

He said he also came to the realization that LGBT people were fully embraced by God’s love and that the church in many ways had failed to minister to their true needs.

While acknowledging and accepting Chambers’ remorse of his past role in the “ex-gay” movement and his current support for LGBT rights, some in the LGBT community have criticized him for not publicly confirming that’s he’s gay or bisexual.

Noting that he’s happily married and deeply in love with his wife, with whom he works closely on projects involving his public speaking tours and writings, Chambers said he’s not interested in being confined to a label.

“I realized a number of years ago before we closed Exodus that straight wasn’t a label that I wanted to place on myself,” he said. “But gay wasn’t either. It doesn’t mean gay isn’t a part of my identity or that I mind people using that as a label to describe me because in some regards, it absolutely does.”

Added Chambers: “But someone who is married happily for nearly 20 years to a woman, not because I had to be or because I needed to be but because I wanted to be. I choose really to stay away from labels that pigeonhole me into one identity that makes one group feel better or another group feel worse.”

The full text of the Blade’s interview with Chambers follows:

Washington Blade: What was it that prompted you to shut down Exodus International?

Alan Chambers: Well there were a number of factors, the first of which is it was always my goal to close down Exodus. And the reason for that was really what evolved over the course of time that I was the president of Exodus. I became president in 2001. And in the interview process they asked me what success would look like for me as the president of Exodus. I said success looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.

And the job that I was talking about drastically changed in my mind to not helping people change but helping people be celibate, not pointing to a good or an evil but simply including people – all people – LGBTQ plus people into the life, body, and ministry of the church.

And that’s really the passion that we have today is seeking inclusion, full inclusion where people can use their gifts and not be second-class citizens in the church but be treated as I would treat anyone and that is as a full-fledged member of His family.

And I know something that changed for us and that’s one of the major factors in closing Exodus was it was founded on a premise that was faulty in our opinion. And we couldn’t modify our mission. We couldn’t rebrand our mission. In order to do the maximum amount of healing necessary we had to shut the organization down.

And I felt like that message to the church that people who had been entrenched in this movement have changed. And by change I mean we changed our opinion. We’ve changed our beliefs. We changed our understanding in many respects. And then to the LGBT community our message in closing was we pray that this is a huge healing opportunity for those who have been hurt, for those who have had different experiences frankly than I had at Exodus.

Blade: When you say the Exodus movement was based on a faulty premise, by that did you mean it’s not possible to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight?

Chambers: Right – and that’s the whole premise – that Exodus was an organization that believed and promoted change.

Blade: Didn’t you say in some of your recent writings that you repented? Was all of this part of a repenting in some way?

Chambers: Yeah. And repenting, you know, means change your mind. And we changed our minds. I changed my mind on all of these things, especially how we approached them from a Christian perspective and a human rights perspective. And so we repented. I repented. I changed my mind.

Blade: By changing your mind, do you now agree with the many LGBT Christian activists such as leaders of the LGBT supportive Metropolitan Community Church that God loves LGBT people and same-sex love and committed same-sex relationships are not a sin? Is that something you now feel has validity?

Chambers: Absolutely. We’ve become affirming of people and supportive and affirming of marriage equality and feel like there are a lot of amazing relationships out there and that’s something we need to support and encourage. And it gives people the opportunity to be faithful where they haven’t been able to experience that before. And we believe that’s something that is a right that people have and should have and that God can bless those relationships as much as he can bless heterosexual relationships.

Blade: You mention in some of your writings that during your tenure at Exodus you walked the halls of Congress. By that did you mean you lobbied or advocated in opposition to LGBT civil rights legislation among other things?

Chambers: For a period of time we did lobby against marriage equality and certain anti-discrimination policies and things like that. In 2008 we publicly came out and said we were wrong for doing that and we now no longer were going to do that. And so during the last few years of Exodus – the last five or six years of Exodus we, again, to use the word repent, repented our political involvement in that regard.

And since then, since closing Exodus, I felt there were things where I needed to be very vocal about my support in the affirmation of the things that I used to oppose.

