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Tommy Thompson: A Poor Choice for HHS Secretary

by Elizabeth Toledo
Executive Director
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force


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• Bush Nominee: John Ashcroft
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The first time I picketed in front of the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. was in protest of a visit by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. He had signed some of the most misogynist legislation in the country, including the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation implemented since the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade recognized abortion as a constitutional right in 1973. He also engineered Wisconsin's onerous welfare law, which kicked off the trend that resulted in punitive measures at the federal level -- measures that made scapegoats of many lower-income people who lacked access to educational opportunities, job training and affordable child care.

Imagine then my surprise to pick up several publications that serve the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and read an uncritical analysis of Thompson, whom President-designate George W. Bush has nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Replace Donna Shalala with Tommy Thompson? The dismal reality of the presidential election has begun to sink in. The question arises, what vision and leadership will we in the GLBT movement provide over the course of the next four years? Is it enough to say that Tommy Thompson is not as bad an appointment as Bush could have made? Is it enough to say that the nomination of Sen. John Ashcroft to be attorney general is somehow mitigated by the nomination of the pro-choice and pro-GLBT New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency?

Let's give credit where it is due. As chair of the committee that drafted the Republican Party platform last summer, Thompson did lead the effort to remove some -- not all -- of the GOP's anti-GLBT language. (A measure condemning recognition of same-sex relationships remained in Thompson's draft, and other discriminatory measures were later placed back in the platform after religious right activists wrestled the document away from the Wisconsin governor.)

Thompson also has been a positive advocate for AIDS funding. He strongly supported the Ryan White Care Act and he sought Medicaid waivers for HIV-positive people, who are not normally eligible for Medicaid until they have developed AIDS symptoms.

That's two marks in favor of Thompson - and in opposing Thompson's nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force does not trivialize their importance.

But a principled and progressive GLBT movement for social justice must demand better.

As Coretta Scott King recently noted at NGLTF's recent Creating Change conference, one of the stories behind the November 2000 election is the unprecedented coalition-building. "In a way, we have just had an object lesson in the power of coalition unity," Mrs. King said. "I think we have just seen the future of American democracy flash before our eyes last Tuesday (Nov. 7). The coalition that gave Al Gore a popular majority can surely be as powerful as the New Deal coalition that transformed America in an earlier era."

Quoting the immortal words of her husband, Mrs. King said, "We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny...An inescapable network of mutuality...I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be."

So in envisioning a broad-based, progressive coalition, I think we must think of those who have suffered and will suffer under a Bush-Tommy Thompson agenda. Based on his record, how would we expect Thompson to treat poor GLBT people who need social services? If he punishes poor women for having too many children, how do we think he's going to treat GLBT parents who need help providing for their kids? How will his support for a pro-heterosexual-marriage agenda in welfare policies impact our community? How will his support for privatization of our public schools impact the employment rights of GLBT teachers at private schools? Or the right of GLBT kids not to get harassed and kicked out of those schools?

On the issue of abortion, what will it mean to have our top health and human services officer reject the fundamental right to privacy? If he has the right to interfere in a decision to control our reproductive decisions, what else can -- and will -- he do to control our bodies?

I believe the GLBT community ought to consider issues like reproductive health and poverty a central part of our concerns for many reasons. After all, a significant portion of our community grapples with these issues in their personal lives. And there are homophobic policies and practices in the institutions that control these services.

But even for those GLBT activists who reject a more inclusive agenda, there ought to at least be a mention of Thompson's record on these social issues. Does anyone really believe that a politician who treats women and poor people with such disrespect will hold our community in esteem?

A movement must have a set of values -- otherwise we are just a disconnected group of people who are outside the norms of heterosexuality. I urge us to embrace a set of values that represents the struggles of every segment of our community. Let's thank Tommy Thompson appropriately for his few gestures of support. But let's reserve "praise" for a nominee who has earned it.


 

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