Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense is drawing a lot of criticism from the gay community and progressives in general, due to Hagel’s anti-gay record in the Senate and his characterization of James Hormel as “aggressively gay,” a charge “as homophobic as it was bizarre,” in one critic’s words. I get this, and I get why gay-rights groups that just pounded pavement to get Obama reëlected would feel outrageously betrayed.
But! Hagel’s comments are 14 years old. If it seems cold to say that fourteen years absolves bigotry, consider the fourteen years gay rights have had. Here’s the trajectory of public approval over gay marriage—which, while not a perfect proxy for public sentiment over homosexuality, is a pretty damn good one—in the time since Hagel’s remarks:
Support for same-sex marriage doubled in the last fourteen years, a remarkable transformation in an even more remarkably short period of time. The same shift happened over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, with the biggest change coming from men exactly like Hagel: only 16% of conservatives supported gays serving in the military in 1993; by 2008, that number was 59%.
This is not to say that there is some sort of statute of limitations on homophobia. It’s merely to say that the world with relation to gay rights was a very different place fourteen years ago, one in which Hagel’s remarks would have been the norm. It’s fantastic that that’s changed, but it means one out of every two people with whom you’ve had a gung-ho conversation in the past year about legalizing gay marriage was, quite recently, closer to Chuck Hagel’s view than they were to yours. Meanwhile, three out of every four conservatives who just a decade-and-a-half ago objected to gays in the military have rightfully changed their minds, but changed them sometime after the first Spiderman came out. Penalizing past bigotry in the context of such rapid cultural change seems counterproductive.
Hagel shouldn’t get a pass on this. As Secretary of Defense, he’s obligated to uphold the law, which is no longer Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and we have every right to know if he will admit gay service members enthusiastically or reluctantly, along with a host of other issues. But I see his role proceeding more along the lines proposed by Richard Socarides in the New Yorker: the specter of a Republican war veteran leading military integration might actually increase acceptance of gay rights—provided, of course, Hagel’s one of the conservatives who has actually changed.
(If you have other reasons to dislike Hagel, and it sounds like they exist, by all means filet the guy.)