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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Former President Gerald Ford: Rainbow Warrior?

My grandfather, Bert Harder, said, upon becoming a nonagenarian, "I'm ninety years old and haven't got an enemy in the world!" Blowing out his birthday cake candles just in time to avoid setting off the smoke alarms, he added, "I've outlived every one of those sons-a-bitches!"

Bert's daughter Minnie, who was my mother, also saw the advantages of old age. The baby sister in a family of eight, she waited patiently for the demise of all her siblings and then, for a period of about 10 years, assumed the position of matriarch in a large and occasionally dissonant family. Her favorite book was "When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple," the title of which she took to heart. She wore lots of purple. Unfortunately, she also wore shades of red or orange or chartreuse or seafoam green at the same time, causing the members of the family who were more anally retentive about clashing colors to wring their hands in despair.

"I don't care," she would say in her own defense. "I'm old. I can eat what I want, wear what I want and say what I want when I want to eat it, wear it or say it. It's the advantage of old age. People either think you've got wisdom or you're senile, but they don't spend a lot of time arguing with you."

Grandpa Bert's and Mother's words immediately came to my mind when it was reported recently that former President Gerald R. Ford, age 88, announced his support for providing the same benefits for same-sex couples and married couples.

Ford, you may recall, was, as president and before that, as the Republican House minority leader during the Nixon Administration, a rock-solid example of what it meant to be a rock-solid member of the conservative GOP in the time before conservatism was redefined and radicalized by the Reagan gang of the 1980s. As a president and former president, Ford has been about all-American as the Boy Scouts (he is a former scout and scout leader, by the way). Consequently, his support of gay rights is against the grain of public perception and expectations of him.

It is because of Ford's age, his established record as an old-time conservative and plodding image as Mr. Mainstream that makes his remarks so shocking to both friends and foes of gay civil rights. Likewise, it is also what makes his support so effective.

Ford's remarks were published Oct. 29 in The Detroit News by columnist Deb Price. In a phone interview, Ford told Price that he was in favor of provisions for same-sex couples that would include Social Secirty, tax and other federal benefits.

"I think they should be treated equally. Period," he said.

In addition, he stated support for a federal law banning workplace discrimination against gays.

"That is a step in the right direction," Ford said. "I have a longstanding record in favor of legislation to do away with discrimination."

The statements place Ford in the unforeseen position of being the highest ranking Republican, nationally, to go on record in support of gay rights.

Why would Gerald Ford suddenly develop a liking for lavender? There are a couple of reasons speculated, most of them coated with a bit of cynicism.

The first reason suggested is that Ford made the statement to deflect criticism from President George W. Bush, who has recently been criticized by factions on the right for going too far to accommodate gays and lesbians, but the former president offered praise. In the Detroit News interview, Ford praised Bush for appointing gay people the head of the White House office on AIDS and represent the U.S. embassy in Romania, the latter of which was attacked by the Family Research Council and the Culture and Family Institute, among other conservative groups.

Of course, Ford did not come forward and support President Bill Clinton's appointments of an openly gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg or his well-intentioned, if misguided, "don't ask, don't tell" gay military policy. Clinton, of course, was a Democrat president under critical attack, not a Republican, which may make Ford's "rainbow-come-lately" arrival on the gay civil rights scene more understandable, albeit tardy.

The second reason suggested for Ford's coming out party as a gay supportive ex-prez has to do with suspicions that he feels guilty about not appropriately honoring the gay man who thwarted an assassination attempt on the former president in 1975. Bill Sipple, a Vietnam veteran, hit the hand of the would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore, just before she fired at President Ford. Three days after the incident, Ford wrote a letter of thanks to Sipple, and he told the Detroit News he didn't know Sipple was gay until later.

Ford denies the suggestion he is acting on a guilty conscience about that incident.

"I don't know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays," Ford was quoted as saying.

Whatever the reasons for Ford suddenly becoming a rainbow warrior, he should be welcomed to the party. Better late than never, I always say.

It's becoming more and more apparent that if the U.S. wants to stand true to its ideal of being a pluralistic society respecting the inherent worth of all people, it will have to stop its largely religious-based discrimination against gay individuals and families. Gay men and lesbians, as well as bisexual and transgendered people, quietly do their part in contributing to the wealth, the protection and general daily life of our nation. Gay people were among those who were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the District of Columbia, New York and Pennsylvania and in the case of the Pennsylvania airplane crash, at least one gay man was among those heroic passengers who gave their lives in trying to prevent the terrorist hijackers from committing a greater atrocity against another American landmark.

The same-sex partners of these gay people deserve the same right to survivor, Social Security, military and other benefits as their opposite sex counterpart couples. Their commitments to each other as family members are no less than other couples who have entered into long-term relationships either through marriage or common law.

Former president Ford, in an uncharacteristic gesture of sticking his neck out, has demonstrated that old age need not be a time of reaction and withdrawal from public life. He may discover that past allies suddenly are expressing sadness that he has become senile. He may be amused to find previous opponents delighted to discover wisdom in an unexpected elderly source.

Whatever the future holds for President Ford, in terms of old and new alliances, he should be commended for continuing to evolve and renewing his commitment to civil rights for all people in a bold new way that should stand as an example to other former and present leaders.


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