Two weeks ago, Tulsi Gabbard informally announced her presidential run for 2020. News of the election, which will not happen for another 22 months, is dominating the headlines. Democrats are, rightfully, weighing their candidates on a strict scale by poring over past records, remarks, and affiliations. But some, more than others, are weighed on a far harsher scale — a scale replete with hyperbole and half-truths.
Not 24 hours after Gabbard announced her run, her past homophobic statements have been released in a myriad of heated articles. Rolling Stone is calling for her campaign to be finished before it has even started. Huffington Post is claiming that her bid is “dead on arrival”, and that she appears to have no solid constituency in the Democratic Party. A widely shared article from Paste Magazine accuses her of being devoted to a “perpetuation of extremist, fringe ideology.” A range of late night hosts, such as Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee, have declared that Gabbard has no chance of becoming the Democratic nominee. What was originally a cause for strong concern has evolved into a smear campaign—full of exaggerated claims, faux outrage, and a willful obfuscation of the truth.
A CNN article by Andrew Kaczynski was widely shared on social media shortly after her run. The opening paragraph included this line–
“Her past views and activism in opposition to LGBT rights in the late 90s and early 2000s, which put her out of step with most of the Democratic Party at the time, have come under more intense scrutiny since her announcement.”
This single line, contained in one of the most widely shared articles on Gabbard’s homophobic past, is simply not true. And it contains a sentiment that is either naively accepted or outright ignored by the person who propagates it.
Democrats, widely, did not support same-sex marriage in the 90s and early 2000s. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—a federal law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman—was supported by 32 Democratic Senators and opposed by only 14 before it was signed into law by Bill Clinton. In the House, DOMA was also supported by a steep majority of Democratic Representatives. Only 40% of Democratic Americans supported same sex marriage in 2004. Hillary Clinton, in 2004, voiced support on the Senate floor for marriage to be between one man and one woman.
Tulsi Gabbard was not out of step with the Democratic Party in 2004. She, instead, took a more aggressive stance on a belief that was already shared by the majority of Democratic politicians and constituents.
Today, Gabbard is an ally of the LGBT community. She has a 100% record in Congress for pro-LGBT legislation, and has co-sponsored a plethora of bills for LGBT rights. In 2011, eight years ago, she wrote of her support for same-sex marriage and her promise to repeal DOMA. In the same year, only 15 Senators openly supported gay marriage. Not only has Gabbard evolved on the issue, she has evolved before most prominent Democrats have. And these facts are being brushed aside by the current media narrative.
Three issues must be addressed—Gabbard’s current support of the LGBT community, the tour in Iraq which caused her to transition her beliefs, and the selective outrage of the left for condemning her teenage views when many other Democratic politicians have evolved at the same, or slower, pace than she has.
An Ally for the LGBT community
Tulsi Gabbard has been endorsed year after year by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest advocate in the country for the LGBT community, and she has a 100% rating from them on the legislature from Congress. She is a member of the Congressional LGBT Caucus, and has advocated for LGBT housing and privacy rights, as well as condemning harassment in schools. She states the following on her campaign website.
“I believe that equal treatment and opportunity are fundamental rights for all Americans. Discrimination on the basis of national origin, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, gender, or race undermines core American principles of respect and individual freedom. We have an obligation to fight against discrimination, whatever the form. I will continue to work with partners at the federal, state, and local level to ensure all individuals are treated equally under the law regardless of race, sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
She has also cosponsored the following bills: HR 197 (Repealing of the Defense of Marriage Act), HR 3185 (The Equality Act), HR 208 (the Equality For All Resolution), HR 1199 (The Safe Schools Improvement Act), HR 549 (Designating June 26th as LGBT Equality Day), HR 1755 (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013), HR 2421 (the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act), and HR 2839 (the Restore Honor to Service Members Act).
Tulsi Gabbard was born in Leloaloa, America Samoa. She was home schooled for most of her childhood, except for the two years she spent at an all-girls academy in the Philippines. While speaking to a small audience in New Hampshire last month, she admitted that she grew up in a ‘conservative household’, which was diverse in their views and faith.“I held views growing up that I no longer hold,” she asserted, when questioned on her same-sex marriage views.
