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Howard Dean on the Evolution of LGBT Rights, the Republican Party and Gender Equality

04/24/2013 06:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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During his time in public service, Howard Dean has been a physician, a six-term governor of Vermont, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, yet when it comes to his leadership in the movement for LGBT equality, he is often overlooked. As governor, with help from LGBT advocates and others, he led Vermont to become the first state in the nation to pass civil unions. He recently took some time to speak with me about his take on the evolution of LGBT rights in the United States and where we're headed next as a nation.

Ariel Wengroff: How have people's views changed surrounding LGBT rights since you worked to pass civil unions in Vermont?

Howard Dean: The level of dedication that we're seeing from the LGBT movement shows how progress is actually made, and in some ways I believe there are some parallels with civil rights and progress we saw in the 1960s. There are people who are bigots, and they're not actually in the majority with people who are in opposition [to same-sex rights]. In my view, the other side are people who are uncomfortable with change and the human condition. I learned this during my own struggle in 2000 with civil unions. It was pretty awful. There was a lot of screaming, shouting, nasty threats, nasty signs and homophobia. Really, people were saying some things they would be embarrassed about now. Most of those people were not bigots or homophobes. It was a big change for them.

Wengroff: So what made the difference?

Dean: Actually knowing someone who was LGBT really changed the tide in Vermont. Parents groups were at the statehouse, and their pitch was, "If your son or daughter were gay or lesbian, would you love them any less?" Their answer, 90 percent of the time, was, "Of course not." Once an opponent realized they knew someone who is gay or lesbian, it forced them to recognize this community as people who deserve equality, and from there it's impossible to understand why [gay and lesbian people] were being treated as second-class citizens.

Wengroff: What do you think the Supreme Court ruling will be in the same-sex marriage cases?

Dean: I think they're going to throw out the Defense of Marriage Act and punt on Proposition 8. It seemed to me that the justices' reaction during oral arguments made it seem like they shouldn't have taken the Proposition 8 case in the first place. I can say this: I'm pretty sure there's no way they can affirm the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

Wengroff: Regardless of how they rule, do you think same-sex marriage will keep evolving quickly?

Dean: Regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling, same-sex marriage is just a matter of time. We just had New Zealand become the 13th country to pass marriage equality, and the first country in the Asian Pacific. This is a human rights issue. If you persist in standing up for yourself, then people will have to change.

Wengroff: Many people are saying that transgender rights will be the next challenge for the LGBT movement. What do you think?

Dean: Trans issues are really a more complicated issue, because for some reason, trans people are more difficult for the [the larger community] to understand. The actual percentage of gays and lesbians in the world are so small. People all over the world have their own way of [understanding and assimilating] LGBT people into their culture. It's all about how you rearrange your thinking about that group of people. Of course, there have always been LGBT people in the world, but the trans community are only just starting to really reach the surface.

Wengroff: But then what's the next step for trans communities?

Dean: One solution that I'm seeing in New York City is that it's commonplace to see restaurants using gender-neutral bathrooms, because it's actually cheaper for the restaurant. So there are small steps of progress being made that are economically prudent and create change without some people even realizing. The other aspect to create change is that we, as a society, have to remember that this is the same kind of ignorance that always motivates people to be fearful. In a lot of people's minds, they confuse trans rights with broad LGBT rights; many people don't understand that same-sex marriage does not mean trans equality. It's an interesting legal and cultural problem that we have to fix too.

Wengroff: Looking back, Vermont took a huge first step. The LGBT community still has many challenges, including achieving nondiscrimination laws and dealing with other issues that are not solved by marriage equality. Should these problems be solved by the states, or should we look to the federal government to address these challenges?

Dean: States can fix the bureaucratic idiocracy; there shouldn't be a lot of resistance to that. Broad cultural attitudes are what need to be changed; that's really what we have to think about. I think it will come along as more people understand that same-sex marriage and LGBT equality doesn't bring harm to our communities.

Wengroff: Many LGBT organizations are critical of President Obama's halt on signing an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Do you agree?

Dean: President Obama should sign the executive order. Once you're in for same-sex marriage, you're already in, and you should show your full support by signing the executive order.

Wengroff: Do you think the biggest battle is over?

Dean: Listen, the majority of people don't [hold an opposition to same-sex marriage] in the same way anymore. Look at the big uproar that happened when civil unions were passed in Vermont in 2000 and the lack of uproar when the Vermont Senate overrode Vermont Gov. Douglas' marriage equality veto in 2009.

Wengroff: Do you think people should apologize for their past opposition to LGBT rights?

Dean: It's hard to get people to apologize, but I don't think people need to apologize for being afraid. The only people who should apologize are the bigots. Fear is such a human emotion; it's not hard to overcome it.

Wengroff: How did tackling the issue of civil unions affect your run for president?

Dean: Honestly, it never came up. I think if I had made it to the general election, it would have been a big issue, but in the primary, people were only mentioning it behind closed doors. Politicians just weren't going there nationally at that time.

Wengroff: Do you think there will ever again be a Democratic candidate for president who opposes marriage equality?

Dean: There could be a Democratic candidate who didn't support LGBT equality, but they would never win.

Wengroff: What about the future of the Republican Party? Do you think they must integrate LGBT rights into their platform to survive?

Dean: My guess is that the Republicans will just be quiet and try not to talk about LGBT rights or same-sex marriage. Our nation has already crossed the threshold in this movement; the only way for Republicans to avoid the issue is to stay silent. I think Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman had a lot to do with Republicans crossing the national threshold. Right now there's a civil war in the Republican Party, where the right wing clearly won recently in Los Angeles, but Republicans know they'll never win young people over as long as they're against LGBT issues. Republicans have really thrown minorities and LGBT people under the bus. They know they have to change, and they're starting to. They've got to recover from this and figure out how to walk back from being on the wrong side of history.

Wengroff: So do you believe that if the Republican Party continues to be against LGBT equality, they're setting themselves up for failure?

Dean: Listen, Republicans must stop nationally opposing [same-sex marriage]. Regardless of what the Supreme Court does, same-sex people from Alabama will still get married and live in Alabama. They might travel to another state to get the certificate, but they'll be living their life as a married couple. The Supreme Court's decision doesn't change the fact that there are LGBT people living in this country, and that less and less people are opposed to equal rights. If you're a serious constitutional scholar, there's no way that marriage cannot be recognized in all of the 50 states. Right now we have a Supreme Court that bends it to its own political views, so we'll see what happens, but regardless of the outcome, it doesn't make LGBT people go away.