Same-sex marriage is legal in Florida and the most important thing that many people are taking away from it is what Jeb Bush thinks about it. As the former governor of Florida and a 2016 hopeful, the Bush of the moment gave a statement talking about respecting the rights of everyone, from LGBT couples who want “greater legal protections” to the supporters of heterosexual marriage only. While this has been called a conciliatory gesture on his part, others have been far more critical. Buzzfeed unearthed an editorial he wrote in 1994 about “sodomy” and his views on it. The conclusion of many is that Jeb Bush’s past homophobia still matters, despite his apparent turn around, and they are vocal in offering their views on why.
Back in 1994, Bush’s overall point was not outright damnation of homosexuals, but his view that they did not deserve to be “a new class of citizens with special rights.” He also went on to state that the job of a governor or any other political official is not to represent and defend everyone. In fact, his conclusion was that “The statement that the governor must stand up for all people on all matters is just silly.” As far as any policies for what he termed “special legal protection” for members of the LGBT community, his conclusion was that there should be no such thing. As he put it, “sodomy” should not be “elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion.”
Compared to some of the rhetoric from the early 1990s, this seems a relatively tame negative view. Even with the offensive references to “sodomy,” it is hardly as bad as some of the mainstream views that were commonplace at the time. But it would be unthinkable that a politician of Bush’s standing would use such rhetoric today. America has come a long way in being sensitive to how it discusses the issue of LGBT rights and does well to avoid using offensive terms. The Bush of today has obviously followed that trend and there were no traces of words like “sodomy” in his recent statement.
This point about time period was part of one Slate writer’s opinion on the 1994 piece. In an article title “Should Jeb Bush’s Past Homophobia Count Against Him Now?” writer J. Bryan Lowder noted that such rhetoric should not be surprising considering when it was written. He correctly writes that people, including Jeb Bush, have come a long way since then. His conclusion, however, that the time in which it was written means it has little bearing on the present is somewhat problematic.
Jeb Bush’s past homophobia matters today, not because he may still be homophobic (which is hard to prove), but because of how it affects his thinking on governance today. Progress in verbiage or wording does not mean that a complete turnaround has been achieved. Instead, it looks more likely that he still holds the same views, but discusses them in more politically correct terms. The fact that for some, just the expression of respect for members of the LGBT community which Bush made is a positive sign actually shows how little progress Bush has made from 1994.
The important parts of the 1994 article is his focus on “victimhood” and “special legal protections.” This is essentially how Bush sees the issue of LGBT rights today. His views on gay marriage were consistent during his time as Florida’s governor and he supported a 2008 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage for the state. The emphasis on creating a new class of victims is common in Republican ideology and there is no reason to think that he has changed his thinking on that matter, or any other. Just because he respects LGBT people, that does not mean he sees his role as a politician as being to represent them and ensure their rights are as protected as anyone elses.
This fact was noted by Queerty writer John Gallagher whose conclusion was that Bush “is saying that everyone should respect the rule of law–except religious conservatives.” What Gallagher refers to is that emphasis on religious liberty that Bush made in his recent statement and the dichotomy between that and the “greater legal protections” he characterised the LGBT community as seeking. It is a subtle point and one that takes some arguing to support, but it coincides with the view he had back in 1994. “Greater” and “special” are the same type of characterization. What is key to this argument is that Bush sees civil rights for the LGBT community as something over and above civil rights for everyone else.
A spokesman for the former Florida governor has said that the 1994 editorial does not reflect Bush’s current views and that is something to be thankful for. But that does not mean that it is not part of where his views are today. It is possible to evolve from such an egregiously offensive view of a group of people and still be opposed to them. That is the real problem being debated in the media now and it is one that Bush will have to face if he does actually run for president in 2016. The question is really not whether he still believes that, but why anyone should believe that he will not act like he does. The mainstream Republican view on same-sex marriage is the same as it has always been and is perhaps more in tune with that 1994 article than Bush himself is. How will he distinguish himself from this? Or will he at all?
Jeb Bush’s attempts to distance himself from his past homophobia is more about extricating himself from the past than allying himself with any particular viewpoint in the present and that is why it is so important. For both Republican voters and non-Republican voters, this is a test of his suitability. Both sides want something different. Conservatives may want a firm repudiation of any conciliatory statements and a definite show of support for heterosexual marriage. The LGBT community certainly wants to know that the rights they have fought so hard to have recognized will be preserved should Bush be president. Neither side is likely to get that kind of assurance. But time and era are no excuse. Jeb Bush will have to answer to the nation for his views, both recent and past, should he decide to run for office. That makes everything relevant.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury