After the flurry of news about Jimmy Carter’s acknowledgment that he has metastatic cancer, the media attention has died down. The former president has started receiving his first treatments to deal with the disease, and he’s even back to teaching Sunday school.
But by all accounts, Carter is facing an uphill battle from a combination of an aggressive disease and advanced age (he’s a month away from turning 91).
When it comes to gay issues, Carter is probably best known for saying just last month that Jesus would have been perfectly fine with marriage equality. (Carter came out in favor of marriage equality in 2012.) His comments attracted some attention, but Carter has been relegated to the category of elder statesman (a nice way of saying irrelevant) for so long, that what he thinks doesn’t stir up my controversy any more.
What may matter more is what Carter was able to accomplish when he was in office. Even his most ardent admirers would be hard put to place him in the top echelon of presidents. But when it comes to gay rights, Carter deserves a fair amount of credit. He was really the first president to take positive (and concrete) steps to acknowledge the importance of gay rights.
During his administration, the Foreign Service lifted its ban on gay and lesbian personnel and the Internal Revenue Service lifted its requirement that any LGBT nonprofit state that homosexuality was “a diseased pathology.”
His administration was also the first to invite gay activists to the White House, at the height of the Anita Bryant fear-mongering. The move was controversial and ultimately contributed to Midge Constanza, the official who issued the invitation, deciding to step down. But Carter didn’t quash the meeting either, which would have been the politically easy thing to do.
Like many another politician, including the current White House occupant, Carter went back and forth on gay issues. He was on record supporting gay rights as early as 1976, but caved when it came to supporting a plank in the Democratic party platform. During his re-election campaign, he refused to commit to issuing an executive order prohibiting employment discrimination. The political reasons for his waffling were easy to understand (if not forgivable), given that the Democrats were still stinging from George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, which pundits widely attributed to the party’s leftward drift.
Still, for at least two reasons, Carter’s willingness to offer support to the cause was important. For one, the times were very different, and the modern LGBT movement was just beginning to emerge. The support of the president offered a legitimacy that was much needed to spur the movement’s advance.
The other reason is one that is easy to forget. Carter is an evangelical and has been very upfront about the importance of faith in his life. He proved that supporting gay rights didn’t fly in the face of all religious belief. Since Carter’s defeat in 1980, evangelicals have largely cast their lot with the Republican party and evangelical leaders have made gay-bashing their bread and butter. But it wasn’t always so.
Carter may not have been anyone’s idea of the perfect president. But it’s not hard to imagine that the country’s early response to the AIDS epidemic would have been very different if Carter had been re-elected. (It could hardly have been worse.)
As Carter enters the last stage of his life, only a low-life would spend time badmouthing him. (Needless to say, there are Republicans ready to duke it out for the title. ) It’s worth remembering the groundwork that Carter laid as president for the gains we’re finally seeing now. He was too timid at times, but he moved the argument for gay rights forward, and forty years later, still continues to do so.
For that he deserves our respect.