Election 2020

Will Tulsi Gabbard's Anti-LGBT Past Sink Her Presidential Candidacy? And Should It?

Most politicians have evolved on gay issues. But not all were directly connected to anti-gay organizations.


Tulsi Gabbard
Mike Segar/REUTERS/Newscom

Democratic Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announced her candidacy for president last weekend with an emphasis on reducing America's involvement in foreign wars. That itself has drawn criticism, as the current political climate has led a chunk of the Democratic establishment to see any scaling back of the U.S.'s military presence in countries like Syria as some sort of gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But beyond that, Gabbard has a legitimately troubling family history of opposition to LGBT rights. That background flared up this week as her candidacy received coverage, and yesterday she released a video fully apologizing for her history of anti-gay activism.

Gabbard and her family didn't just oppose same-sex marriage in the late 1990s and early part of the millennium. They were politically active in an organization, The Alliance for Traditional Marriage and Values, that worked to amend Hawaii's constitution to prohibit the legal recognition of same-sex couples. The organization argued that homosexuality was subversive and dangerous, and Gabbard's father endorsed conversion therapy to turn gay people straight. (Her father loudly opposed gay rights, even hosting a radio show called Let's Talk Straight Hawaii.) Gabbard acknowledged her work with the organization when she ran for state office when she was 21.

Gabbard's views on LGBT issues have evolved since then, as have those of many politicians, both Democrat and Republican. But since her past went a lot further than just simply expressing opposition to gay marriage, she's got a longer hill to climb. In 2012 she took responsibility and apologized for her anti-gay background in a meeting with Hawaii's Democratic Party LGBT Caucus. She has gotten endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign, the top LGBT national lobbying organization, and during her time in Congress she has supported many pro-gay pieces of legislation.

But apparently that's not stopping some rather fliply dismissive comments now that she's actually running for president. I was baffled by this tweet from journalist Soledad O'Brien on Twitter, acting as though Gabbard has just suddenly changed her positions because she's running for president:

I found O'Brien's response particularly odd because, well, as a journalist, you'd think O'Brien would appreciate candidates who actually directly address the criticisms they've been getting from the media. And you might think that O'Brien, as a journalist, might have checked to see if this was even a new development from Gabbard before she tweeted. It's not, and Gabbard now has a lengthy legislative record we can examine to decide whether her votes actually match her transformation. (They do.)

So I responded to O'Brien, observing: "Gosh, I hope nobody is ever similarly dismissive to any wisdom you've picked up as you've gotten older. I've had to forgive many, many people's less-than-stellar grasp of LGBT issues." (And this is true. When Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, banning recognition of same-sex marriage, I had several professional acquaintances who voted for it. I worked through it. I learned to craft better arguments. It's what being a politically engaged adult is all about.)

To my surprise, O'Brien replied, and we had a brief exchange:

Twitter exchange

I still find O'Brien's response to be weird and somewhat telling. Gabbard's responding to actual criticism and dealing with an issue that could sink her chances of a Democratic nomination. That's what candidates are supposed to do. Should she have ignored it? When Hillary Clinton ran for president, she also needed to contend with her previous record of opposing legal recognition of gay marriage, and to win over older LGBT voters who remembered the calculating politics of President Bill Clinton's era.

But Gabbard is also a bit of an outsider among the Democrats, potentially serving as this run's Bernie Sanders–esque, thorn-in-the side candidate. (She supported Sanders in 2016.) And so we get these weird, flippant, dismissive responses intended to try to shut down even the possibility of engagement or discussion.

Maybe Gabbard's past ties to anti-gay activism will make her radioactive to voters in the Democratic primaries. She may have gotten the Human Rights Campaign's support, but she has not been able to earn the trust of that LGBT caucus in her home state. Though even there, it turns out that some people are upset that her evolution is much less about suddenly deciding that gay marriage is awesome and more about realizing that she doesn't believe she should be using the government to force her religious beliefs on others. Apparently, the fact that she's voting in favor of every pro-gay piece of legislation isn't enough for some if she doesn't also feel the right things in her heart.

I think that's silly, stupid nonsense. When people with conservative backgrounds decide that it's wrong to use government power to restrict people's private relationships, that's a big win for individual liberty and for LGBT people. Stop looking for the affection and blessings of the politically connected, and focus on making sure they support the right policies.