In the video apology she recorded on January 17th, Gabbard explained a little more on how growing up with her father influenced her beliefs. “While many Americans may relate to growing up in a conservative home, my story is a little different because my father was very outspoken,” she stated, “He was an activist who was fighting against gay rights and marriage equality in Hawaii—and at that time, I forcefully defended him. But over the years, I formed my own opinions based on my life experience that changed my views—at a personal level in having aloha, love, for all people, and ensuring that every American, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is treated equally under the law.”
Her father, Mike Gabbard, was Hawaii’s leading opponent of the gay-rights movement. He worked with The Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a political action committee that opposed pro-LGBT lawmakers and laws. The PAC spent more than $100,000 to pass an amendment in 1998 that gave Hawaii the state legislature power to “reserve marriage for opposite sex couples”. The amendment passed.
In an interview with Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gabbard admitted to working with her father at the age of seventeen in order to pass the amendment. “Working with my father, Mike Gabbard, and others to pass a constitutional amendment to protect traditional marriage, I learned that real leaders are willing to make personal sacrifices for the common good,” she said.
In 2000, Gabbard’s mother, Carol Gabbard, won a seat on the State Board of Education in 2000. But when gay rights activists opposed her bid, Tulsi attacked them back in a press release from The Alliance of Traditional Marriage. “This war of deception and hatred against my mom is being waged by homosexual activists because they know, that if elected, she will not allow them to force their values down the throats of the children in our schools.” she stated. She was nineteen years old at the time.
Gabbard then ran for state legislature in 2002, becoming a state representative for Hawaii at the age of 21. Gabbard, now, explains that she and her father had entirely separate political lives during her time as a state representative. “He was talking potholes and trash and sewage, and I was talking about education and environment and other issues,” she stated to The New Yorker. But she continued to harbor anti-gay beliefs. In 2004, she stated that “the people of Hawaii…have already made overwhelmingly clear our position on this issue,” and that “As Democrats we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists.”
That same year, Gabbard volunteered to deploy for a 12 month tour to Iraq, after having enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard the year before. She served as a medical-operations specialist on a base in the Sunni Triangle. Her time in Iraq was an eye-opening ordeal for her, and she consistently refers to this time when discussing the big shift in her social values. While observing the oppressive regime of the government she was deployed in, she came to her own revelations on the role of a government as a mediator on social issues, and what that could mean in the United States. In December of 2018, she spoke candidly about the change of heart that presided over her during her time in Iraq.
“Both as an American and as a woman, I saw first-hand the destructive effect of having governments who act as moral arbiters for their people. And that caused me to really deeply reflect, and be introspective on the values and beliefs that I had grown up with.”
In a personal essay she wrote in 2011, eight years ago, she explained this soul-searching further. “I realized that a constitutional amendment defining marriage—even the one I and most Hawaii voters had supported—was anathema to the personal freedom we enjoy in America. And so my positions evolved…I can promise Hawai'i that when I get to Washington I will fight any efforts to undermine our reproductive freedom, and I will fight for the repeal of DOMA.”
On January 17th, Gabbard released a video of her apology. It wasn’t her first apology to the LGBT community (she had also apologized in 2012 to the Hawaii LGBT caucus), and it may not be her last. “I know that LGBTQ+ people still struggle, are still facing discrimination, are still facing abuse and still fear that their hard-won rights are going to be taken away by people who hold views like I used to. That cannot happen, because every single American deserves to be treated equally—by their fellow Americans and under the law… When we deny LGBTQ+ people the basic rights that exist for every American, we are denying their humanity—denying that they are equal. We are also creating a dangerous environment that breeds discrimination and violence… I regret the role I played in causing such pain, and I remain committed to fighting for LGBTQ+ equality.”
Mike Gabbard, Tulsi’s father, has also commented on the extreme anti-gay environment his daughter grew up in. “I’d always known that as a child, Tulsi had been deeply affected by the conflict between myself and the gay community. But after seeing her video the other day, what she said broke my heart. I never realized how much trauma I put her through because of my overly aggressive advocacy for traditional marriage.”
