Dennis Hastert Hid His Skeletons As He Helped Push GOP's Anti-Gay Agenda

06/06/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

WASHINGTON -- During the 2004 elections, George W. Bush's campaign, managed by a closeted gay man, pushed a series of anti-gay ballot initiatives across the country. The House of Representatives, led by a male speaker who allegedly sexually assaulted a male minor, moved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage after beating back attempts to strengthen hate crimes legislation. And the White House, led in part by a vice president with a lesbian daughter, eagerly encouraged a conservative evangelical base hostile to gay rights.

Though only slightly over a decade ago, that election seems increasingly like the relic of a far-off era as the country moves closer toward acceptance of legalizing marriage equality nationwide. But it's being revisited in light of recent revelations that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) may have sexually abused at least two male students during his time as a high school teacher and wrestling coach, and later lied to the FBI about the hush money he was paying one of them.

Hastert wasn't a strident culture warrior during his time in Congress. But he was a vital cog in the anti-gay political machinery that the GOP deployed for political benefit. And now it appears his involvement carried the same elements of duplicity and deceit as that of other Republican operatives of that era.

"The hypocrisy is breathtaking in its depth," said Elizabeth Birch, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

As speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007, Hastert didn't just go along and vote the party line on various bills; he decided which pieces of legislation made it to the floor for a vote. During his tenure, he was a clear foe of the LGBT community.

Toward the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton was trying to broaden the federal hate crimes statute to cover acts of violence motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity. Calls for such legislation had picked up steam after the horrific assault and killing of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, in 1998. But Republicans, led by Hastert and other GOP leaders, repeatedly barred any such measure from passage.

"We'd like to see the Clinton-Gore administration focus more on the enforcement of the current laws we have, rather than try to create a partisan political bill that has little effect in the real world," said Hastert spokesman Pete Jeffries in an April 26, 2000, article in The Washington Post.

That Hastert was allegedly hiding a sordid past wasn't known at the time, though rumors were beginning to spread. Still, those who lobbied on the bill picked up odd clues that hold more meaning now.

"I once sat in a meeting with Denny Hastert where he literally teared up in front of Judy and Dennis Shepard [Matthew's parents] and committed to doing everything he could to pass the Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill and then literally did nothing. Didn't lift a finger," recalled Birch. "You should have seen this guy. He teared up, was so sincere. But when we tried to put meetings together with families to talk about what it was like to grow up LGBT and the kinds of additional stresses in places like high school and college, we could never get traction back in the district."

Hastert continued opening the gateways for anti-gay legislation in the years that followed. In 2004, Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. Hastert brought it to the floor even though he predicted that passage would be difficult since it required the approval of two-thirds of Congress.

"Sometimes you win for losing," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery at the time, arguing that the effort helped draw a clear distinction between Bush and then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

When a constitutional amendment finally came to a vote in July 2006 -- and failed -- Hastert vowed to keep fighting.

"Be assured that this issue is not over," he said.

In fact, it basically was. The country was by then beginning its rapid shift toward accepting same-sex marriage -- a change helped along by some Republicans who began paying a penance for their past work.

Ken Mehlman, who headed the Bush re-election campaign when it was pushing anti-gay rights initiatives in various states and who ran the Republican National Committee when it continued anti-gay politicking, revealed that he is gay in 2010, after Bush had left office.

In coming out, Mehlman acknowledged that he had been aware Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, was pushing those initiatives and said he regretted not doing more to advance gay rights. He has since become an outspoken advocate and was instrumental in pushing marriage equality in the state of New York, which passed same-sex marriage in 2011. He's doing similar work now nationally.

Hastert's onetime spokesman Feehery likewise noted that times have changed dramatically since his old boss was allowing marriage amendments to come to the floor. His own past statement welcoming those votes wasn't a moral one, he said, but a reflection of outdated politics.

"Obviously the dynamics have changed," said Feehery. "It was a political vote. At the time it seemed like it was smart politics, but the politics changed. It is easy to look back and say it doesn't make sense in 2015, but it made sense in 2004."

Those who were on the other side of the fight aren't so quick, however, to let bygones be bygones. On MSNBC Friday, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), himself gay, said that he did not excuse Hastert's alleged actions -- "the teacher taking advantage of students" -- but that the episode made him think of how destructive homophobia has been.

"Leave aside from the fact the illegitimate nature of the fact that it was a teacher-student relationship that should not have happened," said Frank, who added that it seemed Hastert may have been bisexual. "But the gay sex in itself obviously, it was something which back then was considered so scandalous that Hastert couldn't do it in an -- in a kind of an open way."

"People like Dennis Hastert wouldn't be subject to the same kind of temptations and pressures today," Frank added. "A man who had those feelings, a man who has those feelings can express them more openly. And it is a reminder of the price everybody in society paid, not just the individual, for prejudice."

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