IN HIS CONFIRMATION hearings to be attorney general, John Ashcroft promised that his treatment of gay and lesbian employees at the Justice Department would not be dictated by his past in the Senate. As senator, he said homosexuality is a sin. He opposed gay James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. He was against adding sexual orientation to federal hate crime laws.
''Sexual orientation has never been something that I've used in hiring in any of the jobs, in any of the offices I've held,'' Ashcroft said then. ''It will not be a consideration in hiring at the Department of Justice.''
At that hearing, Ashcroft was asked by Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, ''Will you permit DOJ Pride, a voluntary organization of gay, lesbian, and bisexual DOJ employees, to continue to use Justice Department facilities on the same basis as other voluntary employee groups or other minority employees?''
Ashcroft answered, ''It would be my intention not to discriminate against any group... appropriately constituted in the Department of Justice.''
Two and a half years later, Ashcroft has broken the promise. His Justice Department has informed DOJ Pride that it cannot hold its annual June celebration on department property. Proving that even in times of terrorism, our nation's top law enforcement agency can have too much time on its hands, the Justice Department dug up a peculiar excuse for the ban. It says gay pride events cannot be held because President Bush has not yet issued a White House proclamation supporting gay pride.
President Clinton had such proclamations during his last three years. In 2000 Clinton said ''gays and lesbians must no longer be `strangers among friends,' as the civil rights pioneer David Mixner once noted. Rather, we must finally recognize these Americans for what they are: our colleagues and neighbors, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, friends and partners.''
Bush declined to continue the proclamations. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said at the beginning of Gay Pride month in 2001, ''The president believes every person should be treated with dignity and respect, but he does not believe in politicizing sexual orientation.''
The odd thing is that despite the lack of proclamations, not only did gay and lesbian Department of Justice employees continue to have their celebration, but last year Ashcroft sent his deputy, Larry Thompson, to speak at it. Thompson did not explicitly voice support of gay and lesbian issues, but his mere presence was in keeping with the better, if quietly kept, instincts of the Bush administration. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman signed a Pride Month proclamation last week and last year. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta signed proclamations in 2001 and 2002.
Gay advocates had made some headway with Bush as the federal government approved of benefits for gay partners of victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and death benefits for domestic partners of police and firefighters who die in the line of duty. One of the Justice Department's highest-profile death penalty prosecutions is against a man accused of singling out and killing two female hikers in Shenandoah National Park on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation.
Given what Ashcroft and many members of the administration think about homosexuality, these were no small victories. At this time last year, Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay advocacy group, said, ''This administration has remained studiously neutral on the issue of gay Americans.''
The ban on DOJ Pride is a signal that the neutrality is ending just in time for the 2004 elections. The end may go back to Thompson's visit. Even though Thompson was studiously neutral, organizations on the far right considered the visit treasonous.
Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, called the visit a ''clear endorsement of homosexuality.'' Rios added, ''It won't matter if we dismantle terrorism if we implode from within.'' Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, asked, ''Why is Mr. Ashcroft, a committed Christian, using his official capacity to celebrate sin?''
Rios is now overjoyed. ''Homosexuality is immoral and dangerous behavior, and taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize its promotion,'' Rios said. ''I am so grateful that Attorney General Ashcroft has taken a courageous step to stand against the pressure of the politically correct elite.'' More chilling is that Rios added, ''It's time for all other federal agencies to stop funding or endorsing similar `gay pride' events.''
No one ever thought Ashcroft would get out of even first gear for gay and lesbian people. But he was so easily badgered into reverse on his own gay and lesbian employees that it will take a lot for him to shift merely back to neutral.
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