West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd's
evolution from gay rights foe to supporter of allowing gay troops to
serve openly is being hailed by gay rights groups after the senator's
Byrd, the longest serving senator in
history, died Monday at the age of 92.
The Democrat served 51 years in the
Senate and was considered the chamber's unquestioned expert on its
complicated rules and procedures.
He first came to Washington as a member
of the House - in 1952 – where he served three terms before moving
on to the Senate.
Byrd once sought his party's
presidential nomination, in 1976.
Byrd slowly renounced his objections to
gay rights, going from supporting “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” the
law that forbids gay troops from serving openly, and opposing gay
marriage in the 90's to backing a measure last month that repeals the
military's gay ban.
In 1996, as the Senate debated the
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that defines marriage as a
heterosexual union for the federal government, he called gay marriage
“an effort to make a sneak attack on society by encoding this
aberrant behavior in legal form before society itself has decided it
should be legal.”
In a statement released Monday, Aubrey
Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a
group that lobbies for DADT repeal, praised Byrd for his evolution on
“Senator Robert Byrd achieved much
for his state of West Virginia and the nation,” Sarvis said. “Some
of his votes over the years were controversial and not where most
Americans stood. But Senator Byrd evolved in his thinking on 'Don't
Ask, Don't Tell,' as did our country.”
As a member of the Senate Armed
Services Committee, Byrd
voted in favor last month of attaching language that repeals the gay
ban to the military's 2011 defense budget. The full Senate is
expected to vote on the bill next month. Republicans have threatened
to filibuster the bill.
“We hope the new senator from West
Virginia will follow the lead of Senator Byrd on the issue,” Sarvis
Byrd's body will lie Thursday in repose
in the Senate chamber.