Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) reaffirmed his support for LGBT rights on Wednesday during a conversation with Senate staffers in which he acknowledged that having a gay son has influenced his views.
Jones, who late last year scored a surprise win in a special election to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate, said he wanted to make candid support for LGBT rights a component of his campaign, which helped him win the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions upon his appointment as U.S. attorney general.
“Being from Alabama, we really made a point of stepping out there this past year on equality issues,” Jones said. “It was easy to do for me.”
Jones made the remarks before Gays, Lesbians & Allies Senate Staff, or GLASS, during an event hosted by the organization in the Russell Senate Office Building. Jones answered questions from members of the LGBT affinity group for Senate staffers during the 40-minute talk before posing with them for photos. The Washington Blade was the exclusive media outlet invited to the event.
In contrast to Jones, his opponent in the special election, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, holds draconian views on LGBT rights. After saying in 2005 he thinks homosexuality itself should be illegal, Moore as a former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, urged probate judges in Alabama to ignore court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage. As a candidate for U.S. Senate, Moore called for the impeachment of the judge who ruled against Trump’s transgender military ban.
“I also knew that ultimately we were going to be running against someone in Alabama who was as far from equality as you could possibly get,” Jones said. “I wanted to make that front and center in the primary campaign and for that to be an issue in the general election. We made clear where the Doug Jones campaign was on all issues involving equality.”
Over the course of his campaign, Jones was seen on video expressing support for transgender rights, declaring his opposition to the Trump administration revoking Obama-era guidance ensuring transgender kids have access to school restrooms consistent with their gender identity and Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the U.S. military.
The video was posted to YouTube by someone who thought those views would harm Jones’ campaign and gave it the title, “Doug Jones commits political suicide in Alabama Senate Race!” The prediction of the individual who posted the video proved incorrect.
“We had the campaign trolls, or whatever it is, get me on camera, video,” Jones said. “Some people got a little bit concerned about how it’s used, and I said, ‘Why? I answered the question about transgender people in the military honestly, the way I think, and so, what the hell? We shouldn’t be worried about that.’ And so, we never pulled back, we never backed off.”
Jones said his commitment to LGBT rights continues.
“It speaks a lot when a voice from the Deep South can talk about equality issues, especially given the history of Birmingham, Ala., and racial discrimination that was practiced so much in the South, and still, to some extent, around the country today,” Jones said.
The Alabama senator and former U.S. attorney was quick-witted throughout the GLASS event. When he was introduced as its distinguished guest, Jones replied, “Who is that?”
Many of the questions posed by staffers were non-LGBT related: What has surprised him the most as a senator? “My damned schedule.” What’s his goal for staff representation? “Finding the best people, seeking diversity and having Alabama connections.” As a former Senate staffer, what advice would he give current staffers? “Do everything possible to make your boss look absolutely the best.”
Questions on LGBT issues also came up. Asked what he thinks will be the next big thing for LGBT rights, Jones said it would be instituting non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he called “very, very important.”
“That will be a challenge,” Jones said. “If that will happen, it will rank right up there with the Obergefell decision. I’m a co-sponsor of that. I’d like to see it happen this Congress. I doubt it will.”
Jones said he co-sponsors the Equality Act, legislation introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the U.S. Senate that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights laws. The website for the Library of Congress indicates Jones became the 46th co-sponsor for the bill on Tuesday.
One way in which Jones said he seeks to advance LGBT rights is through data collection on hate crimes. Although the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act allows the Justice Department to collect data on anti-LGBT hate crimes, Jones said many state and local governments still resist the practice out of “fear of social backlash, political backlash.”
“It’s an issue that I think needs to be addressed, and hopefully it’s being addressed more, I think, as issues of equality are becoming more acceptable to the South,” Jones said.
Key to the senator’s views on LGBT rights were his son, Carson Jones, a gay student at Colorado State University who has gained a following from his Instagram account. The senator joked he’s “often times more widely known as the father of Carson Jones,” whom he said is “rapidly becoming a legend in his own mind.”
