WASHINGTON — “Gabbard” is a loaded name in Hawaii politics, synonymous with steadfast socially conservative views.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard has led the charge against same-sex marriage in the state for two decades. His 30-year-old City Council member daughter, Tulsi, long shared his stances against abortion rights and in favor of a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to being between one man and one woman.
So when Tulsi Gabbard received a glowing endorsement from the progressive reproductive rights group EMILY’s List in her 2012 campaign for Congress, plenty of people had some version of this reaction: Huh?
Tulsi is among the candidates seeking to replace Rep. Mazie Hirono, arguably Hawaii’s most liberal congressional delegate. In the same way that it helps to be a Democratic candidate in solidly blue Hawaii, one could argue that it helps to lean far left in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Sure, the more moderate Rep. Ed Case held the seat for five years before Hirono, but he succeeded Congresswoman Patsy Mink, a liberal legend in progressive circles.
But Tulsi says her transformation has nothing to do with politics.
In recent years, Tulsi has undergone what she describes as a “gradual metamorphosis” on social issues. She says her transformation was spurred by spending time in countries governed by oppressive regimes during deployments to the Middle East as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard.
“Some of these experiences living and working in oppressive countries, not only witnessing firsthand but actually experiencing myself what happens when a government basically attempts to act as a moral arbiter,” Tulsi said. “It really caused me to take a look at myself and the way we’re doing things here at home, locally, and nationally.”
Today, she says she is pro-choice and would fight to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. (Read a related article that outlines Tulsi’s and four other 2nd Congressional District candidates’ views on social issues.)
While Tulsi explains that seeing and experiencing oppression in the Middle East helped her develop ideas about individual rights in the United States, she stops short of saying that the Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as between one man and one woman — amounts to oppression against those who identify as gay or lesbian. Asked twice whether she believes gays and lesbians are oppressed in the United States, she declined to say. Instead, Tulsi says she looks at the law “with the goal being government getting out of our personal lives.”
“Marriage is a bond of love, and it’s spiritual and metaphysical in nature,” Tulsi told Civil Beat in an interview. “It’s a sacred bond, and that is not an area where government should be involved.”
Tulsi Gabbard’s own marriage ended “a few years ago” after she deployed to the Middle East as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard. She said her divorce illustrates “the stresses war places on military spouses and families,” but she also points to her deployments as the reason for the change in her views on abortion and same-sex marriage.
She recalls her time in Kuwait, and seeing women “covered head to toe in burqas,” while she became one of the “first women to set foot on their military bases.” Some people greeted her warmly, she said, while others would not acknowledge her existence.
“From the moment I walked up to the front gate (of a Kuwaiti military base) and knew that they don’t allow women, and seeing the uncertainty and the unease with which I was received, not just as a woman but a woman in uniform,” Tulsi said. “I met people who I reached out to shake their hands and they said, ‘No, I don’t want to shake your hand because I’ll dirty myself.'”
Ultimately, the experience gave Tulsi a “newfound recognition of the absolute importance of keeping church and state separate,” she said in an essay posted to her campaign website.
“I realized that whether or not I would choose to have an abortion ought to have no bearing on another woman’s ability to do the same,” Tulsi wrote on her website. “And the government has absolutely no business telling either of us what we could do in that intensely personal situation.”
The essay marks the first time that Tulsi has described at length her recent leftward shift. The Honolulu City Council is nonpartisan, so her 2010 campaign was focused more on issues like homelessness and the city’s rail project. Even when she announced her candidacy for Congress in May, Tulsi declined to answer questions about social issues.
Before her time in Iraq and Kuwait, Tulsi’s conservatism appeared well-defined. In August 2004, Honolulu Magazine quoted her referring to Case’s supporters as “homosexual extremist(s).”
In testimony opposing civil unions legislation that same year, Tulsi — then a state representative — wrote this:
“To try to act as if there is a difference between ‘civil unions’ and same-sex marriage is dishonest, cowardly and extremely disrespectful to the people of Hawaii who have already made overwhelmingly clear our position on this issue… As Democrats we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists.”
Asked how she can explain such a drastic change in viewpoint to voters, Tulsi said that she “clearly look(s) forward” to talking to them about “the experiences I’ve gone through in the last six to eight years” since her “very conservative” upbringing.
In the 1990s, Mike Gabbard was president of a nonprofit called Stop Promoting Homosexuality America (the group has since been dissolved). He also hosted a radio program called “Let’s Talk Straight Hawaii.” Critics equated it to gay bashing. Asked about her role in the program, Tulsi said she had trouble remembering it at all.
“I don’t even know how old I was,” Tulsi said. “I had no role in that show. Again, I’m trying to remember it. I may have been nine.”
Mike Gabbard went through a transformation of his own — from being a Republican to a Democrat — in recent years, but his social conservatism doesn’t appear to have changed. For example, when Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed legislation legalizing same-sex civil unions last year, the elder Gabbard called it a “sad day” for the people of Hawaii.
Tulsi said that her departure from the “very conservative value set” with which she was raised has meant that recent conversations with her parents about social issues haven’t always been “easy.” But she also said she has discussed her views “in detail” with her mother and father, who couldn’t be reached for comment before publication of this article.
“While my parents and I have a very close relationship, and we love each other and respect each other very much, we don’t agree on everything,” she said. “They respect my position and they understand where I am coming from. Most of all, they support me.”
As for the support1 from EMILY’s List, spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said that the group believes that Tulsi Gabbard is the “absolute best candidate” in the 2nd Congressional District race.
“Tulsi has been quite candid about her evolution on the issue of choice,” McIntosh told Civil Beat. “She speaks about it honestly, movingly and passionately. Tulsi’s views are not her father’s, they’re her own. And she’s formed them during her young and remarkable career. Tulsi traveled to oppressive countries on behalf of the U.S. and came away with an changing view of rights and freedoms. That’s a story that makes sense to us. Frankly, it’s one we’re glad she has the chance to tell.”
Tulsi puts it more simply: “The point here is I’m not my dad,” she said. “I’m me.”