Blade: But when you stopped opposing LGBT rights legislation in 2008 were you still promoting the idea that gay people could change their sexual orientation?

Chambers: Yeah, gradually, though, we got away from the change verbiage and denounced reparative therapy and those types of things before we closed, which caused a huge fissure and separation within Exodus where other groups began to break off and form their own organizations because of our changing positions.

Blade: Clearly many conservative or fundamentalist Christians and religious right organizations like the Family Research Council still condemn homosexuality and claim gays can and should change their sexual orientation. Have any of these people confronted you or challenged you on your current beliefs?

Chambers: Oh, absolutely, yes. We were challenged tremendously in all of that. And some even made accusations against me – that I was having an affair and there was no way I could say the things I was saying for any other reason than I was cheating on my wife and I was living a double life and those types of things. I had a prominent Evangelical person call my pastors and tell them that he had a word from God that I was cheating on my family and that was the only way I could have a change of heart and change of position on all of these things.

So they have done everything from challenge me publicly and in the press to invading my private space in life by calling people and spreading lies about me. And that’s been hurtful. But it is what it is and it only galvanizes our desire to do right by the LGBTQ plus community and stand our ground and continue to work and fight on behalf of them.

Blade: You’ve undoubtedly heard those who quote Biblical passages such as Leviticus, which they interpret to say homosexuality is a sin condemned by God. Do you have any thoughts on how that can be reconciled with your own beliefs?

Chambers: I know there are a number of people on both sides who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to take scripture and prove a point with it. And what I’ve come to understand about scripture is I believe that the Bible is true. What I know of myself is I don’t have the ability to interpret it perfectly and no one else does either. So there are numerous scriptures, not just related to homosexuality but related to so many things that I look at and I think there is more to it than what’s there in the black and white.

What I do know is my understanding of scripture is that it’s full of good news and it’s full of good advice. And the good news is – the most important part in that good news is that Jesus came for all of us, that he is someone who wants a relationship with everyone. And there is no one excluded from that.

So I know there are a lot of people that explain theology and gay theology so much better than I do. What I found as a Christian and a pastor and as a person that this impacts directly – I don’t have to be concerned about what those passages actually mean because I think when it comes down to it, it is irrelevant. The arguing over that is irrelevant. He didn’t die so we can point our finger at people and say you’re better than or you’re less than or you’re good or you’re evil.

Blade: In a commentary published last October in the Advocate, writer Eliel Cruz said he believes you are sincere about the changes in your beliefs about the “ex-gay” movement. But he criticized you for not being willing so far to identify as gay or bisexual. What are your thoughts on that?

Chambers: Well Eliel is my friend and we’ve had these conversations. And he’s not the only one that feels that way. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time focused on a label. I was a part of a movement that labeled itself as ex-gay, which was frankly a label that I always hated. And that was a part of what we were involved in and entrenched in for so long. And I realized a number of years ago before we closed Exodus that straight wasn’t a label that I wanted to place on myself. But gay wasn’t either. It doesn’t mean that gay isn’t a part of my identity or that I mind people using that as a label to describe me because in some regards it absolutely does. But as someone who is married happily for nearly 20 years to a woman, not because I had to be or because I needed to be but because I wanted to be. I choose really to stay away from labels that pigeonhole me into one identity that makes one group feel better or another feel worse.

I just feel like I’m more than those things and for me, if I’m going to identity myself or label myself it’s going to be as the thing that I am. I’m a husband. I’m a father…a Christian. All of those things are far more descriptive and accurate. If I were going to pull an orientation label there is certainly truth to the gay orientation. But also as a married man for almost 20 years, my orientation is my wife. And but if I was gay or straight predominantly my orientation should be to the person I’m married to. And so when I think about it in those terms I feel like that is something that is fair to me and fair to my family to label myself in those ways.

But I certainly understand when somebody uses the gay label to describe me. And I wouldn’t argue with them. There is truth there. But as a person I prefer to live beyond sexual labels or the social labels, even though I appreciate them and understand when people use them for themselves and even for me.

