Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, once touted as a progressive rising star who threw her support behind Bernie Sanders in 2016, announced that she’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination over the weekend.
Much of the coverage of Gabbard’s announcement has focused on the number of foreign policy actions she’s taken that have confounded or enraged members of her own party. She secretly met with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, courted India’s right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, voted with the GOP to make it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to come to the U.S., and met with President-elect Donald Trump shortly after the 2016 election amid rumors she was being considered for a job in his administration, which she denied. The news of her presidential run also brought renewed scrutiny to Gabbard’s early-career opposition to LGBTQ equality, a position she now says she regrets.
All this is to say, Gabbard doesn’t appear to have a solid constituency anywhere within the national Democratic Party, thus making her bid for the nomination dead on arrival.
Still, it’s worth taking a closer look at Gabbard’s positions on LGBTQ rights, an issue she claims she has evolved on in quite an extraordinary way. In the 2020 election, every candidate’s record on LGBTQ rights will be critical — and that includes both statements in their past and how they’re presenting themselves in the media right now.
For two years, we’ve lived under a president who has brutally assaulted LGBTQ rights at every opportunity, after having seduced a complacent media into thinking that he’d evolved too and that he was actually “more accepting on gay issues,” as The New York Times infamously put it. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we can’t trust media narratives on the civil rights views of candidates — narratives often fed to reporters by the candidates themselves.
Gabbard was an ardent foe of equality for queer people in her younger years, working for two anti-LGBTQ organizations in the late ’90s that were led by her father. Mike Gabbard, a Hawaii legislator who helped drive the fight against marriage equality in the state, headed up the Alliance for Traditional Marriage and Stop Promoting Homosexuality, which promoted harmful conversion therapy.
The younger Gabbard, elected to the Hawaii legislature herself in 2002 at the age of 21, railed against “homosexual extremists” in 2004, coming out against same-sex civil unions in her state. That same year she opposed anti-bullying legislation meant to protect gay students, arguing that it would teach young people that homosexuality is “normal and natural.”
Years later, while successfully seeking a U.S. House seat in 2012, Gabbard portrayed herself as having evolved and apologized for “very divisive and even disrespectful” positions and comments in the past. And this week she issued a statement apologizing further:
“First, let me say I regret the positions I took in the past, and the things I said. I’m grateful for those in the LGBTQ+ community who have shared their aloha with me throughout my personal journey.”
Gabbard isn’t the only Democrat to have evolved since their early years, but few young Democrats held such extreme views so recently.
Her statement this week went on to tout her votes for pro-LGBTQ measures during her six years in Congress, including a sweeping civil rights bill called the Equality Act and a proposed repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. She committed herself to fighting for LGBTQ rights if elected president.
In 2013, Gabbard credited part of her change on these issues to having served in the military before her election to the U.S. House, saying she had witnessed in Iraq “the destructive effect of having governments who act as moral arbiters for their people.”
However, in a 2016 interview with the publication Ozy, Gabbard suggested that her personal beliefs on homosexuality actually haven’t changed:
It was, she says, the days in the Middle East that taught her the dangers of a theocratic government “imposing its will” on the people. (She tells me that, no, her personal views haven’t changed, but she doesn’t figure it’s her job to do as the Iraqis did and force her own beliefs on others.)
It’s not exactly comforting as a gay man to know that a politician decided you should be afforded civil rights as a matter of policy while she still personally thinks you’re immoral. But even if we could separate these two things and believe that Gabbard would passionately defend LGBTQ rights the way that, say, now-deceased Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — a Democrat who was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan — became a supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, it’s Gabbard’s actions right now that are still of great concern.
Recently, she wrote a Hill op-ed that was lauded by right-wing publications. In the piece she attacked those like Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California who sharply questioned Brian Buescher, a religious extremist nominated by Trump to a federal district court vacancy in Nebraska, accusing them of “religious bigotry.” Although Gabbard did not name either senator in the op-ed, the fingerpointing was clear.
Buescher plainly said during his unsuccessful run for Nebraska attorney general, “I do not believe homosexuality should be considered the same way race or ethnicity is considered with regard to anti-discrimination laws which currently apply to race or ethnicity.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has come out strongly against Buescher, saying that “his track record of partisan activism and deep-seated hostility to LGBTQ equality and reproductive freedom” makes him unqualified for the bench and calling him “an ideological warrior.”
Hirono and Harris had asked Buescher if he could rule impartially on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, and they had referred to his membership in the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization that is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. The questioning touched off a wave of faux outrage on the right claiming “anti-Catholic bigotry.”
The senators were, however, doing their jobs, questioning a judicial nominee who has used his religious faith to justify his policy positions. For Gabbard to say this amounts to “religious bigotry” is to drag out another right-wing trope.
It also shows us that Gabbard isn’t being honest about her transformation and can’t be trusted. Though she says she opposes Buescher’s nomination herself, Gabbard’s attack should give everyone pause about which voters she was signaling to just days before she announced her presidential candidacy.
No matter that Gabbard’s candidacy is likely going nowhere, her op-ed should be a warning sign to voters and those in the media who, as with Trump in 2016, might again buy in to a candidate’s claims of evolution while the candidate keeps signaling their actual views.
We can do better.
Michelangelo Signorile is a HuffPost editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter at @MSignorile.