Malcolm Lazin on Arlen Specter

The Equality Forum head remembers the late politician

Specter's official Senate portrait

In a special editorial in the Inqy this week, Equality Forum‘s Executive Director Malcolm Lazin showed some love for the late Sen. Arlen Specter who passed away on October 14 after many years of battling cancer. Here are some highlights:

Republican Lazin remembers his unsuccessful bid to become Philly’s D.A. (he lost to Democrat Ed Rendell). But Arlen Specter served as his honorary campaign chairman. “At the time, I was married,” Lazin writes. “By the late 1980s, I was divorced and had come to terms with being gay. Rendell said this week of Specter, ‘No public servant or elected official has done more for the people of Pennsylvania … with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin.’ Similarly, few elected officials have done more than Specter for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”

Rewind more than 20 years from when Lazin first ran for D.A. and the 1960s were challenging for the community. “Gays were routinely entrapped and blackmailed,” Lazin writes, “easy targets for shakedowns by corrupt officials. This was back when people known to be gay could scarcely be employed. Many gay people readily paid bribes rather than lose their jobs, go to jail and be subjected to public infamy.”

He also talks about Specter’s tenure as a special prosecutor in Philly when he successfully prosecuted those who were responsible for these shakedowns. “Specter was likely the first prosecutor in the nation to use his power to protect gay citizens from public corruption,” writes Lazin. Specter would eventually help sponsor hate crime legislation and workplace protections. He also supported the Ryan White Act and helped fund HIV/AIDS programs when it was quite unpopular to do, especially among the GOP. Specter also opposed former President George W. Bush’s amendment to the Constitution defining marriage between a man and a woman. Would this be one of the factors that inspired Specter to leave his Republican roots to become a Democrat? We may never know.

“But as a son of Jewish immigrants who grew up in rural Russell, Kan., Specter understood prejudice,” writes Lazin. “His support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans was principled and a profile in courage. Just as I was privileged to know Specter, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans were fortunate to have him as an ally. In so many ways, Pennsylvania and America were blessed to have him as our elected servant.”