Blade: Former President Jimmy Carter created a stir in 1976 when he was a presidential candidate and said in an interview that he had sinned many times because he had attractions to other women as a married man, even though he overcome those temptations and was faithful to his wife. Could that be a situation that you’re in since some have labeled you bisexual?

Chambers: Well I am married and I believe attraction in and of itself is not a sin. So for me to say I find another human being attractive I don’t think is to say that I am committing a sin. I think attraction in and of itself is value neutral. What I do with those attractions, whether it’s a gay attraction or a straight attraction or whatever – whether it’s to a person or an attraction to money that we need to something that I shouldn’t do – those are areas where I don’t yield.

When it comes to being married I feel like my priority is to my wife. And so I do have attractions. I do have temptations – all of those types of things. But I would no matter what. So my desire as a husband is to be faithful. So I exercise a great deal of restraint as any husband would or any wife would who’s committed to their partner. And so it’s not a gay or a straight issue or one is more sinful than another…My desire is to be faithful to my wife.

Blade: Do you have a position on laws that have been proposed and passed in a number of states to prohibit so-called conversion therapy for minors under the age of 18?

Chambers:  Yeah absolutely I do. I wrote an article for Religion News Service in April 2015, the day President Obama stated his opposition to conversion therapy and made a call for a ban on that for minors. And I agreed with him. And I just did an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center. They released a report on their opposition to conversion therapy and I worked with them and will continue to work with them and others to see that conversion therapy for minors is banned. I’m opposed to that. I think it is dangerous. I think it promotes shame and it shouldn’t be something that minors are forced to be a part of.

Blade: Would you have any advice for an adult who may be considering undergoing conversion therapy to change their sexual orientation?

Chambers: Yeah – my advice to people who are seeking out reparative therapy, which is the traditional name for it, is that you cannot change your sexual orientation. If someone is interested in a celibacy option whether they are gay or straight and they are married and there is a faith or moral conviction about sex outside of marriage that’s very different than seeking out reparative therapy, which I believe produces shame. Orientation cannot be changed. I spent over 20 years in the movement that promoted it, and it doesn’t work. It’s not possible.

But if someone has a moral or a faith conviction about sex outside of marriage then they should be allowed to seek help with someone who will help them achieve that goal. But that’s not reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is something that produce shame and tells you, you are less than and you can change your orientation, which is not possible.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what your message will be when you speak at the National Cathedral on Sunday?

Chambers: Well I’ll be preaching from a text and beyond that I’ll share some of my personal journey and also talk a lot about the example I believe that comes from God and the life of Jesus related to inclusion, related to grace and love and those being our highest priorities – and the hope that people who have been marginalized or hurt by the church or heard a different message from the church will realize their great worth that Christians very often fall short of speaking for God when they talk about sex and sexuality. And we need to do better.

Blade: With marriage equality now the law of the land, LGBT rights advocates say one of the most important remaining tasks for the LGBT rights movement is persuading Congress to pass a federal LGBT civil rights law. Is that something that you can support?

Chambers: Yeah. I try to stay out of politics in general, but I am supportive of legislation that protects individuals and people – groups of people who have been marginalized. And the LGBT community is certainly one of those for sure.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what you are doing now? You’re based in Orlando, Fla. Are you working for another organization?

Chambers: No, we haven’t been working for another organization. My wife is a teacher. And I speak and we both write. And we go where people ask us to go. Most often times that’s for free. And we have just tried very hard not to jump into full-time organization work or a cause but really taken the time to listen to people and spend time with people that wasn’t based around an organization we were trying to promote or raise money for.

And so we’re in the process of trying to move back toward a ministry of some sort. We’ve talked about starting some sort of a church or ministry where we can continue to speak and write just on a different level than we did before. But that’s what we’ve been doing. I freelance and have done some consulting and things like that in the interim. But we’re ready to jump back in full-time and pursue what we believe is our call.

Blade: What religious denomination did you grow up in?

Chambers: I was a Southern Baptist. We’re non-denominational at this point. You can go to Alan I think there’s a bio there that you could see. We’ve not written a ton in the last couple of years, but there are some things there that we have.


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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move



Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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