Is Bernie Sanders exaggerating his gay rights record?

Mark Joseph Stern took some heat on Twitter yesterday — as one does when criticizing Bernie Sanders — for pointing out that while the senator claims to have been a longtime supporter of marriage equality, he went through his own evolution on the issue. As Stern notes, while Sanders was one of only 67 members of Congress to vote against DOMA in 1996 (342 ayes), he justified his vote as an issue of states’ rights. And when he was asked about marriage equality in 2006, he again said that he opposed overturning same-sex marriage in Massachusetts because “marriage is a state issue. That’s what it is,” while preferring granting same-sex couples the right to civil unions because fighting for marriage would be too “divisive.” Per Stern, Sanders also said he would “probably not” support a bill protecting LGBT workers from job discrimination and didn’t consider LGBT rights a “major priority” as Mayor of Burlington in 1990.

This is particularly troublesome for Stern given Sanders insistence that “I’m not evolving when it comes to gay rights. I was there!” as he told the New York Times’ Gail Collins. If you used to simply oppose anti-gay laws because of federalism, and you now support full equality (Sanders is a sponsor of the Equality Act), you can’t say your position hasn’t ever changed. Right?

Well, kinda.

This is admittedly a finely-split hair, but it isn’t exactly a contradiction for Bernie Sanders to say he’s been a longtime champion of gay rights who has also moved with political convenience on the issue of marriage. Case in point, here’s a one-page platform of his from a campaign for governor of Vermont in the 1970s that calls for repealing all Nixon-era anti-gay laws:

It’s important to keep in mind through all of this that Bernie Sanders is 74 years old, and that politics is relative. When Bernie Sanders says he’s always been there on gay rights, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he was sponsoring anti-discrimination laws like the Equality Act and campaigning for Senate on legalizing same-sex marriage nearly 30 years ago. It does mean that at any given moment during his political career, Bernie Sanders was erring on the side of LGBT rights. But for a really, really long time, all it took to make that statement true was simply being opposed to laws that directly sanctioned discrimination. And while other politicians may have been a step ahead of him in supporting anti-discrimination laws and marriage equality, most of them weren’t getting elected to statewide office.

Bernie Sanders in 1991, via Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Sanders in 1991, via Wikimedia Commons

So Sanders’s relationship with LGBT issues has always been a twinge political. He seems most comfortable on the liberal side of whatever the spectrum of politically viable options allows, and he’d rather make noise elsewhere. In that sense, he really hasn’t evolved. It’s not news that social and cultural issues aren’t a “major priority” for him; he’s always been laser-focused on economic inequality, which he has sometimes prioritized to the point of creating blind spots elsewhere. But I think it’s also fair to say that Sanders has never been “bad” on LGBT rights — relative to those around him — given the political realities he faced at the time.

It’s useful to note that Sanders just went through a similar critique of his record on racial equality. Sanders (more accurately, Sanders’s supporters) made a big deal out of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,  touting both as evidence that he was “with it” on present-day issues pertaining to racial justice. To which the Black Lives Matter movement said, in effect, “Dude, that was fifty years ago. Where are you now?” Marching with Dr. King is great, but it isn’t a platform in the 21st Century. What was radical in the 1960s is now mainstream Democratic politics today; if your campaign rhetoric assumes that isn’t the case, it’s fair for the activist wing of the progressive movement to assume you’ve stopped pushing.

To Sanders’s credit, he took that criticism in stride, making tangible changes to his campaign and releasing a racial justice platform. In this case, given his existing co-sponsorship of the Equality Act and celebration of marriage equality, a similar change in platform in response to Stern may not be necessary. What is necessary is the recognition that fifty years in politics leaves a long record — a record that is absolutely fair game for criticism, but fairer game if that criticism is made with its age in mind.

Correction: Sanders is 74, not 76.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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46 Responses to “Is Bernie Sanders exaggerating his gay rights record?”

