By Liam Stack
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who last week announced she was running for president, apologized Thursday for her record of anti-gay rhetoric and her past work for an anti-gay advocacy group — issues that have emerged as an early obstacle as she pursues a long-shot bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Gabbard, 37, has come under fire from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates in the days since she announced her presidential ambitions, which drew renewed focus to her past work for the Alliance for Traditional Marriage.
The group, which was run by her father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard, fought against gay rights in Hawaii and helped pass an amendment to the state constitution that gave the Legislature the power to ban same-sex marriage.
“In my past I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, they were very hurtful to people in the LGBTQ community and to their loved ones,” Gabbard said in a video posted to YouTube and shared on Twitter.
“My views have changed significantly since then,” she added, “and my record in Congress over the last six years reflects what is in my heart: a strong and ongoing commitment to fighting for LGBTQ rights.”
As a member of Congress, she has voted in favor of LGBT rights and has received praise from the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group. Advocates welcomed her apology but were underwhelmed.
“We would hope that people have lifelong values of equality and inclusion that have been demonstrated over their lifetime,” said Stephanie Sandberg, president of LPAC, an advocacy group for LGBT women. “From my point of view, this does not make good presidential material, especially from a progressive perspective.”
When Gabbard first ran for office in 2002, at 21, she cited her work with the Alliance for Traditional Marriage to The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, according to CNN. She said that working “to pass a constitutional amendment to protect traditional marriage” had taught her that “real leaders are willing to make personal sacrifices for the common good.”
Mike Gabbard, who has been a state lawmaker since 2006, has been an outspoken anti-gay activist. In addition to the Alliance for Traditional Marriage, he also ran a group called Stop Promoting Homosexuality America and hosted an anti-gay radio show called “Let’s Talk Straight Hawaii,” according to Honolulu Civil Beat, a news organization.
Mike Gabbard did not respond to a phone message seeking comment Thursday.
Tulsi Gabbard alluded to her conservative upbringing and her father’s work on Thursday in her video but did not go into detail about her own anti-gay advocacy as a young person. She was the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii Legislature.
According to a 2017 profile in The New Yorker, Tulsi Gabbard led a protest in 2004 against a bill to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. That year she also spoke in the state House against a measure to combat anti-gay bullying in schools.
She said she objected to students being taught that homosexuality is “normal and natural” and feared that the anti-bullying resolution would mean “inviting homosexual-advocacy organizations into our schools to promote their agenda to our vulnerable youth,” according to The New Yorker.
On Thursday, Gabbard said her views had “significantly changed.”
“While many Americans may be able to relate to growing up in a conservative home, my story is a little different because my father was very outspoken,” she said. “He was an activist who was fighting against gay rights and marriage equality in Hawaii, and at the time I forcefully defended him and his cause.”
Gabbard, an Army National Guard veteran who was twice deployed to the Middle East, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2012. She was the first Hindu and the first American Samoan elected to that chamber.
She is best known on Capitol Hill for positions that might politely be described as unexpected by other members of her party. And she has come to be associated with President Bashar Assad of Syria, who she has said should remain in power lest the Islamic State replace him.
Gabbard became a critic of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and voted that year with Republicans to increase screening for Syrian refugees.
She angered many in her own party when she visited Assad in Damascus in January 2017, something other U.S. officials had not done since the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on civilians became widely known.
Later that year, she introduced legislation to keep government funding from groups allied with terrorist organizations, a category that could be interpreted to include Syrian rebels opposed to the Assad regime. That bill did not pass.