By Andrew Ballard
On Oct. 7, 1998—a dry, windless Wednesday in Laramie, Wyoming—a bicyclist motored down a long country road. To his sides lay wide, open fields, and in one of them, he saw what at first glance seemed to be a scarecrow, wavering limply on the strands of twine that bound it to a ranch fence.
The figure on the fence,however, was not a scarecrow but a 21-year-old boy. He hung in a coma, burned, beaten, covered in blood and nearly dead after having been knotted to the post 18 hours before at the hands of two men he had never known. Their motive? The boy—later identified as Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming—was gay.
His beating and death, which followed quickly, marked the pinnacle of what “New York Magazine” essayist Frank Rich has since called the “homophobic epidemic of 1998”—a wave of fear, discrimination and violence that paralleled the rampant spread of AIDS in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Leading up to the outbreak, in 1994, President Bill Clinton enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that barred openly gay, lesbian and bisexual citizens from serving in the armed services, on the premise that their company “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.”
Later, in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act—which affirmed states’ authority to deny gay couples the right to marry—passed in both houses and was signed into law by Clinton, again. It was a tethering of human rights that would take over 15 years and millions upon millions of activists to untangle.
And just a year before Shepard’s death, the majority Republican Congress successfully blocked the appointment of John Hormel as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg on the basis of his open, “aggressive” homosexuality, which some representatives believed was “very offensive” and “inhibiting.”
Today, those laws soaked in intolerance that once stood at the center of bipartisan support are, for the most part, the subjects of great disapproval. Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that said to the public, “it’s okay to regard homosexuality as a mental debilitation,” in 2011. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that provisions in DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment and were therefore unconstitutional.
With such, individuals have evolved in their ideologies. It’s something to celebrate, certainly— but it is no call for complacency. A mere 17 years before the court’s ruling, those same provisions that are now deemed “a deprivation of liberty” passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, with the support of 342 congressmen and women, Republicans and Democrats, voting in support. Only 67 members opposed.
forgetting our history in the pursuit of future change fuels the same stagnant ignorance that has always festered in this nation’s past wounds.
The truth is that the sentiments of homophobia written into this type of legislation reflected in the hateful words of congressmen and women and embodied in killings such as Shepard’s were standard in U.S. politics and culture not long ago. It was common—I dare say, popular—to oppose what is now considered a matter of human rights.
Of course, it was a different time. Hatred then was not “hatred,” but traditional loyalty. Ignorance was an unquestioned norm. There was no punishment for this form of bigotry, and for those who dared speak against the current of common prejudice, there was great risk.
Although public opinion has learned greater tolerance, the loathing of yesterday remains a scar on the face of our country that will never fade. We must remember—as the population stops to consider new executive leadership—that forgetting our history in the pursuit of future change fuels the same stagnant ignorance that has always festered in this nation’s past wounds.
Those right-minded candidates aspiring for the presidency agree firmly on the issue of marriage equality. And Bill Clinton, whose signature enacted the Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” surely would not support those laws now. However, both he and his wife supported them back then, and it is worth taking a moment to ensure that history is remembered correctly.
In her 2000 run to represent New York in the Senate, Hillary Clinton said that, if she had been president in 1996, she too would have signed DOMA into law. Asked in a 2002 interview with Chris Matthews, “do you think New York should recognize gay marriage,” she answered with one word: “No.” In a 2004 speech before the senate, she assured her audience that she “believe[s] marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” And when she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, she did so in open opposition to marriage equality.
Senator Sanders, in simple comparison, has always been on the right page—even when most other policymakers were reading backwards.
In 1995, after California Representative Duke Cunningham ridiculed profane remarks about “homos in the military” on the floor of the House, Sanders addressed him directly, shouting, “You used the words ‘homos in the military’ you have insulted thousands of gay men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend this country.”
And remember that minority of voters opposing DOMA in 1996? Bernie was among them, too.
Sanders and Clinton’s histories diverge on their advocacy for gay Americans, but that disparity extends far beyond marriage equality. Clinton voted for the Iraq War, which only ended after eight years of bloodshed and 700,000 deaths. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater—the 1964 Republican presidential nominee whose policies on civil rights Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “morally indefensible and socially suicidal,” and she referred to African-American teens as “super-predators” in a 1996 speech. She initially supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and was a backer of the Keystone Pipeline—only until the majority of Americans disagreed with her positions on those issues.
Though her record is troubling, we cannot dwell on the instances in which the Secretary did not stand for what was right; to do so would be to dwell on the actions of, not only her, but also the majority of mainstream politicians.
We must instead allow her history to contrast with the Senator’s foresight, to show that— when Clinton followed the status quo—Sanders advocated for what he knew to be ethical and best for the American people, even when doing so meant standing alone.
Those who act with the belief that sincerity and fairness are worth the risk of losing popularity are, and always have been, forces of positive change.
He spoke out repeatedly against the war, marched on Washington with Dr. King in 1963, remained steadfast in his negative evaluation of the TPP, recognized immediately the environmental implications of Keystone and advocated in the name of social tolerance and respect when those words were expelled from popular vocabulary.
Of Matthew Shepard’s openness, one of his classmates told The New York Times, “I admired him for that, because it is very courageous to be yourself even when others disagree.”
It’s easy to understand that admiration. Those who act with the belief that sincerity and fairness are worth the risk of losing popularity are, and always have been, forces of positive change. In the case of Shepard, although he should not be labeled a martyr, his honesty in an environment that scorned it contributed to the swell of tolerance that has since washed over this nation.
We now stand at the foot of a road along which there are new obstacles that manifest divisions among politicians. We live in a country in which discriminatory justice, education and healthcare systems render it virtually impossible for the less advantaged to succeed, a country where unchecked sums of money are obstructing the arteries of what has the potential to be a healthy democracy. Working in the best interest of all this country’s people—to resolve such critical issues—has been the sole theme of Sanders’s career. This election is only the next chapter in his life- long story of pioneering activism.
The chorus of skeptics has labeled him as naïve and idealistic, raising unattainable expectations. But in the improbable history that is this country’s, such dissonant voices have only faded as unfaltering hope has pushed— and accomplished—remarkable change.
So let this not be a debate over politics but a matter of time, history and common sense; this country needs not a follower who will sway tenuously in the shifting winds of popular opinion but rather a leader who has stood and will continue to stand strong in the face of animosity, in the name of justice, for the sole interest of opportunity, equity and respect for all.
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