“Hillary has been a vocal advocate for LGBT rights throughout her career.” These are the words on US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s website on a dedicated page for LGBT rights and equality. Throughout the campaign for the US presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been championing the rights of LGBT Americans and has spoken about her support for marriage equality and other measures in favour of equality. She even has a rather emotional ad dedicated to promoting this cause:
Signed into law in 1996 by her husband, then president Bill Clinton, the Defense of Marriage Act was known to be one of the most discriminatory anti-gay statutes in the country until it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. It had two main sections to it: restricting/limiting the word ‘marriage’ to the legal union between one man and one woman; and, stating that it was up to each state to decide whether they would want to legalise it without federal government intervention. The former was struck down in 2013 while the latter was struck down in 2015.
It may come as a surprise that a Democrat like Bill Clinton who has been outspoken about human rights would ever sign such a law and even more of shocking when you come across the support Hillary held for the Act back in the day. However, at the same time, unlike today, a majority of Americans did not support legalisation of gay marriage.
When it comes to Bill Clinton, the shock element is even more stark considering his long-standing ties to gay political groups and his commitment to helping during the AIDS epidemic. It is argued by many, including Hillary, that he had to sign the Act solely because he was trapped due to political reasons but was inherently opposed to the law. While it does seem to hold merit, that argument was vehemently opposed by accusing the Clintons of taking politically convenient positions and not standing by the rights of gay citizens when it actually mattered.
The Clintons added further fuel to the fire when they released a statement following the overturning of Section 3 of the Defence of Marriage Act by the Supreme Court, praising the ruling, without mentioning that Bill Clinton was the one who signed it.
However, I would point my attention towards the passionate column written by Bill that explained the context in which he had to sign the bill and calling for it to be overturned for the simple reason that the Act allowed for discrimination by its very nature when that was not the intention of the former president. These words, “Enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination” explain quite a bit how the Clintons, especially Hillary has viewed LGBT rights and gay marriage in specific.
Hillary created history when she attended LGBTQ Pride in New York back in 2000, making it the first time in history that a First Lady would do so. Similarly, in 2016, she became the first major party Presidential nominee to march at a Pride Parade.
But while running for the Senate seat in New York, she had this to say about the law, “Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” But she ended that statement by saying, “But I also believe that people in committed gay marriages, as they believe them to be, should be given rights under the law that recognize and respect their relationship.”
To talk about Hillary Clinton specifically on this issue would automatically mean to point at her faith. Hillary Clinton is a devout Christian, a Methodist, to be precise. However, this group of Protestant Christianity is no different from the rest of mainstream Christianity when it does not recognise same-sex marriage. Understandably, this is probably why Mrs. Clinton had to state the “historic, religious and moral content” of marriage when she had to oppose gay marriage. But to go further and to state that this is solely why Mrs. Clinton opposed gay marriage would not make sense because, at the same time, her faith does not align with her support for a woman’s right to reproductive rights of which she is a fierce champion.
Her complicated relationship with LGBT equality becomes further entrenched as she has, as her husband and most Democrats, voiced her support for various gay rights issues up to the point of civil unions. “Same-sex unions should be recognized” and that they “should be entitled to all the rights and privileges that every other American gets” have been pretty consistent opinions of Mrs. Clinton ever since gay rights became a hot-button topic.
The argument for civil unions is something that has been used by both religious Democrats and Republicans alike in order to preserve the ‘true’ meaning of marriage. However, while Hillary does call for civil unions, she went a step further to state her support for full rights and privileges as a marriage would yield. This is something that almost all Republicans have shied away from doing because civil unions, when it was relevant, were a highly watered-down version of marriage and could not be equated with the same.
While she was a Senator from New York, she opposed a proposed federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage (notably different from ‘defending’ marriage) while reaffirming her support for the traditional idea of what constituted marriage. However, she stated her support if her state, New York, would ever legalise gay marriage (in line with the view that this decision must be left to the states to make).
In the 2008 election, no major party candidate, including then-Senator Barack Obama, supported gay marriage, reflecting popular opinion regarding the same issue. But by then, she had seemed to back away from a major provision of the Defence of Marriage Act. “I support repealing the provision of DOMA that may prohibit the federal government from providing benefits to people in states that recognize same-sex marriage,” she said, while reaffirming her support for civil unions with full benefits of marriage.
She lost that election (not because of this issue) and went on to serve as Secretary of State under President Obama’s administration. During her tenure, she pushed hard for countries around the world to protect LGBT rights. She brought in a new rule that made it easier for trans Americans to get passports with the gender they choose to identify with, and making sexual reassignment surgery no longer necessary. She has not spoken about this publicly. Moreover, she held out the same benefits for families of gay diplomats in the State department that was previously reserved for heterosexual diplomats only.
On the other hand, one of the hallmark legislations passed by President Obama in his first term included the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010 which allowed openly gay people to serve in the military. This indeed harks back to the time when the policy was introduced in 1993 by Bill Clinton making it illegal for military personnel to discriminate against closeted queer troops in service while banning openly gay people to serve. Anyone who spoke openly about their sexual orientation was discharged. At the time it was brought into law as a compromise measure to fulfill Bill’s commitment to getting queer Americans to serve in the military, a move that would once again be criticised as politically inconvenient. In 1999, then First Lady, Hillary Clinton,, with senatorial ambitions, stated that she was against her husband’s policy. And when it was finally repealed, Bill stated that he regretted his move to support it.
More prominently, in 2011, Hillary delivered a landmark address in Geneva where she declared that “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights” echoing her famous 1995 speech in Beijing, China, where she declared the same for women’s rights. This would reflect the growing support for gay marriage (for the first time a majority of Americans supported marriage equality), and in the next year, Obama and Joe Biden became the first sitting President and Vice President to support gay marriage, respectively.
At this point, American support for marriage equality kept climbing as public opinion shifted over time. In March 2013, after her tenure as Secretary of State, she finally stated her support for marriage equality, a capping step in her long evolution towards endorsing the same. Some have accused her of, once again, making politically convenient moves considering the strong speculation at that time that she will run for the presidency in 2016.
It is interesting to cite the two narratives surrounding Hillary Clinton’s support for marriage equality. On the one side, it may have seemed that she took positions when they were convenient and/or when she was running for something. While on the other hand, it does seem like a personal evolution of a stance towards a hotly contested topic that carries with it heavy religious baggage – something that goes directly against Clinton’s faith.
It is a combination of both that has gotten Mrs. Clinton to where she is in now. Her positions have notably changed over the years as the direction of headwinds have changed, while at the same time, her work towards gay rights and her mixed track record does imply the difficulties surrounding a mindset change that a woman born in 1947 would naturally have, especially if you are born into a Christian family.
During the 2016 primary phase of the election campaign, her record was called out multiple times by her Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders, and with good reason. Bernie has supported gay marriage for a longer time than Hillary. But as with other issues, her mixed track record pales in comparison to the blatant homophobia on the Republican side.
Make no mistake, Donald Trump and Mike Pence will do their best to hinder the progress that LGBT advocates have fought for decades now. With Hillary Clinton, keeping her current views in mind while taking into account her past record, it is definitely clear who the LGBT community should vote for in November. She may require nudges from time-to-time, pressure from progressive advocates and extreme media scrutiny to get her to follow through on the promises she has made. But it does seem highly unlikely that she won’t do what it takes to preserve what has been accomplished so far. This is simply because support for LGBTQ rights is at an all-time high, and if her record is anything to go by, she may not be willing to commit political suicide by going against such strong headwinds.