  1. noway123456789 says:

    Indigo, you don’t need to be a centrist to govern. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a firebrand populist socialist democrat who bragged about being hated by Wall Street, and who passed some of the most progressive reforms imaginable – and he was elected four times, because the people were so into it.

  2. noway123456789 says:

    I am disgusted by your rhetoric, Elliot. To say that Bernie fans just don’t want a woman president… shame on you.

    You know just as well as I that Bernie didn’t even become a “thing” until it became clear Elizabeth Warren wasn’t going to run. Hell, even Bernie didn’t get in the race at first because he wanted someone else to do it. But when it became clear Liz Warren wasn’t going to take all of the progressive support she has and use it for a presidential run, he jumped in, at the behest of his wife Jane.

    We wanted Elizabeth to run because of her policy positions, but now that she’s not running, we’ll take the closest thing, even if he’s the kind of uncool 74 year old white dude we’ve already had so many of. That’s the difference between Sanders supporters and someone like you: to us it’s not about getting a WOMAN, or getting an AFRICAN-AMERICAN, or getting some other novelty that we can brag about voting for. It’s about the issues, plain and simple.

  3. Chicho Blanco says:

    I’m not against a female president. I was one of the first people to support the Run Warren Run campaign. I just don’t want Hillary Clinton as my president. Unlike you, I’m not a bigot. I don’t paint Hillary supporters with a broad brush. Some people that I love and respect are supporting her. You make an ignorant comment and you’re too clueless to realize that you’re acting like the thing you’re criticizing. That is both sad and pathetic. You are a real life example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  4. Elliot Wilson says:

    Try getting Sanders’s brain-dead fans to realize he’s not the god among men they build him up to be and that they’re just afraid of a woman President.

  5. novenator says:

    Clinton didn’t finally say she supports LGBT rights until 2013. Bernie’s been fighting for FULL equality for not just LGBT folks, but women, and minorities, and every other non-majority group in America for decades.

  6. babotaengi says:

    Sorry you feel that way, man. I wasn’t trying to upset you, just presenting the case for the other side.

  7. feet_ontheground says:

    However you want to slice it, reality is that Bernie Sanders supports gay rights while Hillary has not been as supportive, clearly until more recently.

    This Election is The People Vs Rule By Corporations & Billionaires! Bernie Sanders is stepping up and working hard to foster a political revolution to lead the people in this fight. His policies are main stream and he clearly CAN govern.

    And btw Winston Churchill was Bernie’s age and older when he ran the UK!

    NO MORE Status Quo! Time For America to grow up and not only have a political revolution putting people and democracy back in front but also a cultural revolution moving from ‘every man for himself’ to caring for each other.

    You want to see a shift in addiction, incarceration, greed, gun violence, health, and destruction of the planet? That cultural shift is Yuuugely important! Create a different culture that says everyone gets health care as a right, you will be able to get a higher education if you do the work in school to get there, you will be paid a living wage for the work you do, and have millions of people fight for you to have those rights. Do that and you will begin to see an improvement in our culture and in our lives.

  8. Coloradan4life says:

    I disagree – I believe Bernie is the only adult in the room, when it comes to congress. The Bern’s record on governing speaks for itself and so does Hillary’s P.O.S recored. Secretary of state is not her bag, baby… As for skeletons – Bernie was in Congress before Bill Clinton came to Washington and has remained there long after the Clinton’s eight years. But Bernie doesn’t know enough dirt… Your message suggests – We need someone corrupt like Hillary, to deal with our corrupt government.!? Feel the Bern 2016

    P.S. Notice your two up votes – you are alone

  9. Coloradan4life says:

    To Jon Green- Good luck with finding a LGBT – single issue candidate! Your point about black lives matter’s opinion. Bernie – A Brooklyn-jew marching in the south with Dr. MLK was extremely dangerous, far more dangerous then getting up onstage and interrupting, civilized political events with rude behavior. Ask Andrew goodman or Michael Henry Schwerner… Two final points – It is not realistic to set the bar; for Bernie to have the same point of view or equal passion, of a young LGBT person or a young African American on their specific goals, wants, or needs. A politician’s record is always relevant, it allows the voter to see if they’re candidate tells the truth, and follows thru with their campaign platform promises. Why would a gay person or a person, rich in color, need to fear with the BERN?

