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.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Though the drumbeat of shifting views on gay marriage picked up in March, thanks to the impending oral arguments in the Supreme Court cases, in many ways it was Hagel's January nomination to be defense secretary that began the conversation, and which gets at the core of the issue.

Gay money flooded into Obama's campaign coffers after he came out for gay marriage in May 2012 -- but gays and lesbians were also some of his staunched backers before that. A CNN analysis found one in 16 of his bundlers -- high dollar fundraisers -- in the first quarter of 2012 was gay; the Advocate estimated the number at closer to one in five in mid-2011, and the Washington Post at one in six in May 2012.

Gay voters went on to reveal they had some serious clout at the polls in November. "Mr. Obama's more than three-to-one edge in exit polls among the 5 percent of voters who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual was more than enough to give him the ultimate advantage," according to a New York Times post-election report analyzing the impact of the GLB vote (no T measured). The fact that Obama was able to win reelection after publicly backing gay marriage -- and the tremendous debt he owed gay voters and political fundraisers -- helped change dynamics in Washington around gay issues in the immediate post-election period.

In particular, gay leaders who'd bit their tongues in advance of the election felt newly empowered to push back at the president, and the Hagel nomination provided an early opportunity to do that. Not only had Hagel spoken disparagingly of Hormel, but he had "a zero-per-cent rating (three times) from the Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay-rights lobby," according to Richard Socarides. "Among other things, Hagel voted against extending basic employment nondiscrimination protections and the federal hate-crimes law to cover gay Americans."

Hagel was the man who would manage the oversight of the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as well as the winding down of the war in Afghanistan. His views, so common in 1998, were seen as bluntly prejudiced in 2013 -- and as such, anathema to both gay conservatives eager to tar a potential Obama nominee, and gay liberals infuriated that the reward for their electoral support would be the nomination of someone who talked like that about them.

Hagel recognized the severity of the situation and apologized before he was even nominated. "My remarks 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," he said in a statement. "They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any L.G.B.T. Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of 'open service' and committed to L.G.B.T. military families." That tamped down criticism, but not fully, and not on the right.

Criticism of the administration erupted anew when it was revealed that the pastor selected to give the inaugural benediction had also made anti-gay remarks. "We must lovingly but firmly respond to the aggressive agenda of not all, but of many in the homosexual community," Louie Giglio had preached in the mid-90s, warning that gays were going to hell, and that they could change with the help of Jesus. When he declined to apologize, he was quietly dropped from the inaugural program. "Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration," he told ThinkProgress.

And it was progress. When in 2008 it was revealed that Rick Warren, the pastor selected to give Obama's 2009 inaugural invocation, had called homosexuality a sin (but "not the worst sin") and unnatural, he stayed on the program.

* * *

The Defense of Marriage Act was a very successful piece of legislation. Not only did it create two categories of marital benefits -- one for straights, and one for gays -- but it had a profound silencing effect on political leaders. Between 1996 -- when DOMA was passed -- and 2006, only one member of the U.S. Senate came out in support of same-sex marriage, according to data collected by Wonkblog's Dylan Matthews: Dean Barkley of Minnesota, who replaced Paul Wellstone after his death in 2002 and served a grand total of 61 days in office.

But starting in 2012, that began to shift -- thanks in large measure to Joe Biden.

The vice president got the ball rolling on the new round of gay-marriage pronouncements on May 6. "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual -- men and women marrying -- are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties," he told NBC's Meet the Press. That put pressure on Obama to make his own views clearer -- not that there was much doubt about what they were. "There's no doubt in my mind that the president shares these values and that's why it's time for him to speak out in favor of marriage equality as well," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. Days later, Obama sat down with ABC's Robin Roberts, telling her, 'I've just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

By the end of 2011, only 15 U.S. senators had endorsed same sex marriage. In 2013, so far, 19 senators have come out to support same sex marriage -- including six just in the first week of April -- as pressure from gay groups and the impending Supreme Court decision helped create a cascade effect. The evolution has been eased by the gay marriage movement's wins in state legislatures and ballot initiatives.

The most important boulder to be unlodged was Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who changed his position two years after his son came out as gay and who is now out front ahead of the Ohio voters who elected him. His Op-Ed and his courage put pressure on Democratic hold-outs who shared his beliefs but were shy of expressing them.

Portmans shifting view was presented "absolutely perfectly," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. Many parents are not as supportive of their gay children as Portman has been, he pointed out. "I'm now 45 years old. I came out when I was 28. My father hasn't spoken to me since I came out. I would love to have a dad like Rob Portman," he told me. Wrote Will Portman of his coming out two years ago: "[my parents] were surprised to learn I was gay, and full of questions, but absolutely rock-solid supportive. That was the beginning of the end of feeling ashamed about who I was."

As if to emphasize the point, Republican Rep. Matt Salmon told a local TV station in Arizona in April that he wasn't going to budge on gay marriage despite having a gay son.


What's happening now is a wholesale repudiation of the 1990s move to eject gay people from the American family, writ large. The reason for DOMA was anti-gay animus by a group of men who showed their respect for marriage by divorcing multiple times and having affairs. The reason to undo DOMA is a rejection of that animus, and the growing recognition there is no way to argue against same-sex marriage that is not ultimately an argument for the moral inferiority of gay people. As of Friday, only four Democrats in the U.S. Senate had not come out in favor of gay marriage.

"I have concluded the federal government should no longer discriminate against people who want to make lifelong, loving commitments to each other or interfere in personal, private, and intimate relationships," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said. "I view the ability of anyone to marry as a logical extension of this belief."

The reason to not support gay marriage is the lingering sense that there's something strange or not right about it. That it's fine for gay people to do what they want in privacy, but that their relationships are not the same as straight ones. Not as powerful, not as loving, not as legitimate.

"[T]his is the inevitable extension of my efforts to promote equality and opportunity for everyone," said Sen. Mark Warner in announcing his new views. "[A]s many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality," observed Senator Claire McCaskill in a Tumblr post.

The 1990s are over. Newt Gingrich, who stepped down as House Speaker after the Republicans performed poorly at the polls in 1998, in 2012 lost his comeback bid and the Republican presidential primary. Former representative Bob Barr, the sponsor of DOMA in 1996, in 2009 recanted his support for the bill and said gays should be allowed to marry. Bill Clinton -- who signed it the bill with a statement saying "I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages" -- has too.

But if that moment of moralism in the mid-90s deserves to be remembered, it's for the lesson that the American people, when they stop being upset about an issue, really let it go. Clinton was impeached over his infidelity, but he hung on to office and became one of the most beloved ex-presidents ever. His party even won seats in the House and Senate the same year his scandal dominated the news, as the public defied political predictions and turned against the moralists instead of the man they accused.

As the drumbeat of shifting views of gay marriage continues, each voice affirms gay people as part of the American family, and each senator freshly legitimizes gay Americans as he or she repudiates past views or clarifies new ones. Whatever happens with the Supreme Court, this moment of change and affirmation -- this moment of public evolution -- is having a power all its own.