Gay Rights and Same Sex Marriage: Chuck Robb Was Early Senate Advocate

PHOTO: Former Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., Task Force co-chair, National Security Project, Bipartisan Policy Center testifies before a House Armed Services committee hearing on "Addressing the Iranian Nuclear Challenge: Understanding the Military Options."
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In 1996 Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, a Democrat, was the only Southerner at the time to vote against the federal Defense of Marriage Act. It was a bold act at the time, but it's something that now seems prescient.

As a follow-up to our story last week in which we examined politicians following the polls on both gay rights and same-sex marriage, ABC News spoke with Robb. In 1996, he gave an impassioned address on the floor of the Senate saying, "I feel very strongly that this legislation is wrong."

"Despite its name, the Defense of Marriage Act does not defend marriage against some imminent, crippling effect," Robb said. "Although we have made huge strides in the struggle against discrimination based on gender, race, and religion, it is more difficult to see beyond our differences regarding sexual orientation. The fact that our hearts don't speak in the same way is not cause or justification to discriminate."

Americans have become more accepting of both gay rights and same-sex marriage, but back then only 67 members of the House and 14 senators voted against DOMA. There were some high-profile Democrats like then- Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who voted to pass the law, but have now vocally evolved on the issue.

"I'm pleased to see so many people who did support (DOMA) who've come around and acknowledged an evolution, that times have changed, they better understand the issue," Robb told ABC News. "Anybody that knows anything about it has come the other way."

Robb now serves as a co-leader of the National Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, teaches at George Mason University and is formerly a member of the Iraq Study Group. He said he took "more personal satisfaction" and "more personal time thinking about and preparing my remarks on issues" he knew were "more intensely unpopular."

Robb said he made his decision, in those days so bold, because of his time in the Marine Corps in the 1960s. He said after spending most of the 1960s serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, he went back to be a Judge Advocate General (or JAG) while he was in law school. He said in that role all the files of Marine Corps officers who were being investigated for disciplinary action or who were suspected of a crime would come across his desk.

He said two cases directly affected his vote against DOMA 30 years later, as well as his stance against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Two men, who did not know each other, were in Robb's file "solely because they were suspected of being homosexuals."

"There was no indication of action, they were just suspected," Robb said. "And it was clear to me their careers were over…these two officers served with distinction in combat…there was no actual allegation in their record that they had even performed any conduct that would give credence to the allegation."

Robb said that growing up in the 1940s and 1950s he had "taken for granted the conventional wisdom it was not something people were born with, but it was an aberration that society should not approve of…it was one of those things you accepted without questioning because you didn't know any better."

And it wasn't just those two men that affected his own personal thinking, he said. Robb said he believed there were also men saying they were gay to dodge the draft.

"I became increasingly convinced that many, many people simply didn't understand it," Robb said.

In his speech on the Senate floor in 1996 he said he was "trying to educate some of my Senate colleagues who I thought were still persuadable on the merits."

"I tried to talk in terms they would relate to and understand this was a speech that could make a difference," Robb said. "In these cases when I made a speech like that or a speech on guns…it really made me feel like I made a difference, they energized me. I also knew at the time I was on the right side of history and ultimately more people would come to realize they were wrong, and political fortunes would be altered because they took a courageous stand."

Robb even said that before he went out to try to convince some of his colleagues not to vote for DOMA, California Sen. Barbara Boxer told him, "Chuck, don't do that! This will kill you in Virginia, this will kill you in Virginia."

For Boxer, it was less politically risky, as a Californian, to be against DOMA, but according to Robb, it didn't stop her from trying to watch out for his political interests.

"I told her this was important to me," Robb said. "I came off the floor thinking, You really made a difference. I got some sense of meaning from being here today rather than all the other kinds of speeches and amendments that both sides tired to create… The most satisfaction I got during my tenure in the Senate is taking on cases that were intensely unpopular, but believing I was right."

Robb says the issue is "very generational."

After two terms in the Senate, Robb was defeated in a close race in 2000 by Republican George Allen.

This story has been updated.

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