People tend to rest on their historical laurels. They assume everyone else is familiar with history as they lived it. And they’re wrong.
This misplaced trust in the past’s ability to speak for itself doesn’t stem from laziness; rather, it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of how history works. Those who lived through a particular moment in “history,” tend to remember it, for better of worse. Those who were too young at the time, read about it instead. What they read, the source and its biases and overall accuracy, impacts what they end up believing. And what they end up believing isn’t necessarily what actually happened.
Which takes us to Bill Clinton’s presidency, and more generally Hillary Clinton’s progressive bona fides. Bernie Sanders had an interesting predicament running for president. How do you run against a liberal icon who has not only the entire party apparatus behind her, but who’s married to a sidekick who had one of the most successful presidencies, and thus is one of the biggest campaign draws, in modern memory?
Answer: You rewrite her history.
If you can’t win on the issues, rewrite the history
Team Sanders understood something that Team Clinton apparently did not: You’re only as good as the public’s memory. Hillary Clinton assumed a new generation of Democrats knew about her longtime proven commitment to the progressive cause. They didn’t. Which opened the window for Sanders to piggyback on nearly three decades of nasty, untruthful Republicans attacks to redefine Hillary as a DINO (Democrat in Name Only). A slur that is particularly ironic since Donald Trump, and the GOP generally, think Hillary is a commie. (Well, commie with a small C — Sanders, in their mind, is the big C.)
Which leads us to a discussion of Bill Clinton’s and Hillary’s record on LGBT rights.
I’ve been surprised, as someone who has worked in the top wrungs of LGBT activism at the national (and international) level for over twenty years, to read lately about how a number of lefty youth think Bill Clinton’s LGBT record is the worst ever. They usually — only — mention Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), conveniently glossing over every other quantum leap Bill Clinton took on behalf of our civil rights back in a time when it still wasn’t terribly cool to embrace the gay.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Gay people were ecstatic when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992. Clinton had already made clear that he wasn’t just the most pro-gay (we used the word “gay” back then, rather than LGBT) president in history, but he was more pro-gay than American society at large, and even many Democrats. Clinton had promised that the first thing he’d do on assuming office would be lifting the ban on gays serving in the military.
Keep in mind, while seemingly uncontroversial today, this was the early 1990s. Clinton’s was an incredible commitment at the time. But things didn’t go so well come January 1993. A conservative Democratic Senator from the south, Sam Nunn, decided he was going to go all-out to stop Clinton from lifting the ban. Nunn took the lead so the Republicans didn’t have to. He was helped significantly by Colin Powell, the hold-over Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Nunn and Powell tag-teamed homophobia, and successfully shut Clinton done.
I watched the entire thing while working as a gay-rights fellow for Senator Ted Kennedy, who led the opposition to Nunn-Powell in the US Senate. I had just come out, and wanted to work on behalf of my community. Kennedy’s staffer handling gay and HIV issues (among others) let me work for him after-hours on gay rights policy, including DADT.
In the end, after months of wrangling, Nunn won — kind of. The ban wasn’t lifted. Instead a compromise was agreed to, the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Don’t pursue) policy. The idea behind it was to stop the witch hunts, and for the first time make it acceptable for gays to serve in the military, so long as they remained in the closet. Again, in 2016 that sounds pretty bad — and to be honest, lots of us were ticked when the policy was announced — but it was actually somewhat radical, considering we were taking on the most conservative institution in America.
While discharges continued to the tune of 600 to 1,200 per year, the witch hunts stopped. And many a gay in the military will tell you today that life under DADT, while still unacceptable, was significantly better than under the previous all-out ban. It’s also important to remember that, at the time, you couldn’t even get a security clearance to work for the federal government if you were gay — Clinton lifted that ban in 1995. (He also outlawed discrimination against gays in federal service in 1998.) These things were revolutionary at the time.
In the end, it would be almost 20 years until the ban would actually be lifted. So when remembering Bill Clinton’s embrace of DADT, it’s important to remember the history and the era. The very first thing Bill Clinton did on coming to office was try to help the gay community. For that, we shouldn’t fault him, regardless of how things turned out.
DOMA and the rest of the Clinton LGBT legacy
Now, DADT wasn’t the only gay thing that happened in the Clinton presidency. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is often mentioned as well. I’m not going to defend DOMA, or Bill Clinton lauding his embrace of it during the 1996 campaign. I, we, were ticked about it at the time. And it annoyed us that Clinton refused to distance himself from the policy for years to come. But I still think Bill Clinton’s presidency was historic for gay people because he was in office for years, and far more happened than simply DADT and DOMA.
While I know it’s popular to do so of late, you simply should not judge someone based on one, or two, examples of “bad” things they’ve done or said. When someone has been an advocate for your people for decades, you should be very careful about throwing them, and their record, overboard because you disagree about one or two things they did, regardless of how “big” those bad things were. Why? Because often there’s so much more to the story, so many more examples of just how committed they truly were to your cause, and just how big a difference they made for your people.
Bill Clinton’s historic advances on gay rights
I wrote about this earlier, and listed a number of the Bill Clinton gay/LGBT successes, but I’ll repeat a few of them here:
- 1997, Clinton endorsed adding sexual orientation to the Hate Crimes bill.