  10. MajorTom says:

    Before you draw final conclusions, take a look at the record, and at his plans. He has a plan for how to accomplish this, it’s not pie in the sky, and he his record shows he’s a fighter but can reach across the aisle too. He’s not just speaking lovely words, he is thinking of how this can get done.

    Clinton will be a punching bag. Look what they’ve done with Bengazi. She will not do the mass mobilization strategy that Sanders has already planned out. He wants to keep people involved, and that’s a DIFFERENT strategy than has ever been tried. Hope you’ll keep an open mind.

    one of the top senators for bills out of committee; top 25% for laws enacted

    His record is BETTER than Hillary’s on that score.

  11. Mark Gisleson says:

    Yet you critiqued him in the absence of HRC’s GLBT record. How does that help GLBT-friendly progressives identify who their real friends are?

  12. Mark Gisleson says:

    Try reading closely. No one else has questioned Bernie’s LGBT cred. To do so at all is tantamount to trolling as virtually no other member of Congress can match his record. This is like the Talbot piece people raved about in the New Yorker, but when you studied it, she raised serious questions about Bernie in almost exactly every other paragraph, trolling beneath waves of otherwise complimentary (but already reported on) issues.

    They won’t take Bernie out with riot police, they’ll do it with stealth attack articles. A good attack article isn’t noticeably such. A good attack article raises bothersome questions and targets the uncommitted. This article did exactly that and not one word in this article compares HRC to Bernie on GLBT issues because the whole article would have been moot had that been done.

  13. Mark Gisleson says:

    Clinton Dems get mau maued by whispers because they never really wanted to go there, and are always happy to compromise.

    Most opposition to HRC has nothing to do with her per se, and everything to do with progressive disgust at Clintonian Wall Street politics.

  14. Mark Gisleson says:

    Must be tons of ill will out there if a three-word comment and candidate video is hate speech in your world.

  15. LAguy323 says:

    Thanks. Please, also make sure to indicate, just as prominently, the age of Mrs. Clinton in articles here. Plenty of people are not aware there’s only a 5 year age difference between she and Senator Sanders.

  16. LAguy323 says:


  17. BeccaM says:

    I was referring to the GOP’s complaints against her. Which don’t include being a corporatist, even though that part is true and I do have a problem with it. The Republican party today has become the KnowNothing party, a party of anti-Intellectuals who want to portray ANY leader who actually thinks before acting as some kind of feckless pantywaist.

    Look, bub, I happen to like Sanders. His positions are closer to mine than other candidates. I’m happy to support him. But if the choice comes down to Clinton vs ANY Republican candidate, I know how I’m going to vote.

  18. babotaengi says:

    You’re wrong, bro. Bernie and the people are going to stop it. You should help. Bernie knows what he is doing.

  19. Indigo says:

    You say you’re a Sanders supporter but you comment like a troll. That’s an interesting approach, garnering support through ill will. Let’s let time solve that dilemma.

  20. chonus says:

    Anybody who doubts that Bernie doesn’t stand up for the gay community need only watch this.

  21. babotaengi says:

    You’re wrong, bro.

  22. BeccaM says:

    It would have been difficult, if not impossible to achieve the supermajorities necessary to pass a federal Constitutional amendment, else they would have done it already.

    And in case you don’t recall, the GOP put the amendment into their platform anyway.

  23. HeywoodJa says:

    I remember it the way Raul did, too-that the GOP was making noise about a constitutuional amendment, and DOMA was a “shut up and stop it” compromise to prevent the founding document from being altered. I seem to recall that some Democrats signed on to it with a heavy heart.

