Sen. John McCain, LGBTQ Rights Opponent and Advocate, Dead at 81

The former Republican presidential nominee was battling brain cancer.

Senator John McCain died Saturday, surrounded by loved ones at his Arizona home, the New York Times reports. He was 81.

It was first reported last July that the six-term Republican senator from Arizona was battling glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. McCain’s passing came just one day after his family announced he had chosen to discontinue medical treatment.

McCain graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958 and was a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973 after being shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Donald Trump famously declared in 2015 that McCain “was a war hero just because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

After retiring from the Navy in 1981 as a captain, McCain was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms. He was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 and won re-election five times, most recently in 2016.

McCain was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, choosing former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, but he ultimately lost the election to Barack Obama.

While McCain was not always an LGBTQ ally, his public position became more liberal in recent years. Unlike many of his GOP peers, he allowed his conservative principles to evolve with changing times.

For the majority of his career as an Arizona senator, McCain was an opponent of LGBTQ rights. Courting evangelical voters and accepting endorsements from anti-LGBTQ figures during his presidential campaign, McCain argued against marriage equality, as well as most equal benefits and protections for LGBTQ couples and employees.

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Bowing to the religious right, particularly Family Research Council founder James Dobson, McCain supported California’s Prop. 8, a ballot measure banning same-sex unions. “I support the efforts of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman, just as we did in my home state of Arizona,” he said.

McCain did oppose the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have amended the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, saying the issue should be left to the states.

When McCain appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show in 2008 as a presidential candidate, DeGeneres challenged him on his opposition to marriage equality. “I just believe in the unique status of marriage between man and woman,” he said. “And I know that we have a respectful disagreement on that issue.”

The senator was also a longtime opponent of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would prevent workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, but in 2013 he voted in favor of the LGBTQ-inclusive bill.

That same year McCain condemned homophobia in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership in a commentary for Russian website Pravda.ru.

As a veteran, McCain was particularly staunch in his opposition to openly LGBTQ military personnel. When the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2010, McCain called it “a very sad day.” But McCain became one of the most vocal critics of Trump’s transgender military ban, even signing a bipartisan bill last year in an attempt to block it.

“When less than 1% of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country,” McCain said in a statement. “Any member of the military who meets the medical and readiness standards should be allowed to serve—including those who are transgender.” 

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McCain also notably supported the 2016 confirmation of Eric Fanning, a gay man nominated by Obama, as Secretary of the Army.

A testament to McCain’s bipartisan spirit, friends and rivals alike have released statements honoring the late senator. “Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did,” Obama tweeted. “But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”

Obama had previously praised the ailing veteran as “an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known.”

With White House flags lowered to half-staff in honor of the late senator, even Trump shared his condolences. “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain,” he tweeted. “Our hearts and prayers are with you!”

McCain will be buried at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery. It was previously reported that Trump would not be welcome at McCain’s funeral; Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, however, have been asked to give eulogies.

Arizona governor Doug Ducey will likely appoint a Republican interim replacement for McCain’s Senate seat, which will not be up for election until November 2020.

McCain is survived by his wife, Cindy McCain, and seven children, including celebrated LGBTQ rights advocate Meghan McCain.

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