On Friday I interviewed California State Senator Roy Ashburn, the Republican legislator who voted antigay for his entire career and who was revealed as a closeted gay man in March after a DUI arrest (audio of full interview is below). He has since apologized to the LGBT community for his antigay voting record. I was glad to have him on the show. The interview was informative and illuminating. I look forward to having him back.
But, at least for now, I'm not very impressed.
I’m not sure that Roy Ashburn yet understands the damage he did, nor the damage that many closeted politicians are still doing. The responses from just about every caller to the show for an hour after the interview were even less generous than I’m being here. At best, Ashburn’s got a lot more growing to do. At worst, he’s still scamming, still thinking about his future and a career.
I came to the interview with an open mind. I read Ashburn’s apology on the Victory Fund website – a complete switch from his statements just weeks prior, standing by his antigay votes – and I applauded it. When someone offers what appears to be a heartfelt apology I think you have to give that person the benefit of the doubt. And so I did.
Interviewing Ashburn is important because he gives us a window into the closets of power, a way to get into the minds of those who vote antigay to cover for the fact they are gay themselves. I asked about his life since his exposure and his life before, and tried to get at what was in his head during his antigay votes.
He began with an apology --- for drunk driving. That was well and good, but it was odd that he didn’t follow it up with apology for his antigay votes, didn’t reiterate what he apparently had written in his op-ed piece. In fact, he didn’t seem to show much remorse for what he’d done and at one point he even tried to excuse his voting antigay by saying his votes never caused any pro-gay measure to be voted down since those measures all passed despite his voting against them.
Strangely, Ashburn says he never experienced self-loathing about his homosexuality. He never viewed his own homosexuality as bad or wrong. He says he never really struggled with it. He voted antigay solely as a career decision, not because of any problems he had with his own homosexuality. It was a cold answer to a question that could have connected him with other LGBT people. We all understand – and cut a lot of slack – to people who are personally tormented by homophobia. Perhaps it’s an honest answer – though it’s hard to imagine that someone like Ashburn didn't experiencing at least some internalized homophobia – but Ashburn depicts himself as someone totally together about his being gay but making calculated, self-interested decisions which harm people. It made me wonder about all the other issues he might have voted on simply out of calculated self-interest. And it makes me wonder about what he is doing now.
Ashburn seemed to split hairs on which antigay rallies he supported and attended. At one point, clarifying my error about a Prop 8 rally I thought he'd attended, he sought to downplay support for measures such as Prop 8. He said he never commented on Prop 8, and while that may technically be true he supported those promoting it and took their money. But more so, Ashburn came out full force for a 2005 Senate constitutional amendment defining marriage as "between a man and a woman," actually hosting a rally with the virulently antigay Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, as the star attraction in the press release, and said: "We need to preserve traditional values for the future of our children. Children must be raised with morals and principles." The statement is heinous, as it implies that gay and lesbian people are not moral or principled and that their being given civil rights will send a bad message to children.
The release clearly shows Ashburn headlining the event. And yet, in our interview, Ashburn just referred to this a "a different event" on a "different measure" from "years earlier" in correcting my mistake that he went to a Prop 8 rally, without describing the event, and seemed to portray himself as someone only having been tangentially supportive of such measures. (To his credit, however, he did bring up his having attacked an opponent at a public event for being pro-gay.)
The most telling topic we discussed, however, was outing. I’m sure from Ashburn’s perspective the interview seemed to be going well up until this point, which was at the very end of our interview. He’s a smooth talker. But on outing, he hit a bump. And it revealed much about his lack of remorse and perhaps even about his future career plans.
Ashburn gave no reason why he doesn’t “believe” in outing except to say he doesn’t. And that makes one wonder: How could he be truly sorry, how could he believe he harmed people, if he doesn’t believe he should have been stopped? This is particularly true since he expressed having no trauma about being gay. Outing him would thus not be doing much on a personal, psychological level. It would simply be exposing a lie about a politician, like any other story the media report on regarding politicians' deceptions.
It was at that point that Ashburn tried to make excuses for his antigay votes. He seems to think that his voting against gay rights had little consequence because his votes didn’t have an impact since all of the antigay measures he voted against passed anyway. But how could Ashburn not see that his positions on gay rights gave moral weight to homophobia, among other politicians and among the voting public, and surely ultimately helped convince some people to vote for Prop 8? He seemed not to accept that his antigay votes had influence in the political culture – something very important in a state that allows ballot initiatives for the majority to vote on minority rights -- regarding homosexuality:
“I don’t believe in outing people…I think you make a very good point, but I just don’t support the practice of…of...of…having people revealed against their wishes…I understand the argument and I respect the position you’re expressing but I just don’t believe in outing people ….I mean, in a way, the system is self-balancing. What you said, Mike, was that I had stood in the way, that I had stopped the advancement of gay rights from being enacted. That’s not true. The bills that I voted against passed, and they were signed into law. In no instance did my vote stop the advancement of any piece of legislation…”
The outing response may also reveal Ashburn’s intentions and aspirations. He did say early on that he wanted to pursue politics further. Support of outing is still not something many politicians will publicly express, Barney Frank's pro-outing position notwithstanding. And yet, in Ashburn’s case, any response except full support for exposing dangerous, antigay politicians seems disingenuous. At the very least, he needed to give a reason why he "believes" it's wrong, and he never did. Does he really think that the openly gay mayor of West Sacramento, Christopher Cabaldon, was wrong to out Ashburn on his Facebook page months before his arrest? And why?
My initial reaction at the end of the interview, which I expressed to Ashburn, was that he’d come far, but had a ways to go. But after thinking about it further and hearing from listeners, I’m not really sure he's come far at all. Perhaps he can do some good in the future, trying to change minds in the Republican Party, as he says he desires to do. But he first needs to dig deep and think further about these issues. You can listen to the full interview below.