Fourteen Years of Gay Rights Progress

Today, former Senator Chuck Hagel, rumored to be a possible nominee for secretary of defense, apologized for comments he made in 1998 about James Hormel, then-President Bill Clinton's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hagel had complained at the time that Hormel is "openly aggressively gay" and therefore did not represent "our lifestyle, our values, our standards." This statement -- and how bizarre it sounds just 14 years later -- reflects how much the political landscape around gay rights has changed.

Ambassador to Luxembourg is one of the least consequential positions requiring Senate confirmation. It's routinely handed out to wealthy political donors, such as Hormel, who is an heir to the Spam meatpacking fortune. President Barack Obama's first appointee to the position, Cynthia Stroum, so terrorized embassy staff that several sought transfers to Iraq or Afghanistan to avoid her. She had raised more than $500,000 for Obama's first campaign.

All of which is to say, who serves as ambassador to Luxembourg is not terribly important to the national interest.

But Republicans picked a public fight about Hormel's nomination simply because he was gay, and many Senate Republicans, including Hagel, weren't shy about saying so. Ultimately, Clinton gave Hormel a recess appointment because the Republican-controlled Senate would not vote on his confirmation.

It's hard to imagine that fight today. During the Obama administration, numerous appointments of openly gay officials have sailed through the Senate with broad support, including at least two federal judges. Export-Import Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg was confirmed by unanimous consent. Lots of conservatives aren't fond of the Ex-Im Bank, but none, as far as I'm aware, have made an issue of Hochberg's sexuality.

Both Obama and George W. Bush obtained Senate confirmation for openly gay ambassadors, to New Zealand and Romania, respectively.

Republicans in Congress remain broadly opposed to the gay rights agenda, on issues from marriage to discrimination law to immigration. In 2010, most congressional Republicans voted to keep "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But even the arguments for DADT focused on convoluted ideas of "readiness" and "cohesion," with few saying out loud that they thought gays were inherently unfit for military service.

Arguing that gays should be excluded from positions of importance simply because they are gay has become socially unacceptable, even for most conservatives. That is an important change from not too long ago -- partly because overt prejudice is bad in itself, and partly because removing the option of overt prejudice leaves gay rights opponents with few arguments for their policy positions.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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