  24. aaaabbbbb says:

    have some fkg faith

  25. aaaabbbbb says:

    yeah, which includes “strategising” by taking big dontions from citigroup and jpmorgan
    Burlington has become one of the best us cities under sanders

  26. BeccaM says:

    We watched Larry Wilmore’s show from last night, and I thought he had a good point: Many of the criticisms of Hillary Clinton are that she’s non-emotional, calculating, strategizing all the time and ‘thinks too much.’ Then he asked, “Isn’t that what we want in a leader?”

  27. BeccaM says:

    You indulge here in dishonest rhetoric by presenting a false dichotomy and several unproven (and in fact quite improbable) assertions.

  28. Raul Antonio Noguera-McElroy says:

    Would you rather have had a constitutional amendment instead of DOMA? Every person who voted against it (and even some who voted for it) knew that DOMA would eventually be struck down by courts?

  29. Indigo says:

    Sanders is okay. I heartily support his concepts. I remain unconvinced that he can govern. Governing requires the moxie to push and shove as well as the connections to exercise persuasion in discretely non-public venues. Hillary can do that, she knows where the skeletons are buried. Bernie probably knows a few but not enough to make government work like a real government. Hillary can push and shove with the best of them and when it comes down to a fight, she’s got game. So whaddaya want? An ideologically Social Democrat speaking lovely words or a pragmatist who works the system? It’s not like the system is actually going to change. C’mon! This is Real World here.

  30. Bill_Perdue says:

    Sorry but the theory of the good Queen of Mean doesn’t cut it for me.

  31. Indigo says:

    I agree that we’re witnessing “the steady advance of the American police state.” That’s why I’m good with Hillary, she can handle that. She can’t stop it but she can give it shape and regulation. Bernie can’t do any of that. And like all the other candidates, he can’t stop it.

  32. BeccaM says:

    Whatever the reasons for your being banned from commenting on AmericaBlog, it won’t have been solely for being a Hillary Clinton supporter. Most often the reasons are either a violation of the rules against bigotry and intolerance, otherwise unacceptable language or behavior, or indulging in personal attacks on other commenters.

    There are Hillary Clinton supporters here, Bernie Sanders supporters, and likely even some Joe Biden supporters. In general, you won’t be shown to the door unless you misbehave.

  33. HeywoodJa says:

    The writer of that article is no friend to Hill/Bill so your thesis is a fail.

  34. Don Chandler says:

    When was the Citizen’s United ruling? Things have changed since 2008. Bernie is doing it right.

  35. JohnMyroro says:

    I was banned from this site in ’08 for being a Hillary supporter. Looks like nothing has changed, if these comments are indicative.

  36. BeccaM says:

    Right up through the 1990s (and even beyond), it was nearly always deemed politically expedient to throw LGBTs under the bus. DADT and DOMA were passed with huge bipartisan majorities. Those few who voted against them felt they had to find reasons other than “gay people really aren’t icky at all and don’t deserve to be discriminated against” to justify their votes. Context matters: Given a pretty solid majority of Americans were against same-sex marriage, overwhelmingly so two decades ago, the only way any state was going to be able to enact marriage equality was by framing it as a decision that ought to be left up to them.

    Politically and socially, supporting LGBT rights didn’t enter the mainstream until rather recently and few if any politicians were ever penalized significantly for not doing so. In fact, the narrative of permitted gay bashing was so pervasive, we had political experts and analysts up through 2008 arguing that Obama and the Democrats ought not be seen as being “too pro-gay,” and the LGBT community was repeatedly scolded for trying to climb out from under that proverbial bus. And in 2010, the LGBT community was singled out for blame for the Democratic party’s election losses, even though the real reason was the Dems had spent two years squandering their control of two branches. (And because they’d stupidly passed the half-assed PPACA with no public insurance buy-in and nearly all of the most important reforms due not to take effect until 2012 and 2014, letting the GOPers use it as a cudgel against them.)