- Appointed first-ever openly-gay US ambassador.
- Had an openly-gay person with AIDS speak during prime time at the Democratic Convention in 1992. This was a multiple “first.”
- Tried to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
- Ended discrimination against gays in the federal workforce.
- Ended discrimination against gays in getting security clearances to work for the feds.
- Endorsed ENDA.
- Blocked Republican efforts to pass legislation prohibiting unmarried couples from jointly adopting children in the District of Columbia, and legislation which would have denied certain federal funds to localities with domestic partnership laws.
- Issued first-ever presidential gay Pride Month proclamation.
- Dramatically increased funding for HIV/AIDS.
- Worked to stop discrimination against people with AIDS.
- Opposed anti-gay ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon.
- Fought discrimination against people with AIDS in the military.
- Directed the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to vigorously prosecute those who discriminate against people with AIDS, leading to actions against health care providers and facilities that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- First administration to help asylum-seekers based on sexual orientation.
- First president to grant asylum for gays and lesbians facing persecution in other countries.
- Fought harassment of students based on sexual orientation.
- Fought for and signed the Kennedy-Kassebaum Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which bans insurance discrimination against people with pre-existing medical conditions including HIV/AIDS. In addition, President Clinton issued a directive that ensures that all providers of Federal health insurance abide by non-discrimination rules including sexual orientation.
- Under President Clinton’s leadership, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned scientific panels to study lesbian health issues and to suggest research methods for scientists who want to study specific lesbian health issues. This is the first time a U.S. Government agency has commissioned an examination into this subject.
- Appointed more than 150 openly-gay appointees to his administration. Again, this simply wasn’t done before Clinton’s presidency.
- Appointed first-ever White House gay liaison.
- Appointed the first-ever White House AIDS Czar.
- Appointed the first-ever openly-gay federal official confirmed by the US Senate. (Roberta Achtenberg, Jesse Helms’ “damn lesbian.”)
- Convened the first-ever White House conference on HIV/AIDS.
- First president to speak before a gay organization.
Read more about Clinton’s LGBT and HIV/AIDS work.
What about Hillary?
I wanted to limit this story to Bill Clinton’s presidency, since it’s common fare of late for some to claim that Clinton’s presidency was a disaster for the LGBT community. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a bit about Hillary, as I’m still getting tweets from youth claiming that Hillary didn’t care about LGBT rights before 2013. They couldn’t be more wrong.
What’s important to remember when you consider Hillary’s early involvement in LGBT rights, and also Bill Clinton’s history while in office, is the time in which they happened.
In 1993, when Bill Clinton was sworn into office, gay people were still dropping like flies from HIV/AIDS, after a decade of neglect from the combined Reagan and Bush administrations. And other than AIDS deaths, gays simply weren’t that visible in the public eye. There was no Internet. And there were very few open-gay elected officials and movie stars and corporate officials. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1997 that Ellen DeGeneres became the first leading character on a TV series to come out or be openly-gay.
That’s the era we lived in. Visibility was a luxury, and it was everything. And the Clintons were glad to give it before it was cool.
These are just a few key examples of Hillary’s commitment to our issues over the past 25 years.
1991: It was Hillary in 1991, who met with AIDS organizations, and people with AIDS, to talk about the need for a Manhattan Project to take on the scourge of AIDS. Again, 19-freaking-91. It was unheard of for someone of her caliber, running for First Lady, to do this.
2000: Hillary was there in 2000, when she was the first First Lady to march in a Gay Pride parade.
2010: Hillary issues a landmark policy letting trans people put their correct gender on their US passports.
Yes, Hillary dawdled in terms of coming out in favor of gay marriage. But so did Bernie, who didn’t embrace marriage equality until 2009, and so did Barack Obama and nearly every other Democrat. Also, it’s important to note that in 2013, Bernie Sanders urged the Democratic party to stop focusing on gay marriage, lest our party’s embrace of civil rights tick off Southern voters. So there are ample skeletons in every candidates closet.
And yes, Hillary made a silly comment about Nancy Reagan a few months ago that couldn’t have been anything other than a misspeak. And it’s a comment she immediately apologized for, which only reinforces the notion that she simply misspoke. But you simply do not rewrite someone’s decades-long experience sticking their neck out for your community because they, like everyone else, were late in supporting your right to marry, and because they made one stupid misspeak about Nancy Reagan, after having already proven their commitment to fight HIV/AIDS. That’s purity politics of the worst kind — trying to destroy proven leaders because you disagree with one or two things they did or said.
In the end, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have similar records on LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS. (Though Sanders talks far less about LGBT people and HIV/AIDS than Hillary, had a far less aggressive platform concerning those issues until just a month ago (after he was criticized for his lack of attention to the issues), and Sanders had yet another hiccup with the AIDS community only yesterday.)
But regardless, you don’t have the right to rewrite history in order to win a political battle. And you absolutely don’t have the right to rewrite my history, when I lived it and made it. A lot of us were there in the 1990s, and beyond, working on these issues back before it was cool. And one ally’s name kept cropping up over and over again: Clinton. Keep that in mind the next time someone without history claims that Hillary is a newcomer to LGBT rights.