In tossing his hat into a very crowded ring of contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Jeb Bush has made a simple request of voters: Judge him on his record as a two-term governor of Florida.
"We need a president willing to challenge and disrupt the whole culture in our nation's capital. I will be that president because I was a reforming governor, not just another member of the club," he said in part on Monday. "There's no passing off responsibility when you're a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd or filing an amendment and calling that success."
I accept that invitation and offer the following judgment on exactly those terms, because for me, Jeb Bush's gubernatorial tenure was not about him challenging the status quo or being a reformer. It was about him maintaining an entrenched system of pernicious discrimination against me and a great many of my friends, colleagues and community members. In fact, it became the reason I left the state where I was born and set off to carve out a new existence elsewhere, where my husband and I could pursue the life we deserved and start a family of our own without fear of persecution from the Jeb Bush administration.
My husband and I married in Florida in 1997 in a non-legally binding ceremony. We wanted to have a family, but knew that 20 years prior, Florida had enacted a statutory ban on adoption by gays and lesbians at the height of Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" hysteria. Despite the advocacy then of myself and other LGBT activists and organizations, Bush and his fellow Florida lawmakers showed zero interest in revisiting that law.
Bush was first elected governor in 1998, and despite early indications he might be more moderate than other southern Republican governors, we learned quickly that he had no intention of supporting anti-discrimination legislation for the LGBT community (he called that "special legal rights"), advocating for official relationship recognition (for him, marriage was only between one man and one woman) or eliminating Florida's ban on gay and lesbian adoption.
On the latter point, his hypocrisy was among the very worst: His social services department would allow gays and lesbians to serve indefinitely as foster parents, but would not allow them a final decree to become official parents to adopted children.
Bush indicated just how serious he was about this matter when Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau, pediatric nurses in Miami, refused to give up their son, Bert, for adoption. The couple had taken in Bert as a 9-week-old, HIV-positive infant, born with drugs in his blood. They fostered him, nursing him to health (he seroconverted to negative status along the way) and providing a happy, safe childhood.
When Bert turned 10, the Bush administration attempted to remove him from the Lofton-Croteau home, saying he was now eligible for adoption, though not by the only parents the boy had ever known. Lofton-Croteau, who had since moved with their family of five kids to Oregon to be closer to Lofton's parents, refused to give up Bert, and signed on as plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Florida brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Entertainer Rosie O'Donnell publicly championed their cause, focusing national media attention on the travesty. That may have been Lofton-Croteau's salvation, as the Bush administration sought to extradite the child, even though his parents had previously been named foster parents of the year by a Florida child-care agency.
We knew those were the odds we faced when we signed up for foster care training in Miami in 2002. Despite having strong careers with both of us working in education and a great capacity to love and nurture kids, we were humiliated in the training process by Bush's social services agency. At the very first session and in front of a large group of prospective foster parents, the state trainer walked over to where my husband and I sat and read aloud the section of Florida statues pertaining to gay adoptive parents:
"No person eligible to adopt under this statute may adopt if that person is a homosexual."
I well remember how it stung both of us to hear that passage as she stood only a foot or so away, with other parents chuckling around the room. We complained bitterly to agency managers the following day, to no avail.
Knowing we really only wanted to be foster parents as a stepping stone toward adopting children, we considered an international adoption. But we were advised that even in such cases where we could get an adoption decree in the child's birth country, the Bush administration would reserve the right to grant the final decree and would deny us that, leaving us in legal limbo with a child not recognized as ours by the state.
When Bush won the November general election, we immediately made a commitment to move, and by April, had relocated to Oregon, leaving large, extended families behind in Miami and central Florida.
Florida's statutory ban on gay and lesbian adoptions was ruled unconstitutional in 2010; Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill to formally repeal the 1977 law. And just five months ago, a court ruling made legal marriage available to gay and lesbian couples in Florida.
I sometimes wonder how differently my life might have turned out had it not been for the intransigence and homophobia of Jeb Bush. My husband and I might have stayed in Florida, for starters. I'm so grateful for our sons, whom we adopted in Oregon, and wouldn't trade them for anything, but we never should have been forced to leave our home state to legally marry, become parents, and enjoy a life that Jeb Bush and his administration worked hard to deny us.
In case anyone wonders whether Bush has changed over time, he has said repeatedly this year that he doesn't believe the Constitution grants the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. Only recently has he stopped calling basic protection against discrimination "special legal rights" and begun to say he supports laws preventing such discrimination. Meanwhile, he hired as a senior campaign advisor an evangelical attorney well known for his advocacy for anti-gay legislation in Africa, where he has worked to maintain homosexuality as a criminal offense.
After the court decision came down ruling the Florida adoption ban unconstitutional, Bush said he "respect[s] that decision." (A May essay by Betsy Woodruff on The Daily Beast, "Jeb Bush's War on Gay Adoption," is required reading for anyone who'd like to know how the former governor really feels about the matter.)
More recently, he had this to say about the coming Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.
"It's at the core of the Catholic faith, and to imagine how we are going to succeed in our country unless we have committed family life, committed child-centered family system is hard to imagine," said Bush in an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network. "So, irrespective of the Supreme Court ruling because they are going to decide whatever they decide, I don't know what they are going to do, we need to be stalwart supporters of traditional marriage."
I'm satisfied to make my judgment on Bush's candidacy based on his record as governor, but he may want to retract that invitation. He's running to be president in 2016, not 1998, and the world has changed plenty since then on gay issues, uniformly for the better.
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