The 2016 campaign ratcheted up a few notches yesterday in the wake of comments that Jeb Bush, who recently announced that he is exploring a presidential run, made over the weekend regarding the commencement of same-sex marriages in Florida. Asked about the gay nuptials—the arrival of which he has long fought—in his state, Bush told the Miami Herald, “It ought be a local decision—I mean, a state decision. The state decided. The people of the state decided. But it’s been overturned by the courts, I guess.” In later comments to the New York Times, Bush took a more mollifying tone:
We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law. I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue—including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty.
The statement proved “encouraging” to some gay activists, according to the Times: A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign applauded Bush for “at least … expressing his respect for those who support marriage equality. That’s a big change for Republicans.” Other observers, unsurprisingly, were not as convinced. Queerty’s John Gallagher blasted the statement as so much prevarication from an unrepentant homophobe, arguing that “in essence, Bush is saying that everyone should respect the rule of law—except religious conservatives. Now how conciliatory is that?”
Both these reactions seem fair when it comes to Bush’s comments—they represent a sort of half-full/half-empty perspective choice. But another response, BuzzFeed’s decision on Monday afternoon to dig up and republish an anti-gay editorial Bush wrote … in 1994, struck me and the rest of us here at Outward as peculiar and misguided. Here’s the gist of the archeology project:
During his first and unsuccessful bid for governor in 1994, Bush argued in an editorial that LGBT people do not deserve special legal protection. “We have enough special categories, enough victims, without creating even more,” he wrote.
In the editorial, published in the Miami Herald that summer, Bush drew a parallel between legal protection for gays and the question, “[Should] sodomy be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion? My answer is No.”
“The statement that the governor must stand up for all people on all matters is just silly,” Bush wrote, arguing that government does not defend every Floridian “with equal verve and enthusiasm.” He listed a string of examples: “Polluters, pedophiles, pornographers, drunk drivers, and developers without proper permits.”
Part of the journalist’s job is, of course, to provide context on a public figure’s statements and positions—especially in an era of short memories and rapid news cycles—so BuzzFeed’s general approach here is not bizarre. Rather, it’s the specific content of this op-ed and the associated cultural background that make the “smoking archival gun” tactic fall rather flat. Simply put, in 1994, you would have been hard pressed to find a politician—on either side of the aisle—who was a model supporter of queer people, and it’s certain that you could easily find journalists and other “liberal elite” types who articulated anti-gay rhetoric back then that they now abhor. Acknowledging that times were different—by which I mean stereotypes and ignorance prevalent and education in short supply—is not to excuse such rhetoric, but only to take a pragmatic approach to historical reality. What matters is that people evolve over time. While it is unclear exactly how far Bush has really come in his views on the LGBTQ community, we can only hope that his spokeswoman’s statement that the editorial “does not reflect Gov. Bush’s views now, nor would he use this terminology today,” is the truth.
It’s also worth noting that the positions Bush takes in the op-ed aren’t all that heinous, considering both source and era. It is indeed deeply troubling that he compares us sodomites (his unfortunate framing) to drug dealers and pedophiles; but then, his larger argument is against “special legal rights” and “categories” for any group defined—for him—by a chosen behavior. One of the most important successes of the LGBTQ rights movement in the two decades since the op-ed appeared has been the gradual disabusing of most of straight America of the idea that homosexuality is an act or choice rather than a fundamental aspect of identity. In other words, Bush was not alone in his misapprehension.
Likewise, his assertion that the government need not “defend the conduct of every [citizen]” is hardly shocking, at least from a conservative point of view. Yes, the comparisons he draws to make this point are specious and offensive; but again, given the widespread understanding of homosexuality at the time (and to this day in many regions), not at all surprising. Ultimately, lack of surprise is the problem with this BuzzFeed excavation project: No one should be shocked that people in 1994 were not as sensitive on gay issues as they might be today. But the breathless presentation does suggest that ideological purity—both in the present and distant past—might be more important to some than reconsideration, regret, and growth. And when you’re part of a movement that’s very much still in need of allies, that’s not a good look.