A Dramatic Shift
I am a member of the LGBT community. In 2004, when Gabbard attacked gay rights activists as 'homosexual extremists’, I was twelve years old in middle school. During this time, I harbored my own homophobic views. When a classmate of mine was rumored to be gay, I joined my peers in making cruel remarks about him. We sang scathing songs about a teacher we suspected to be a lesbian, and laughed at magazine covers that chronicled the struggles of gay couples in California. We considered the gay community to be an extreme fringe group, a faction of sexual outcasts that had nothing in common with us. Very few of us knew of any gay family members, or gay friends. The only exposure I had to them was clips on the news, as a handful of same-sex couples married in San Francisco before their licenses were revoked. It was something that was happening out there.
None of us could put a face on them. None of us knew their fears, woes, and despair. None of us considered what it would be like to be born that way, because we didn’t believe one could be born that way. Our fixation was on their actions rather than their humanity. And thus, we believed that they did not deserve our consideration.
In the progressive lens of 2019, it’s easy for some of us to gloss over what 2004 was like. It is easy for some of us to pretend that we have always been more accepting, informed, and tolerant than we ever truly were. Most people, truly, do not remember how bleak of a time the early 2000s was for the LGBT community. They did not have to walk through it in the skin of a gay person.
In 2004, only one state had legalized gay marriage—Massachusetts. 31% of Americans approved of same sex marriage, while 60% opposed it. (This statistic was nearly reversed by 2017, with 62% of Americans being in favor of gay marriage, and 32% being opposed to it). 60% of Americans, in 2004, were in favor of a Constitutional Amendment that would ban same sex marriage entirely. One year before, in 2003, simply having gay sex was still illegal in 13 states.
While these statistics paint a picture of how same-sex marriage was widely condemned in the early 2000s, the perception of gay people — which numbers can’t back up — was more complicated. It had to do with a lack of awareness of the struggles gay people faced. It had to do with fierce condemnations in church halls and seething taunts in popular music. It had to do with the way my scandalized friends cloistered together when we learned that a boy in our summer camp 'had two moms’, and how we avoided speaking to him from then on. It had to do with the way my youth group leaders — kind, open minded adults who voted for John Kerry — taught us tolerance and compassion, but remained tight-lipped on LGBT issues. It had to do with the complete lack of gay characters in movies and on TV. It had to do with sitting down and watching Finding Nemo with my friends, and hearing the adults in the kitchen lamenting how 'that Ellen’ played the voice of Dori.
And I lived in a fairly liberal town, and attended a fairly liberal school.
With a home schooled childhood that was, reportedly, as conservative as the one that Tulsi Gabbard grew up in, her past homophobic views come as no surprise.
I do not say these things to justify homophobia in the early 2000s. There are some in the LGBT community who will, despite Gabbard’s 100% record on LGBT rights in Congress and her commitment to change, still feel betrayed by her words and actions in the past. Those feelings are valid.
I say this because those in the LGBT community who lived through the early 2000s truly know how far we have come in just a couple short decades. We understand the leap from then to now, and just how significant that distance is.
We watched family members and friends grapple with their own prejudice before learning acceptance. We watched brave advocates speak. We watched as Ellen continued to dance, as Harvey Milk was immortalized in an Oscar nominated film, and as Obama assured LGBT youth in a televised speech that it gets better. We watched as Americans from every corner of the nation came together to mourn those killed in the Pulse nightclub attack. We needed these allies and advocates then, and we still need them today.
These same allies came to our defense last week when they attacked Rep. Gabbard—well meaning allies who believe that even homophobia from the past deserves no place in our highest offices. And as these allies continue to assert that past homophobia is not who we are as a progressive, forward thinking country, something else strikes me.
That this, truly, is not who we are.
We in the LGBT community owe our progress—the progress that allows us to live with an ever-increasing degree of equality and freedom—to the firm belief that people can change; the belief that prejudice is not hardwired in any of us. We owe our progress to acceptance—not only to the increased acceptance of ourselves, but to the acceptance of the good-hearted but ill-informed people who, slowly, have battled their own negative judgments.
We need to allow people to change. We need to firmly, but kindly, educate and allow people to evolve their beliefs. And we need to forgive those who eventually do.
One word encapsulates this commitment more than anything, a word that happens to be Tulsi Gabbard’s personal mantra. Aloha.
Aloha means to embrace love, not hate. It means to approach each other with an open heart. It means to come together with respect, care, love, and a recognition that we are all connected. Aloha teaches us to find common ground, and that we are all neighbors in the country we call home.
Perhaps in 2019, we need less vindication and more aloha. God knows we could use more of it in this divisive time.