The federal appeals court ruling Tuesday on California’s Proposition 8, which invalidated the state’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage, got Gregory Hinton thinking about how he became friends with Alan K. Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming. Simpson has long been a supporter of equal rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. On Feb. 27, Simpson and writer Don Hardy will speak at the Autry about the Simpson biography Shooting From the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson. The even is part of the Out West at the Autry series.
Three years ago, Hinton, the Out West originator who grew up in Wyoming, had just heard California had approved a ban on gay marriage commonly known as Proposition 8. So he decided to write to Simpson, whom his father had known personally.
“Al is a proven friend of the gay community,” Hinton said. “As a gay son of Wyoming, I wanted him to know who I am.”
Hinton expressed his disappointment.
“Why was our community left out of the ‘change we can believe in?’” Hinton said he asked in the letter. “Al gets letters like this. And Al writes back. In his two page letter he weighed in on ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ and mentioned that Barry Goldwater and Dick Cheney shared his beliefs on equality for the gay community.”
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the military policy, repealed in September 2011, that allowed for the dismissal of active-duty military service members if they publicly revealed that they were gay or lesbian. Simpson had also been following the Proposition 8 debate, and the outcome was “heartbreaking,” he wrote back. “It will take a while for those emotions to cool.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, setting up a U.S. Supreme Court battle on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Hinton said he was encouraged by the historic ruling, though a Supreme Court opinion is a long way off.
“Today’s ruling is part of a long and (happily) forward-moving discussion,” Hinton said.
As it happens, Hinton and Simpson will have a chance to reconnect during Simpson’s appearance at the Autry. It will be Hinton who introduces him.
I asked Simpson recently what made him, as a conservative senator from Wyoming, take a stand in favor of gay rights. He told me a story.
“I had a cousin who was gay and who was a hero in World War II,” Simpson said. “He was a medic and saved a lot of lives. I wasn’t aware he was gay when I knew him — I was 14 when the war ended. He was a wonderful idol of mine. I only found out later that he was gay.”
Simpson said he also attended high school with another young man who was ostracized because he was “strange.” The young man, whose mother was an acquaintance of Simpson’s parents, ended up committing suicide, and it was known that he had been bullied. Simpson began to believe there was something wrong with such treatment.
“It doesn’t matter to me what people do with their lives,” he said. “We’re all God’s children …. These are people who aren’t interested in getting special privileges from the government. They just want to be treated the same as everybody else.”
Simpson took a public stance on gay rights more than a decade ago, when Charles Francis, a well-connected gay Republican, asked him to chair a new group called the Republican Unity Coalition. As chair, Simpson co-authored the Cody Statement in August 2001, the group’s declaration of principles, which affirms Republican values of “limited government, free markets, a strong national defense, and personal responsibility” — and also states the following:
“Some of us are straight, some of us are gay or lesbian, and some of us think it is nobody’s business but our own what we are. All of us are American — unique, multidimensional, defying any one label” but united by a commitment to freedom, family and respect for the faith of others and a recognition of the value of moral and ethical standards..
Simpson’s stance on the rights of LGBT Americans, as well as other controversial issues, has sometimes made him enemies among those who should be natural supporters. During a nearly 20-year (1979–1997) career in Congress, he remained resolutely bi-partisan and determined to chart his own course — sometimes with his party, sometimes not. Most recently, he co-chaired, with Erskine Bowles, President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, which recommended deficit reduction measures that angered people on both sides of the aisle. Simpson is frustrated that Congress has not acted on the report, but remains unapologetic.
“What Erskine and I have done, in 67 pages, has effectively P-Oed everyone in America,” Simpson told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently. “It’s been fun, though. I loved it.”
It’s an attitude Hinton clearly appreciates from a fellow Wyomingite.
“Today, … a federal court overturned Prop 8 as unconstitutional,” he said. “And ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has been repealed. And on February 27th, Out West at the Autry is presenting a book event with Al Simpson and his biographer, Don Hardy. Al and I have come a long way.”