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The Complicated Legacy of John McCain

It’s difficult to grapple with John McCain’s legacy.

For every LGBTQ-supportive statement he made in his career, there was an endorsement or a vote for a candidate who would demonize our communities. For every declaration of being a maverick, there was a straight party-line vote with his fellow Republicans. His legacy for LGBTQ+ people can best be summarized by his statement opposing the ban on trans members of the military — a ban that came from a president who McCain otherwise voted with 83% of the time.

In the hours after John McCain’s death at age 81, the framing of the longtime Arizona senator as a Donald Trump opponent has quickly become popular. However, we don’t even know if McCain voted for Trump in the 2016 election or not — he indicated he wouldn’t, but never said definitively after voting. This, in a nutshell, was John McCain: His words indicated he was the best ally we had on the Republican side of the aisle, but his follow-through was spotty, to say the least.

Here’s what we know for sure about McCain: He was the kind of man who inspired the kindest words out of his former political foes. He was also the man who ushered Sarah Palin onto the national stage during the 2008 election. He once called the day gay military service members were permitted to serve openly a “sad day,” but also stood in defense of LGBTQ rights in relation to a defense spending bill just years later.

McCain was many things at once, and that makes him a complicated figure to eulogize. Neither the hero worship nor swift dismissal of him feels like a proper fit. In truth, the good must be remembered with the bad, and vice versa. His legacy will remain difficult to grapple with, because it’s not the kind of history you can easily either celebrate or condemn. Because McCain wasn’t a maverick, or a monster, or anything else. He was often with us and then against us within even the same breath.

He was a man, as flawed as any of us, and should be remembered as such.

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