When the senator was asked about having an openly gay son — including his Instagram account, which prompted Jones to quip, “We’ve all seen it” — he said “it would be misleading” if he said that didn’t affect his views because “at the end of the day, a lot of this is so personal.”
“Has it affected me? Absolutely,” Jones said. “Did my representation…of a probate judge in Jefferson County whom we defended when Roy Moore tried to shut him down giving marriage licenses? That affected me, too.”
Jones said witnessing the first same-sex marriages in Alabama was “just phenomenal” and after seeing “the love, the happiness” wondered “what in the hell were people thinking” who opposed same-sex unions.
“Everything affects you, but obviously a child affects you more than anything else,” Jones said. “I’m happy to do that, I’m happy to be there to defend him — when he can be defended, as we always say, when he can be defended.”
Asked by the Blade after the event about the experience of his son coming out to him, Jones said the experience was powerful.
“That’s a little bit harder to answer,” Jones said. “Only that he knew and we expressed unconditional love and wanted to make sure he knew that and that was the case at that point, and it was just pretty much that simple.”
Jones was candidly pessimistic on some points. Asked whether he’s seen a shift in Alabama in favor of LGBT rights, Jones replied succinctly, “Nope.” In fact, Jones added, “There’s been some things that are just the opposite.”
As evidence, Jones pointed to legislation that advanced in the state legislature, but never became law, in the aftermath of marriage equality that sought to remove Alabama from the business of marriage altogether.
“That was a direct reaction to probate judges who didn’t want to perform gay marriages,” Jones said. “And we’ve seen that. You’ve got to remember, when you have someone like Roy Moore who’s kind of leading the charge, you’re going to get people all riled up. So, I haven’t seen a lot of things in a positive way on that front.”
But Jones said countering that trend is opposition to anti-LGBT legislation from the business community, pointing to the outcry over the anti-transgender bathroom House Bill 2 in North Carolina that led to the ouster of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory in the 2016 election. That fallout, Jones said, had an effect on Alabama.
“It helped neutralize that and people finally started seeing how embarrassing some of those can be on a state, and businesses saw how it can affect economic development, because at the end of the day, as much as I want to think that these are civil rights issues, for so many people, it’s all about the money,” Jones said. “It’s all about economic development and whether or not we’re going to attract business.”
Jones also said those economic concerns were a factor in his win in Alabama. The state was concerned that outrageous comments from Moore “the first time he was on ‘Meet the Press’ or something’ would jeopardize business in Alabama, Jones said, and the election outcome there had “nothing to do with my pretty face.”
Despite the climate in his state, Jones said he’s not going to downplay his views on social issues, recalling advice he said he received from former Vice President Joseph Biden that political candidates must stay true to their views.
“I am constantly getting asked how will you navigate the social issues being a Democrat from Alabama in the 2020 presidential year, Trump won the state 61, 62 percent,” Jones said. “How are you going to navigate? I always tell them that, look, navigate means that you’re consciously trying to steer something for political advantage, and I’m not.”
One development on LGBT issues that Jones said gave him political cover was Sen. Richard Shelby, the senior senator from Alabama, who said in response to the transgender military ban, “any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet those standards should have the opportunity to do so.”
“I don’t navigate things, but I like political cover, and he gave me a lot of political cover for that,” Jones said.
Asked by the Blade about what he makes of findings from Defense Secretary James Mattis against transgender military service, Jones said he’ll stick to his previously stated opposition to Trump’s ban.
“I kind of go back to the fact of what I said earlier,” Jones said. “I think people who are willing to serve and are fit to serve, physically and mentally, they should be allowed to serve. Period.”
Looking to the future and the congressional mid-term elections, Jones said he sees bright things for Democrats, but warned them to “keep their eyes on the prize.”
“I think the challenge is going to be keeping people energized and motivated,” Jones said. “There is an incredible amount of energy out there. I think it started with women, I think my race had generally a lot of enthusiasm of many folks, including African Americans. All of a sudden, people realized elections have consequences and every vote can count, every vote can count. So, I think that’s the challenge for Democrats.”