The following is a guest commentary by Sen. Roy Ashburn
Startled by the blurry reality of a red light glaring in my rear-view mirror at 2 am on the morning of March, 4, 2010, I knew my life was about to change. The California Highway Patrol stopped me as I was driving drunk after leaving a gay club in Sacramento, California’s capital. With my arrest and the media inquiry that followed, my deeply-held secret was no longer my own business. My private life as a closeted gay man was now the public’s business, and I had a lot of explaining to do.
I should begin with an apology. I am sincerely sorry for the votes I cast and the actions I took that harmed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Just as important to me, I am sorry for not stepping forward and speaking up as an elected official on behalf of equal treatment for all people. For nearly 26 years, the voters in my area of California trusted me as their elected representative. I look back now knowing there is so much more I could have done to inform the public about LGBT people and to fight for equal rights under the law. Regrettably and selfishly, I took another path in my life and political career—I chose to conceal who I truly am and to then actually vote against the best interests of people like me. All this was done because I was afraid–terrified, really–that somehow I would be revealed as gay.
My past actions harmed gay people. In fact, all people are harmed when there is unequal treatment of anyone under the constitution and laws of our country. I do not believe in discrimination, and yet my votes advanced unequal of treatment of gay people and promoted the suspicion and fear that limits people from being forthright and accepted in society.
Now, from what I have lived and learned, I want to do the best that I can to advance equality and freedom for all people. Given the shame and confusion that many feel over their sexual orientation, perhaps my situation can serve as an example of both the harm that can come from denial and fear, and the opportunity to try to make things right.
Gay people being treated with respect and having the same opportunities for a good life regardless of sexual orientation should not be topics of political debate. How can it possibly be that there is a partisan political divide over equal rights in America? At a time when our country is deeply divided over the proper size and scope of government, when people are hurting in a bad economy and when we face real threats from terrorists determined to end our way of life, shouldn’t we be united on at least one principal–that equality for all Americans is fundamental to who we are as a nation of freedom-loving people?
Now, I am somewhat of a novelty in politics. I am a gay Republican. I have always been a Republican, even as an eight-year-old boy with an intense interest in campaigning, elections and government. To me, Republican principles hold that each individual is special and unique; each individual should have the maximum freedom and opportunity under our Constitution; that government has no business in the private lives of our citizens.
If these truly are the guiding values of Republicans—how did we ever get into the situation where my party is viewed as the anti-gay-rights party? Well, maybe because Republicans, including myself, have voted and acted to oppose equality and freedom for gay people.
It’s time for fair-minded Republicans to speak up for what our party really stands for—individual freedom and limited government. If we truly believe the greatness of America is founded on the individual achievements of ordinary citizens acting with the maximum amount of personal liberty, then there should be no debate over where Republicans stand on the rights of LGBT Americans.
We stand for equality as well as opportunity. We stand for individuals living their lives without fear or limits imposed by a powerful government. We stand for a government of limited powers over citizens, including not being involved in the private lives of people. These tenets of Republican ideology call for bold action by our party when confronted with the real-life issues of discrimination against LGBT people.
I am no longer willing, nor able to remain silent in the face of unequal and hurtful treatment of my community. It may have taken me a strange, incoherent and long path to get here, but this is where I find myself as a gay Republican Senator. It’s time for Republicans to find our way and fight for equal treatment for all people, especially the freedom to be unique and have our rights acknowledged and protected.
Roy Ashburn, a California State Senator, is in his final term in office representing District 18, which includes portions of Kern, Tulare, and San Bernardino Counties.