How America Got Past the Anti-Gay Politics of the '90s

As more and more politicians announce their support for same-sex marriage, they and the nation must grapple with uncomfortable statements they made not so long ago.
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Nineteen ninety-eight was a watershed year in the battle for gay rights in America -- in a bad way. Bill Clinton had in 1997 nominated James C. Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. But his nomination as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador stalled the following summer. Hormel, born during the early 1930s, had been a dean at the University of Chicago Law School and also a leader in creating gay institutions in his home town of San Francisco. In 1991, he endowed the Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, which would go on to bear his name when it opened.

His nomination snagged on the Republican leadership in Congress, then busily seeking President Clinton's impeachment over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. An even bigger obstacle was their disgust over Hormel's homosexuality.

Senator Jesse Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman well known for his public opposition to the "homosexual lifestyle" and the people he called, in Newsweek in 1994, "degenerates" and "weak, morally sick wretches," vowed to block the appointment. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi on June 15, 1998, added fuel to the fire, comparing being gay to a condition "just like alcohol...or sex addiction...or kleptomania'' -- a pathology in need of treatment. House Majority Leader Dick Armey chimed in to support Lott, affirming, "The Bible is very clear on this." Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma told "Fox News Sunday " on June 21, 1998, that Hormel "has promoted a lifestyle and promoted it in a big way, in a way that is very offensive." Against that backdrop, the comments of Republican Chuck Hagel, U.S. senator from Nebraska, didn't stand out as idiosyncratic. Ambassadors "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," Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after meeting with Hormel, according to a July 3, 1998 Omaha-World Herald story.

In September of that year, Salon revealed that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde -- who had helped rush the Defense of Marriage Act through in 1996 as part of the Gingrich Revolution with the justification that same-sex unions were "illegitimate" and "immoral" -- had broken up another man's marriage by having an affair with his wife. (Newt Gingrich, who worked to push DOMA through and impeach the adulterous president who'd signed it, was later revealed to have also been having affair at the time.)

In October 1998, 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten into a coma and tied to a fence outside Laramie, where he would not be discovered for 18 hours. The passing motorist who discovered him at first thought he was a scarecrow, Reuters reported at the time. Shepard, whose skull had been cracked, never regained consciousness and died several days later at the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, from his severe injuries.

***

America is a different country now, a dozen years on from what Frank Rich described in 1999 as "[t]he homophobic epidemic of '98, which spiked with the October murder of Matthew Shepard."

After a decade of legislative fighting, federal hate crimes legislation was finally extended to protect gay people in 2009. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed as a rider to the National Defense Reauthorization Act and was signed into law by President Obama during his first year in office.

The president has done an "It Gets Better" video; so too have the White House staff and some leading Democrats in the United States Senate. Gay marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia; "Don't ask, don't tell" has been overturned; America has elected its first openly lesbian U.S. Senator -- and from the Midwest! -- and even the president backs same-sex marriage rights.

America is a different country now. But the "Stone Age," as Jodi Foster has called it, in which gay people were seen as perverts justifiably targeted for violence or invective, is a none too distant a memory, and in too many quarters it is still extremely difficult for people -- especially very young people -- to be out and gay without experiencing severe social, physical, or economic repercussions (as the documentary Bully showed this past year, in case any one had any doubt).

Today, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling, 58 percent support gay marriage, up from 41 percent in 2004, while opposition has dropped from 55 to 36 percent. A March CNN/ORC International survey puts the jump as an increase from 40 to 56 percent support from 2007 through 2013.

And so the question arises: How does America address its homophobic past as it moves forward into a more tolerant future? If American views on gays have changed -- and they have, with shocking rapidity -- that means there are a lot of people in this country who used to hold more deeply anti-gay views than they do today, and who may be ashamed of what they once thought and said in what now seems a distant and unenlightened era. Two thirds of the change in views on gay marriage comes from "individuals' modifying their views over time" and only "one-third was due to a cohort succession effect, or later cohorts replacing earlier ones," according to sociologist Dawn Michelle Baunach, who looked into the issue in a 2011 Social Science Quarterly piece. Most such people have had the privilege of a private life, where their participation in an ugly ideology that diminished and damaged gay people is something they speak of only in conversation with friends, or recall within the inmost sanctuary of their own thoughts.

But some people have been living public lives a long time, and have left a very public paper trail of their expressions of discomfort and distaste. What is the proper response to the discovery of such information?

How do we as a society react when people openly change their views in public on gays, and on same-sex marriage?

And are we finally ready to get beyond the politics of the mid-1990s?

* * *

The moves by politicians on gay questions in the past year -- and especially over the past three and a half months -- have been by turns cautious and bold, awkwardly and imperfectly executed. Some announcements were made under duress, or in haste, while others came seemingly out of the blue, fueled by paternal love or a sense of the historic moment. Not one of these pronouncements has escaped some measure of suspicion and derision by gay-rights activists or progressive writers, even as organized gay-rights groups have hailed them. (Few public comings out by gay public figures escape similar controversies.) But with the Supreme Court in June set to render decisions on the historic challenges to California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages permitted by the states, it's worth taking a look at how politicians have publicly "evolved," to use Obama's term, on the question of gay rights in America -- and what, precisely, they have been evolving on.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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