DENVER – Since the moment President Obama announced the nomination of former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel as his choice to head the Defense Department, the ex-lawmaker has been embroiled in controversy. In addition to being criticized for advocating elevated ties with Iran and negotiations with terrorist groups like Hamas, Hagel has faced condemnation for making what many perceive to be anti-Semitic and anti-gay comments during his time in Congress.
In the case of the anti-gay comments, there has been a noticeable silence on the part of gay rights groups and leaders in Colorado, especially those often aligned with the Democratic Party.
After Hagel’s nomination became public he apologized for the anti-gay remarks. Some critics aren’t buying his apology, however, noting that Hagel’s apology was a result of political necessity, coming 14 years after he made the comments, and only under pressure.
The controversy stems from attacks Senator Hagel made against ambassadorial nominee James Hormel in 1998, where he criticized Hormel for being “openly aggressively gay.”
Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald at the time that Hormel “very aggressively told the world of his gayness and the funding and all the things he’s been involved in. I think you do go beyond common sense there, and reason and a certain amount of decorum.”
The funding reference is about money Hormel donated to a documentary on how to teach homosexuality to children. That very same issue is what created the genesis for a number of liberal, politically active gay rights organizations in Colorado.
In 2004, a bill in the Colorado State House would have banned public schools from teaching about homosexuality except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases. The bill spurred tech magnate Tim Gill to begin spending millions of dollars in order to defeat anti-gay legislation and legislators.
Two liberal gay rights organizations in Colorado, One Colorado and the Gill Foundation, have received extensive funding from Gill since then, but neither would comment on Hagel’s nomination.
Repeated requests for comment from One Colorado and the Gill Foundation were not returned.
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, the lead sponsor of this year’s civil unions bill, also refused multiple requests for comment. State Senator Pat Steadman, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, declined an interview through an aide, citing a “heavy schedule.”
One gay rights organization, however, has come out against Hagel’s nomination. In an interview with The Atlantic, the Log Cabin Republicans interim director Gregory T. Angelo said “Hagel has invited people to look at the totality of his record. When we looked at the totality of his record, we saw it as a net negative, and that disqualified him in our eyes.”
Here in Colorado, Hagel has come under fire from conservative equal rights supporters, such as former Republican State Representative BJ Nikkel, who penned an Op-Ed in The Denver Post urging Colorado U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet to oppose Hagel’s nomination. Nikkel became a hero to the gay rights community last year when she flipped her vote to support the civil unions bill over objections from party leadership.
One Colorado heralded Nikkel as their “honored guest” at their Ally Awards last August.
“If Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are serious about equality…on this one nomination they will stand up to the president and vote against Hagel’s confirmation,” wrote Nikkel.
“If, on the other hand, the Democrat-controlled Senate votes to confirm Hagel, it will send a very different message: Bigotry and discrimination are just fine, as long as you’re one of the president’s men.”