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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