January 2, 2013 | New York Daily News

Chuck Hagel’s History of Homophobia

In June 1999, President Bill Clinton named Jim Hormel Ambassador to Luxembourg. Ambassadorships to cushy places like Luxembourg — a landlocked country of 1,000 square miles with half a million inhabitants — are typically handed out to major campaign donors, and Hormel (heir to the processed meat fortune) was no exception. A bipartisan tradition, such appointments also tend not to generate much controversy.

But Hormel’s selection caused a firestorm. The first openly gay person to be appointed to an ambassadorship, Hormel was (and remains to this day) a major benefactor of gay causes, ranging from pro-marriage equality campaigns to an organization providing care to gay seniors. Senate Republicans tried to block Hormel solely because of his sexual orientation; then-Minority Leader Trent Lott compared homosexuality to alcoholism and kleptomania. Clinton appointed Hormel during the Senate recess.

One of the more vocal senators to oppose the Hormel nomination was then-Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel.

“They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards,” he told the Omaha World Herald in 1998. “And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.”

This “openly aggressive” aspect of Hormel’s homosexuality was his decision not to hide it, as legions of gay men in public serve had done before him. Hagel faulted Hormel for doing precisely the things that we celebrate members of any other ethnic or religious group for doing: taking pride in their identity as a positive affirmation of America’s unparalleled diversity. Yet Hormel’s self-assurance was an aggravation of an already disqualifying aspect; according to Hagel, the mere fact of being gay “inhibited” government service.

Hagel's attitudes are newly relevant in light of the fact that he has reportedly emerged as President Obama’s favored choice for secretary of defense. While controversy has raged over Hagel’s views on Israel, Iran and the “Jewish lobby,” his views on gay people — and, particularly, their fitness for service in the military — are just as relevant. And they are disturbingly retrograde.

Over the course of a 12-year career in the Senate, Hagel racked up a virtually 0% voting record from the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights organization (his only positive vote being for AIDS funding to Africa, not necessarily even a gay issue).

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was a vociferous supporter of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military’s erstwhile gay ban. “The U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment,” he told The New York Times in 1999, denigrating those gay soldiers who had the temerity to serve openly.

President Obama campaigned for President in 2008 on a pledge to repeal DADT, a goal he achieved in 2010. While allowing open service has caused minimal disruption, shepherding a vast bureaucracy undergoing a fundamental cultural change requires great skill and sensitivity. Further challenges also lie ahead, for instance, the new secretary of defense will have to deal with the question of whether or not the partners of gay service-members should receive the same benefits as those of straight ones. It is worth asking whether Chuck Hagel is really the right man to oversee a government institution unwinding a decades-long discriminatory policy.

Earlier this month, facing increasing scrutiny over his views, Hagel issued a statement expressing regret for his remarks about Hormel, conceding that the comments were “insensitive” and insisting that he now supports open service. Interviewed by the Washington Post, Hormel said that he had received no personal message from Hagel, and that the former senator’s “so-called apology . . . had the air of being a defensive move on his part” made “only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.” Hours later, however, presumably pressured by fellow partisan Democrats, Hormel changed his tune, stating that, “While the timing appears self-serving, the words themselves are unequivocal — they are a clear apology.”

It’s true that people’s views about contentious social issues evolve over time, perhaps no more so than on the subject of gay rights, perceptions of which have undergone a more rapid change for the better than arguably any other social movement in American history. But if Hagel’s real attitudes have progressed, there is no evidence to indicate this is the case. Hagel had 14 years in which to express contrition — publicly or privately — to the man whose honor and reputation he slandered, and his conveniently timed “apology” has more than a ring of opportunism. Presidential nominees have been rejected for far less. A man who believes that gay people, simply because of their nature, are unfit to serve their country, is unfit to serve his.

Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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