The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay rights group, has invited former president Bill Clinton to keynote their annual dinner next month.
That’s led a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle to suggest that Clinton has been “redeemed” for the double sins of embracing the anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) during his tenure in the 1990s.
I wasn’t thrilled with how President Clinton handled DADT in 1993 (clumsily), nor with his approach to DOMA in 1996 (welcoming it with open arms, and then using his support of it to rally southern voters). But. There is no question that Bill Clinton was, as my friend Richard Socarides calls him, a “transformational figure” in the battle for gay rights.
And keep in mind, Clinton addressed the HRC dinner back in 1997 as well. And that was right after DOMA passed the previous year. So this effort to read-the-tea-leaves about Clinton’s invite might prove weak tea after all.
I was just coming out around the time Clinton was running for president, and elected. And it was a big deal having a candidate, and then president, who dared to speak our name.
I remember watching the Democratic convention and seeing Clinton supporter, and someone I grew to know and admire years later, Bob Hattoy address the convention during prime time as both an openly-gay man and a person living with HIV/AIDS. That was unheard of at a political convention, let alone prime time. And, it forced the Republicans to then do the same, inviting AIDS activist, and GOP doyenne, Mary Fisher to speak at their convention. (Though Mary was “safely” straight.)
And that was only the beginning.
Clinton gave us the first administration committed to fighting HIV/AIDS, including appointing an AIDS czar. He gave us the first openly-gay appointees at the most senior levels in any administration as of that date. He gave us the first openly-gay US ambassador, and more.
Bill Clinton wasn’t perfect. And as good as he was on our issues, there was reason for our community to be annoyed with him at times during his presidency and after. (For example, it took him a while to come around on marriage equality.) But during his time in office, and subsequently, President Clinton made a huge difference for our community, and on issues we care about like AIDS.
So I have no problem with HRC embracing Bill Clinton. Yeah, DADT and DOMA kinda stunk. But he still made a huge difference for the gay community at a crucial time. And for that, he shall forever be thanked.