Bush on Gay Rights Issues

ByJulia Campbell

Jan. 17, 2001 -- Many gays and lesbians say they have no illusions about where President-elect George W. Bush stands when it comes to their rights. So far, they don't like what they see.

But many agree it's unclear how Bush will deal with these issues when he reaches the White House.

During his 1994 campaign for the governorship, Bush defended the state's sodomy law, which makes sexual activity between same-sex adults illegal, as a "symbolic gesture of traditional values."

It is commonly believed that Bush derailed a Texas hate-crime bill in 1999 because it included protections based on sexual orientation. Also that year, Bush supported a measure that banned gay couples from becoming foster parents or from adopting foster children.

"The short answer is that it is unclear," said David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, one of the nation's largest gay rights organizations, when asked how the Bush administration might handle gay rights issues.

But many, including Smith, say they find foreboding Bush's Texas record and some of his recent picks for his administration's Cabinet, including former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., for U.S. attorney general.

Bush has opposed certain pieces of gay rights legislation because he does not believe there is a need to legislate gay rights.

"The President-elect has said he is absolutely an opponent of discrimination of any sort, but he does not believe in special rights," says Juleanna Glover Weiss, a Bush transition spokeswoman. "He believes in changing peoples' hearts, but he doesn't necessarily believe that lawsuits and lawyers are the answer to that."

Staying Put on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Many experts agree that Bush, in the beginning, will try to avoid the controversial military policy of "Don't ask, don't tell," in which service members are not allowed to reveal their sexual orientation and the military is not allowed to ask about it. The controversial policy landed President Clinton in the hot seat for months in the early part of his administration.

Bush says he will adhere to the policy, which was created by then-Army Gen.Colin Powell. Both Powell, now Bush's nominee for secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser-designee, oppose gays serving openly in the military.

The 1993 policy states that those in the military who engage in "homosexual conduct" would create "an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability."

Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's nominee for secretary of defense, said the president-elect has not discussed the matter with him.

"Certainly, the priorities are in other areas for me," he said.

Leaders in the gay community charge the policy has led to sharp increases in harassment of service members and record numbers of discharges.

According to a recent report by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the Pentagon fires three service members every day for being lesbian, gay or bisexual. The Pentagon discharged 1,034 military personnel in fiscal year 1999, compared to 1,149 in fiscal 1998. Still, discharges are 73 percent higher than when the policy went into effect, the report says. There were 617 discharges in 1994, according to the report.

"They are screaming about military preparedness, and they are making an issue about sexual orientation?" said the Rev. Michael Piazza, senior pastor of The Cathedral of Hope, a large Dallas church that welcomes gays and lesbians.

Fears Exist, But Willing to Give Bush Benefit of the Doubt

But while Bush may not act on the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, many gays are worried about his inaction.

"There is a fear that the administration is going to sit on [the issues] and we won't see any movement, said Michael Colby, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, a gay political organization. "The bigger fear is that they will slowly start picking away at the progress we have made."

Though many gays would say the progress for gay rights has been slow, others contend the Clinton administration was the first to tackle the issues, and succeeded by taking small steps forward.

The Clinton administration takes credit for, among other things, supporting the passage of longer sentences for hate crimes, protecting federal workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation, hosting the first White House conference on HIV and AIDS, and appointing a number of gays and lesbians to government positions — including the nation's first openly gay U.S. ambassador [of Luxembourg], James Hormel.

Bush could make some decisions that could have a negative impact on gay rights, gay leaders say, by making changes to executive orders Clinton has already signed. Weiss said Bush will, as a matter of course, review all executive orders — but he has not decided to address any issues in particular.

"I've been a tolerant person all my life," Bush said during a televised debate in October. "I just happen to believe strongly that marriage is between a man and a woman. I don't really think it's any of my concern how you conduct your sex life. That's a private matter. I support equal rights, but not special rights for people."

Bush has insisted he would not discriminate based on sexual preference when it comes to hiring members of his own administration. However, when asked last year if he would hire an openly gay person, Bush told a Charleston, S.C., Christian radio station that "an openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy."

Weiss said that Bush will choose his administration's employees "based on merit, not sexual preference."

Many gay political leaders say they are trying to give Bush the benefit of the doubt in the early months of his administration.

While most gay voters are registered Democrats, Bush received 25 percent of the gay vote, according to a Voter News Service survey. And many Republicans have supported legislation such as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which are considered important measures for protecting gay rights.

Cabinet Choices Worrisome

However, gay leaders are concerned about the nomination of Ashcroft, a staunch conservative whose record in the U.S. Senate is considered by gay activists to be anti-gay.

When Ashcroft's nomination was announced, the Human Rights Campaign called it "a frightening halt to the moderate tone" of earlier Bush nominations.

Ashcroft was a co-sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law passed in 1996 which bans federal recognition of gay marriages and prohibits spouses in same-sex marriages from receiving federal benefits.

At the time, Ashcroft asserted that unlike race and gender, homosexuality "is clearly a choice — a choice that can be made and unmade," according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It is a difficult challenge for the civil rights and gay community because of his record in the Congress," said Steve Gunderson, a former congressman from Wisconsin who was the first openly gay Republican member of Congress. Gunderson said gay Republicans would like to hear Ashcroft out before passing judgment.

But, he said, "in some respects, you can't change a person's history. You can't change his voting history or his public statements. He is going to have to answer to them."

Many gay rights activists also say they find Bush's nomination of Gail Norton for interior secretary disturbing.

Norton, formally Colorado's attorney general, strongly defended the voters' passage of Amendment 2, which denied gays the right to legal protection against discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the law in 1996, saying it was "born of animosity" toward gays.

But Norton continued to defend the law. "Even beyond the issue of sexual orientation, Amendment 2 raised a deep question about civil rights law: Is there a way to step back from the proliferation of special rights conferred on the basis of various characteristics?" she wrote in The Denver Post.

Bush’s History on Gay Rights

Piazza, the Dallas pastor, was sitting in his office in 1999 when he got a call from a Republican state legislator who was upset about a closed-door meeting he had with then-Gov. Bush and other leading Republicans.

The meeting was about the highly publicized hate-crime bill in Texas that was being debated 18 months after James Byrd was killed — dragged behind a truck — in a shocking racial murder near Jasper, Texas.

The legislator, according to Piazza, told him that Bush told the Republicans leaders: "Do not send me a bill with sexual orientation in it." The bill at the time included a clause that protected people against bias because of their sexual orientation.

"It was purely a ploy for him to make sure he got support of the right wing of the party," Piazza claims.

But Bush has said he simply opposed the legislation because he believes that "all crime is hate crime."

Gay supporters of Bush say many gay people care more about economic issues, not whether they will be harassed or discriminated against at work.

"Most gay people are pretty secure in their jobs and not afraid of being victims," said Kevin Ivers, a spokesman for Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican organization.

"We're worried about the economy, worried about spouses getting proper benefits, their inheritance," Ivers says. "They are about their children. They want to adopt and they want their children to go to decent schools. These are the kinds of things that gays feel a lot more passionately about."

These, Iver says, are things worth fighting for. But, he admits, these issues are tough in any administration.

"The time has come to reach across all the various divides and say we will work together," Ivers says. Bush, he notes, has pledged to do just that.