Now that Aaron Schock is 'out,' he can be a powerful LGBTQ ally

I’m not close with Aaron SchockAaron Jon SchockFormer GOP Rep. Aaron Schock comes out as gay Now that Aaron Schock is 'out,' he can be a powerful LGBTQ ally Feds formally drop charges against former Rep. Aaron Schock MORE, but I have known him for a number of years. Like me at one point in life, Aaron Schock tried to manage his identity and sort out who he was, and when I asked him, he wasn’t ready to be gay — publicly.

Now he is, and he has shared this openly in a statement on Instagram which tries to explain his journey, the torment with family, and the stress of federal indictments — now dropped — after the former congressman was photographed in an intimate embrace with a guy at the Coachella music festival.

Critics accused him of hypocrisy in what has almost become a cliche of the closeted Republican politician who voted and postured against LGBTQ rights. Schock fit that mold: While representing Peoria, Ill., in Congress, he had views against same-sex marriage that largely were consistent with leading Democrats at the time, like President Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump vows challenge to Nevada bill expanding mail-in voting Biden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Juan Williams: The Trump Show grows tired MORE. The retort, of course, could be that they weren’t part of the gay community, and he secretly was. 

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He voted against changing federal hate-crime laws to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” as targeted categories, against repealing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) regulations in 2010. He was age 29 then, and should have known better. But so, too, should many other senators and House members of both parties whose views have since evolved.

I’m sharing this because I’m personally aware of how difficult it is to “just come out.” It’s so tough for countless numbers of young people of every socio-economic group, even for the powerful. Yet, what seems unconscionable to some is when powerful members of the LGBTQ community use their power to constrain or harm the interests of others in the LGBTQ community — as some have accused Schock of doing as a congressman.

In my view, this is too harsh and lacks an understanding of who he is, really, and what a powerful, creative LGBTQ ally he can be if he so chooses.

Schock grew up in an apostolic Christian household where, in his early years, watching TV was a sin. He became obsessed with an IBM home computer and became a wunderkind, working on computers at bookstores, creating small businesses, buying real estate in junior high school. He wanted to become an accountant and finish high school early to do so, having completed all the graduation requirements; the school board said “no” and, according to legend, Schock knocked at more than 13,000 houses to convince 6,406 voters to accurately spell his last name — S-C-H-O-C-K — on the ballot in a write-in campaign, defeating the nemesis who wouldn’t let him finish school early. At 19, he became the nation’s youngest elected school board member.

At age 22, Schock ran as a Republican and beat an incumbent Democratic state representative in Illinois for a seat that had never elected a Republican in 200 years; two years later, he won reelection with 58 percent of the vote. Even with a Democratic governor, Schock saw 13 pieces of legislation get signed. His career and reputation for getting things done helped him to win Illinois’s 18th Congressional District when GOP Rep. Ray LaHood retired. Bucking many in his party, Schock’s first big move was to work with Congress’s most flamboyantly gay member, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), to reauthorize the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) during the economically stressful early days of the Obama administration.

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Schock became a regular at his colleagues’ campaign events, raising gobs of money, pushing candidates under age 40. He pulled a kind of “Game of Thrones” upset within the Republican conference and secured a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, then became a senior deputy House whip. He was just 29 — one of the most successful, fastest-rising political stars. When I was working for The Atlantic, I used to interview him about being a "Millennial congressman,” about entrepreneurship, about his work with India’s political powerhouse Narendra Modi.

In time, the constant storm of activity, legislating, fundraising for himself and others, media interviews — and, perhaps, hubris, inattention to detail or the naivety that comes with youth — led him to make mistakes in his campaign operations and congressional office that he has repeatedly acknowledged, ranging from how mileage expenses were filed to how costs for campaigning or travel were handled. Those and other issues were outlined in a 24-count federal indictment against him.

He fought the charges, refusing any plea deals. The prosecutorial tactics used against him, including deep dives into his sexual identity and encouraging staff members to steal items from his office, were deemed by the judge and the Justice Department to be wholly indefensible. He was ordered by the judge to stay out of trouble, to pay $42,000 to the IRS and $65,000 to his congressional campaign fund, and all charges were dropped. 

Despite that, many things about Schock impressed me. He believed in international engagement and funding U.S. foreign aid; he disdained congressmen who bragged about not having passports. He won an award from the U.S. Global Leadership Council, along with Hillary Clinton, and praised her dedication to U.S. global connectedness and leadership. He supported CARE in Ethiopia, the Global Poverty Project in India, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and pushed for more social services and safety nets in inner-cities. 

Old-breed Republicans used to be like that. Today, not so much.

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To be sure, he didn’t align as well on LGBT worker protections, hate-crime protection and civil rights advancements in the military. But he seems to have heard the frustration of his critics — and to have listened. 

Schock wrote on Instagram: “(If) I were in Congress today, I would support LGBTQ rights in every way I could. … I hope that you’ll find me reflecting credit on the gay community — diverse in its thinking, growing in confidence, gaining in equality and acceptance.”

It’s up to him to fill those words with real action. The toxicity of our times is producing understandable calls for greater moral clarity — but this doesn’t come prepackaged in most of us and, if one grows up as a Biblical literalist (or on very conservative military bases, as I did), or in one of our nation’s short-life-span zip codes, one’s wiring will have them starting out in very different places.

There has to be room and empathy for those who have had a tough time making the journey to wider acceptance and tolerance, who have struggled to figure out who they are. That is a big part of the Aaron Schock story, and I applaud that he has come out and is committing to be true to better ideals. He and we will all be better for it.

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @SCClemons.