The Senate Committee on Armed Services has scheduled the first day of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing for January 31. Many expect his positions on benefits for the families of gay service members may get some scrutiny from both sides of the partisan aisle.
Hagel's response to a letter from Senator Barbara Boxer this month —saying that he "fully" supports the law that repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" helped earn her vote and was apparently influential in helping to win over Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
One additional statement in Hagel's letter —saying he would do "everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members" did win support from some in the LGBT community, but the community still seems torn.
Allyson Robinson, executive director of Outserve-SLDN, called the equal benefits statement a "turning point" for gays in the military and their families.
Hagel's qualifying words "to the extent permissible under current law" were an apparent reference to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While the Obama administration is arguing in court that DOMA is unconstitutional, it still must enforce the law until it is repealed or struck down. The U.S. Supreme Court could strike down the law as soon as June, but the Republican-led House is unlikely to do so during the next two years.
Outserve-SLDN's Robinson said Hagel's promise to provide equal benefits to gay service members' families "demonstrates his deepening grasp of the injustice currently being done to them." The group had already expressed its opinion that Hagel is "exceptionally qualified" for Secretary of Defense and expressed its commitment to "working with him should he be confirmed."
Most LGBT groups were initially opposed to Hagel's nomination, many citing his 1998 remarks against the nomination of openly gay James Hormel to serve as ambassador to Luxemburg in the Clinton administration. Hagel expressed concern about the appointment of an "openly, aggressively" gay man "representing America" as ambassador.
"They 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 told the Omaha World-Herald. He had also racked up a zero voting record —the worst possible— from the Human Rights Campaign during his years in the U.S. Senate.
Even before he was nominated, Hagel issued an apology for his remarks against the gay nominee, and some organizations and LGBT leaders backed off their opposition. Some expressed a desire to examine the nominee's LGBT positions more carefully. Some continue their opposition.
Log Cabin Republicans has held onto its opposition, saying Hagel's apology and evolution on gay issues is suspect, given its timing. GOProud, another gay conservative group, hasn't taken a position yet but leader Jimmy LaSalvia says he does not see Hagel as anti-gay.
"He is not," said LaSalvia, noting that Hagel voted against a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And GOProud's co-founder Chris Barron, who once served as Log Cabin's political director, told the dailycaller.com, that the Senate office of Hagel as a Republican senator from Nebraska "always had an open door to Log Cabin."
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said Hagel's letter to Boxer was a "positive sign, but we will be watching very closely to see what steps he takes to demonstrate his support … should he be confirmed."
"We still expect him to provide more detail on his views during the confirmation process, as well as what specific steps he intends to take as defense secretary to support all military families," said Carey. "We recognize that people do evolve on these issues, and believe that Hagel, if confirmed, must ensure full fairness for all military families."
Outserve-SLDN's Robinson said Hagel does need to deal with the "foot-dragging" of the Department of Defense on its gay discrimination policies. She said DOD needs to amend various military non-discrimination policies to explicitly prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. These policies, she said, "help establish the command climate for the entire force, and for Senator Hagel to expand them in this way would send a very clear message that the days of treating LGBT service members as second class citizens will be coming to an end under his leadership."
HRC President Chad Griffin said December 21 that he "appreciated" Hagel's apology for the remarks against Hormel. He called Hagel an ally. But in a press statement January 16 illustrating an example of such "foot-dragging," HRC noted that a U.S. Army club for military spouses at Fort Bragg in California recently refused a membership card to the same-sex spouse of a gay Army officer. While repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell enabled gay service members to serve openly, said HRC, DOMA blocks the ability of their spouses to access many of the benefits granted routinely to the heterosexual spouses of heterosexual service members.
"However, other benefits, including access to military ID cards, could be granted to these spouses and partners through regulatory revisions," said HRC. "Changes to the appropriate regulations have been pending since December 2010."
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) initially expressed some reservations about Hagel's nomination, saying she wanted to ensure that Hagel's apology for the Hormel remarks was "sincere and sufficient." She has since had an introductory conversation with Hagel and expects to meet with him before making a decision about his confirmation.
But even before next week's confirmation hearing, strong testimony of sorts is emerging for Hagel.
Pulitzer Prize winning openly gay commentator Jonathan Capehart, of the Washington Post, wrote January 8: "Times change. People change. And on issues of civil rights, when both change, folks should be given the space to make amends for being on the wrong side of history. Besides, I can't imagine Obama selecting someone for his cabinet who would stall or reverse the considerable actions he has made on equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans."
Steve Clemons, the gay Washington editor for The Atlantic political news magazine, published an article last month calling Hagel "pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending "don't ask, don't tell."
"I'm not sure where Hagel stands on same-sex marriage," wrote Clemons in the December 21 article, "but I know that he supports solid legal protections for gay families and is personally supportive of gays and lesbians.
"How do I know this? Because I'm a national-security wonk who happens to be gay and who happens to have interacted with and followed Chuck Hagel for years. I have spoken directly about these issues with him over the years…."
Glenn Greenwald, an openly gay political commentator for salon.com and others, responded to criticism that Hagel, in 1998, expressed negative views on the Hormel nomination.
"When it comes to LGBT equality, 1998 is a different universe. Virtually no prominent Democrats (let alone Republicans) supported marriage equality back then, or even equal rights for LGBT citizens," wrote Greenwald on salon.com January 5. "In fact, Hagel's comment came only two years after the overwhelming majority of Democratic Senators voted in favor of the truly odious and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act - including Joe Biden, Patty Murray, Pat Leahy and Paul Wellstone - which was then signed into law by Bill Clinton. …If you're going to judge politicians by how they felt about LGBT issues 15 years ago, be prepared to scorn almost every national Democratic Party hero you have as a bigot."
A 2007 interview with Hagel by Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine might be of interest. In the interview, uncovered by a reader posting a comment on democraticunderground.com, Hagel was asked, "How conservative are you really? Tell me the truth: You don't care whether or not gay people get married, do you?"
"No. Personally, I think marriage is between a man and a woman, but that's because I see it as a religious union. As a legal contract," said Hagel, "marriage should be up to the states. If a state wants to change the rules, that's up to them."
Later in the interview, he expounded on how he, as a conservative Republican politician, could hold views that seem contrary to most Republican conservatives.
"We are living through one of the most transformative periods in history. If we are going to make it, we need a far greater appreciation and respect for others, or we're going to blow up mankind," said Hagel. "Look at what zealotry can do. Religious zealotry has been responsible for killing more people than any other thing. Look at the Middle East today. It's all about religion. We need to move past those divisions and learn to be tolerant and respectful. If we go out there full of intolerance and hatred, we'll never make it."
© copyright 2013 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.