Ashcroft the (Gay) Party Pooper

I have felt queasy ever since former Missouri senator and right-wing favorite John Ashcroft was appointed U.S. Attorney General. His actions in office haven�t helped calm any of my fears. Instead, they�ve only reinforced my worst suspicions.

The latest let-down came in early June, when Ashcroft�s Department of Justice took the highly unusual step of trying to block an annual gay pride event by DOJ employees. Under intense criticism in the press and from some Democratic Congress people, the Department of Justice partially reversed its decision. Now, it says it will allow the event to go ahead, but that it cannot be sponsored by the Department of Justice, as it has in the past, and as other groups� events are routinely recognized.

Gay and lesbian groups that lobbied hard against the DOJ�s blatant display of homophobia deserve credit for showing that a public outcry can influence even the most right-wing politicians like Ashcroft. But the partial reversal on the gay pride event doesn�t let the DOJ off the hook, and gays and lesbians shouldn�t let down their guard against Ashcroft or the DOJ he leads -- the very agency charged with protecting civil rights.

A group called DOJ Pride, made up of several hundred gay and lesbian employees at the Department of Justice, has held an annual gay pride event on DOJ premises. This year, the group earmarked $600 to hold a June 18 awards ceremony in the DOJ�s Great Hall, as a way to mark gay pride month.

DOJ Pride has been holding a similar event on department grounds for the past six years. In fact, last year, Deputy Attorney Larry Thompson -- the second-highest official at the DOJ aside from Ashcroft himself -- spoke to the crowd.

But this year, Ashcroft nearly succeeded in banning the event. It�s the first time ever that a federal agency has tried to force the cancellation of a gay pride event. The official reason the DOJ didn�t want a host of proud homos at a gay pride event, Justice Department spokespeople initially told the press, is because of a new policy prohibiting events not recognized by a White House proclamation. While President Bush has issued hundreds of presidential proclamations -- including recognizing such obscure celebrations as Leif Erikson Day -- he has refused to recognize Gay Pride Month.

Bush�s flaks claim the president doesn�t believe in discriminating against gays and lesbians. "The president believes everybody ought to be treated with dignity and respect," White House spokesman Scott McClellan was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "But he does not believe we should be politicizing people�s sexual orientation."

Oh really? That�s funny, because this little charade was clearly a political one by both the president and Ashcroft, aimed at appeasing the conservative right wing of the Republican Party at the expense of gay and lesbian federal employees. Right wingers have for years been lobbying to halt gay pride events being held by federal employees on federal government property.

"There�s a political calculation going on here," Leonard Hirsch, president of Federal Globe, a gay and lesbian association of federal employees, told the Times. "They [Bush and Ashcroft] figure they gain more with the conservative right than they lose by discriminating against gays."

Despite Republican apologists within the gay and lesbian community, it should come as no surprise that the Bush administration, particularly through John Ashcroft, acted in such an anti-gay fashion. As a hard-core right wing Republican senator from Missouri, Ashcroft had a dismal voting record on gay and lesbian issues. He was openly, some would even say loudly, opposed to any kind of laws or measures to help protect gay and lesbian people from just the kind of discrimination he is practicing now.

This issue did come up during his confirmation hearing -- seeing as he would be the nation�s leader in fighting for civil rights. When he was asked point blank about protecting gays and lesbians, a group he had a long history of opposition to, Mr Ashcroft swore he had "no intent to treat this group differently than any other."

He lied.

Of course, the issue here is much larger than the attempted cancellation of one gay pride party. What is really troubling is the clear message this sends to both gay and lesbian federal employees, and to gays and lesbians across the country -- even after the compromise of letting the event proceed, but pulling agency sponsorship. And the message is not just coming from Ashcroft and the Department of Justice, but from the Bush administration at large.

This move signals to gay and lesbian federal employees -- at any agency -- that they are not safe, that they may well be discriminated against, that they cannot count on their agencies and the president to protect them on their jobs.

Furthermore, it says quite loudly and bluntly to the rest of us that the very man in charge of upholding our civil rights as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people will be quicker to throw a bone to right-wingers than to uphold the values of protecting those who may be discriminated against.

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