Like his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders occasionally fudges his record on LGBTQ rights to make his candidacy more attractive to the Democrats’ liberal base. As mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, Sanders declined to support a gay workplace nondiscrimination measure, explaining that gay rights were not a “major priority.” As a congressman in the 1990s, he voted against a federal gay marriage ban strictly on states’ rights grounds. As recently as 2006, he professed to oppose a same-sex marriage bill in Vermont.
But if Sanders was unwilling to embrace full legal equality in the early years of the gay rights revolution, he undoubtedly served as a vital ally to the community during his years in Congress—at a time when queer people had few friends in Washington, D.C. Perhaps his most impressive stand against legislative homophobia occurred in 1995, when Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham slipped a casual slur against “homos in the military” into a floor speech. Sanders, appearing visibly outraged, broke in to deliver an impassioned rejoinder. “You have insulted thousands of men and women who have put their lives on the line,” he fumed to Cunningham. “I think you owe them an apology.”
The exchange serves as a rebuke to the notion that Sanders and Clinton followed roughly the same path in their evolution on gay equality. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton privately told a historian that his wife found gay rights “harder to swallow” and experienced “discomfort” around “gay people who were kind of acting out” (whatever that means). Five years earlier, Sanders was defending gays’ courage and humanity on the House floor. It is pretty indisputable that both support gay equality wholeheartedly today. But it’s now clear that, for many years, Sanders was the more presciently progressive of the two.
As the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter points out, there is one final postscript to this story. Sanders’ and Cunningham’s careers followed very different paths in the years after their fiery exchange. Sanders, of course, became a senator, then a highly competitive presidential candidate. Cunningham continued to make appallingly homophobic cracks; in 1998, he joked that a prostate exam was “just not natural, unless maybe you’re Barney Frank.” Eight years later, he was convicted of taking millions in bribes from defense contractors and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released to a halfway house in early 2013, then freed completely later that year. After gaining his liberty, Cunningham petitioned for a gun permit, but a judge denied his request, citing a federal law that forbade convicted felons from owning firearms. Cunningham had voted for the measure as a congressman.