    As far as Sanders goes…yes, like all politicians, he does seem to exaggerate and emphasize whatever positions he seems to think he needs. It’s finally okay to be a progressive-liberal again. But whatever his stated reasons, he did not vote for DOMA, whereas Hillary Clinton’s husband was crowing at the wonderful compromise he’d created with the Republicans and proudly signing it into law. When the choice is a kick in the teeth, or being helped by someone who seems to feel they can’t publicly admit to being your friend, most would choose being helped.

  37. Jon Green says:

    And, to be clear, I included his age in the context of how what constituted a progressive stance on LGBT issues has changed since the 1970s, not to compare him to the other candidates. If you read my other stuff on Bernie, you’ll find that I’m a pretty big fan of his :)

  38. Jon Green says:

    Thanks for the catch re: age. Will fix. Thought I remembered it off the top of my head :p

  39. 2karmanot says:

    I hope her damned tiara turns into a crown of thorns.

  40. Naja pallida says:

    Honestly, I’m amazed it took this long. They must have hired Mitt Romney’s pollsters and have been working off that data or something. Someone in the campaign finally turned on the TV to see the actual polling, and were shocked into reacting.

  41. leliorisen says:

    This article seems like a definite hit. Portraying Bernie as 76? Why point out his age when you do not even know how old he is? Or how close he is in age to the other 2?

  42. nicho says:

    Sounds to me like the Hill&Bill Inc. attack on Sanders is starting early. I kind of figured they’d wait until December, like the corporatists did with Howard Dean. But, I’m guessing that Hillary and her handlers are bathed in flop sweat these days. The coronation is not going as planned.

  43. leliorisen says:

    You have to really stretch to not see that Bernie Sanders’ record on lgbt civil rights is head and shoulders above both Clinton and Biden. It is not even remotely close.

    Additionally, if you are going to go the ‘age’ route, at least get it right. He just turned 74. He is not 76. Joe Biden will turn 73 next month and Hillary Clinton turns 68 later this month. There is not a huge age difference, yet do you bring up age when discussing the others? I guess I am floored that not only do you make it an issue with Bernie, but you get it wrong…and you are the editor?

    It is shocking that he wasn’t invited to the HRC dinner, but as a longtime democratic and lgbt activist I am so tired of the distorted pieces being put out on him. The more I see media coverage being played DNC-style, with heavy favoritism towards Clinton, the less I trust them. I fell the same about the posturing of lgbt advocacy groups. It is, after all, about maintaining access, isn’t it?

    I will be curious if you fact-check yourself and correct the age error, or allow this to stand. Nobody makes a comment about someones age unless they want to make it an issue. SInce he is older than Biden by 1 year and Clinton by 6, I wonder if their ages will ever come up. I doubt it. But then, Bernie doesn’t dye his hair.

  44. Bill_Perdue says:

    Inaccurate and not a political comment.

  45. saneblane says:

    I’ll bet $10 you didn’t actually read the article. But just copied and pasted the same nonsense you post everywhere.

  46. Bill_Perdue says:

    No surprises here. BS is just another Democrat and most of them were bigots who opposed marriage equality at one time or another. So were Republicans.

    The results will be the same, with minor cosmetic differences, if HRH HRC, BS, Jebya or Trump are elected.

    They all regularly vote for budgets to fund the wars of aggression of the Bushes, the Clintons and Obama.

    They all engage in union busting.

    And they all refuse to treat immigrants with the dignity that workers deserve.They want to fine them, jail, them deport them, or in the case of Trump, Obama and BS, stop them from immigrating.

    They all vote to fund zionist ethnic cleansing, apartheid and land theft.

    Democrats are owned, like Republicans, by the rich, and lobbyists and political fundraisers, and serve the interests of Democrat loyalists who go from one federal administrative position to another and corporate lawyers and banksters.

    They and their Republican brothers and sisters are never going to be able to end wars of aggression, racist, misogynist and homophobic policies, the destruction of our environment or the steady advance to the American police state.

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