When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality a decade ago, barely one in three Americans supported the idea of same-sex marriage. Today, that amount has doubled and marriage equality is a reality in 19 states across the country. What does all this progress mean? It means that virtually all of us know someone who has evolved on the issue of marriage equality.
On a press tour in conjunction with the release of her new book, Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was recently pressed by NPR’s Terry Gross on just what was at the heart of her evolution to fully support marriage. Much has been made of the exchange, and I have read with equal parts amusement and dismay the online debate that has unfolded around just what exactly Hillary Clinton’s motivation may have ultimately been.
When President Obama came out in support of marriage in 2012, there was a similar — and thankfully brief — debate around whether he had a genuine change of heart or whether his announcement was timed to a politically expedient moment.
As his presidency nears its end, we will come to judge him less by his words and much more by his actions. And there can be no debate that this president has made enormous contributions to the greatest period of progress the LGBT community has ever experienced.
Similarly, we would do well to evaluate the potential candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the same way — not just by her words, but also by her actions. And to date, the actions she has taken on our issues have been extraordinary.
I first met Hillary Clinton when she was a senator and we were embroiled in a second fight to defeat an amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring marriage equality nationwide. She not only took a leadership role, she called me to her office several times to strategize about how we could win the Senate by a bigger margin than the first time, thereby minimizing future attacks on our community. To her, it was critical to not only boost the numbers but win Republican support so the media would see clear momentum and our opponents would see that targeting us would bring real repercussions at the ballot box.
It was — just as she envisioned it — a victory that had staying power. And we wouldn’t have gotten there without her leadership.
When President Obama took office, LGBT organizations presented him with dozens and dozens of proposals for actions he could take to improve the lives of LGBT people through executive action. Some were aimed at ending discrimination and extending benefits for LGBT federal employees, others at making federal programs like Family and Medical Leave fairer for our community, and still others at ending decades-old injustices like the long-standing ban on HIV-positive travelers coming into the United States.
The Department of State, under Secretary Clinton’s leadership, was one of the first agencies to enact virtually every proposal that had been made by the community.
In early 2009 she extended the full range of legally available benefits and allowances to the same-sex domestic partners of Foreign Service staff serving abroad. In 2010 she directed that the State Department’s equal employment policy explicitly include transgender employees and job applicants.
And she made it easier for Americans to change the sex listed on their passport and made it possible for same-sex couples to obtain name changes on passports based on a same-sex marriage or civil union.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to travel to Geneva with Secretary Clinton on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She had previously marked this occasion in 1997 by delivering a much-quoted speech as first lady that declared, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” On this day, she chose to issue a similar dictum to the United Nations Human Rights Council about LGBT citizens around the world. And she made clear that going forward, the United States would take into account the LGBT human rights record of a country when appropriating foreign aid.
Seated with me in the audience that day were activists from nearly 20 of the world’s most difficult countries for LGBT citizens. I was seated between leaders from the African nations of Cameroon and Uganda.
Toward the end of her speech, Adrian Jjuuko, an activist from Uganda, whispered, “Everything will change now. Slowly, very slowly, everything will start to change.” And to my right, Alice Nkom, a lawyer and advocate from Cameroon, simply said, “This will make it much more difficult for them to kill me now.”
In the coming presidential election, we will take our hard-earned place as a powerful and influential voting and fund-raising constituency. We are now a force in the electoral, legislative, and governing processes in a way none of us could have imagined a decade ago.
That’s why, to me, this focus on when someone fully embraced marriage equality is not the critical point. Instead, our focus should be on the much-needed unfinished business of our movement, and how any candidate, including those for president, envisions a pathway to full equality in every aspect of our lives.
And there’s a lot on the docket: finishing the work to make sure that marriage is legal for everyone in this country and that once legally married, we have access to all the protections that flow from marriage; a federal legislative agenda that seeks to ban discrimination against LGBT people once and for all; and working to change the culture in parts of this country and across the globe where being LGBT breeds hostility and even violence.
The recent Hobby Lobby decision and the current debate around the Employment Non-Discrimination Act remind us that the issue of religious exemptions is not going away and will likely continue to manifest as the latest vestige of resistance to progress. We should expect any Democratic nominee for president to not only offer leadership in deflecting and meeting these challenges, but to have the vision to foresee what else might stand in our way.
Ultimately, whether Hillary Clinton runs for president is up to her. Whether she or anyone else wins and feels compelled to not only support our agenda but build upon it is up to us.
JOE SOLMONESE is managing director and founding partner at Gavin/Solmonese and the former president of the Human Rights Campaign.