Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Strange Bedfellows

By Mubarak S. Dahir

JUNE 8, 1998:  He was probably most well-known to gays and lesbians for his characteristically sassy quote during the debate on gays in the military.

“You don’t need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight,” proclaimed Barry Goldwater, the former senator, onetime presidential candidate, and a generation’s icon of staunch conservatism. But in his later years, Goldwater was as ardent an advocate of gay and lesbian civil rights as he was a communist-hating conservative in his earlier days.

When Goldwater died last week, the gay and lesbian community lost a colorful and powerful friend.

Of course, for most of his political career, Goldwater was not on the list of politicians most likely to love a homosexual. Born to an Arizona family of Polish descendants who had turned a dry-goods business into a chain of department stores, Barry Goldwater started his political career as a member of the Phoenix city council in 1949. He won a Senate seat in 1952, and from there went on to build the foundation for the modern conservative movement.

In the ’50s, he unsuccessfully tried to prevent the Senate from censuring his friend, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. When he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, he thundered that “extremism in the name of liberty is no vice,” cementing fears about his perceived radical nature. As a senator, he voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and during the Vietnam War he advocated using “conventional nuclear weapons” to end the conflict.

But despite his history of ultra-conservatism, Goldwater held fast to a central tenet of his beliefs: the libertarian notion that government should stay out of people’s private lives.

In the ’90s, Goldwater used that belief to fight the religious right, defend abortion rights, and become the nation’s most unexpected gay-rights activist. Many observers on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide started calling Goldwater a new liberal. But his real strength and attribute to the gay and lesbian movement was that he fought for gay rights from a moral, conservative philosophy.

When Goldwater did take up the cause for gay and lesbian civil rights – influenced, no doubt, by the fact he had a gay grandson and a lesbian niece – he did it with his typical zeal.

Like the rest of his political career, his foray into the fight for gay and lesbian civil rights started in his hometown of Phoenix. The city council there chickened out on a bill that would have extended job protection to gays and lesbians. Instead, it was going to opt to let voters decide whether or not gays and lesbians should be protected from discrimination.

The night before the city council was poised to ratify its decision, the 83-year-old Goldwater ended his political retirement. With TV cameras shining on him, he scolded the council for its lack of backbone. His admonishment was all that was needed. The next day, the council voted not to do business with companies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees.

But that was just the beginning for Goldwater’s newfound activism. Just a few months later, the former Air Force member entered the national battle on gays in the military. Calling the ban against gays “just plain dumb,” Goldwater penned editorials carried across the country – including in The Washington Post – where he blasted the discriminatory policy.

“The Declaration says that all men are created equal, and it doesn’t say that all men are created equal except for gays,” Goldwater said.

In his last years, Goldwater would frequently tell friends, “I’m an honorary gay by now.”

Mubarak Dahir is a former Memphian and frequent contributor to this column.

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