Salam Morcos recently offered a defense of Tulsi Gabbard, a member of Congress from Hawaii who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Gabbard gained a name for herself in progressive circles in 2016 when, bucking the majority of the Democratic Party, she endorsed Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, and resigned her seat at the DNC to do so. She generally opposes the most egregious displays of U.S. militarism and is a reliable vote on left domestic priorities.
But, as Salam notes, there are parts of her record and her current positions that give progressives pause. I won’t bother rehashing them; Salam does a good summing them up in the process of rebutting them, and at any rate, Salam is far better informed and in a much better position to comment on most of them.
But where I am qualified, if only through personal experience, is on her record as an anti-gay crusader. And I’d like to, with all due respect, push back a bit and, if possible, try to suggest a way to evaluate a candidate whose positions have radically changed.
The Political is More Than the Personal
I frankly don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about whether people hate me for my sexuality, so I’m not all that concerned that a young Tulsi Gabbard once found people like me viscerally unpleasant. Provided the homophobes don’t shove their heteronormativity too ostentatiously in public, it’s no skin off my nose.
But Gabbard wasn’t a garden variety homophobe; she was an anti-gay activist. I don’t blame her for the work of her infinitely more loathsome father, Mike Gabbard, but the first half of her career was marked by an ongoing attempt to harm the gay community. Briefly: As a teen, she promoted her father’s anti-gay organization, which, among other things, promotes gay conversion therapy; in her first run for office, for the Hawaii state legislature, she touted her efforts to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage; and as a state legislator, she opposed even the skim-milk civil unions that were offered as a half-measure to placate the people she referred to as “homosexual extremist[s].”
The Road From Damascus
Maybe it’s not a bad thing that she began so deep in the trenches of the culture war over gay rights; maybe it makes the narrative arc leading up to her position today all the more admirable. But you need a pretty good Road to Damascus story to pull that trick, and Gabbard doesn’t have it. Back in 2011, during her first run for Congress, she addressed her prior work as an anti-gay activist. (It is not lost on me that her public conversion happened to coincide with the last time she sought higher office.) She credits her change of heart to witnessing theocracy first-hand while deployed by the military in Iraq. The government, she said, in a distinct echo of Dr. King, should not be in the business of enforcing morality.
There are two troubling aspects to this. The first is that I’m a little alarmed by how she got to where she is today. Does it really require a sojourn in a Ba’ath-controlled dictatorship to get her to change her mind? Will it the next time she is wrong about something? And does her Road to Damascus narrative have to include such a heavy dose of thinly veiled contempt for Islam?
But maybe more troubling is what she suggests instead of banning gay marriage. If you follow the link from the statement posted on her 2012 campaign site, you’ll find that she doesn’t suggest equalizing marriage by extending it to gay people; she suggests abolishing the entire institution of government-sponsored marriage itself. This has uncomfortable echoes of massive resistance, the Civil Rights-era movement in southern states to abolish public schools rather than comply with orders to desegregate them. It is the political equivalent of your sibling who, having been told to share a toy with you, smashes it instead.
The idea to abolish civil marriage — get the government out of the business of marriage altogether, replacing it with a system of private contracts and, for those who want them, religious ceremonies — gained some traction on the right in the years leading up to 2015 as it became clearer that we were headed to full marriage equality. It’s the high-minded libertarian stance: In one blow, it would have achieved equality (if only through leveling down) and severely limited a universe of government-provided rights and privileges.
Gabbard has backed away from this libertarian stance (she supports, for example, the Equality Act, which would protect gay and trans workers from employment discrimination). But we should recognize that this, too, represents a change of heart, and that her journey from supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage to supporting positive rights for gay people is a lot messier than it sometimes gets portrayed as. Her 2011 statement was not the come-to-Jesus moment her defenders want it to be; it was the announcement of a radical, fringe, anti-liberal idea.
People Who Change Should Be Celebrated, Not Given the Nuclear Codes
Her early years were bad; her development lacks a compelling story. But we are talking about someone who exists now, and we’re talking about her in the context of deciding who should lead us into the future. “It takes a lot of courage for someone to change their worldview,” Salam exhorts. “This is why her change of view should be celebrated.”
And to be entirely honest, I will gladly join him in celebrating Gabbard’s change of heart. The sea change — legal and social — in the United States on gay rights is remarkable; much and many have changed, and Gabbard is among them. I just wonder why we should be handing off the vast powers of the presidency to someone who had to be dragged to where she is today.
The work of the American presidency is done behind closed doors with few legal constraints and even fewer political ones. What gets decided behind those closed doors is up to the person making the decisions, and I for one would like to know that it’s someone whose instincts were right and who acted on them even when it was politically unpopular. And the next administration is going to be faced with undoing the enormous damage it has done to a group whose status in the U.S. today is roughly equivalent to that of gay people in the early 2000s: trans individuals. Members of the LGBT community have every right to question how Gabbard will approach the task of extending the dignity and respect to trans people that she so stridently denied the gays.
It’s not too much to ask that our leaders be, well, leaders; that they have the instincts and courage to be in the right place at the time when it matters most, without having to be dragged there. I’m not asking for Gabbard be hurled into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. What I am asking for is that we entrust the Leviathan of the federal government to someone who has not demonstrated incredibly poor moral instincts.
There are other angles from which to view Gabbard’s career, and while I don’t buy the argument that she is anti-war, her willingness to criticize militarism is a breath of fresh air. She will add an important dimension to the Democratic primary. And I’ll also say that it is far too early in the campaign to be making any decisions on a candidate now. This response to Salam — again, made with the greatest respect — is not an anti-Gabbard pledge.
But her record on gay rights is troubling, not just for what it says about her past but also for what it says about our future. To adduce someone’s change of heart as evidence that she should be entrusted with the machinery of the executive is to confuse the personal and the political. I would love to share a beer with Gabbard. I’m less confident in gambling my comrades’ rights on her.