Last week The New York Times reported that “gay Twitter erupted” when Hillary Clinton credited the Reagans for “starting a national discussion about HIV/AIDS.” Obviously, LGBT people (and historians) remember their role very differently. Ronald Reagan was rightly named The Advocate’s Homophobe of the Year in 1985 for ignoring the crisis, and thousands died due to his inaction. Met with outrage from the community, Clinton swiftly apologized and followed up with a longer mea culpa acknowledging the real heroes of the AIDS crisis. Larry Kramer tweeted his acceptance of her apology, but many others are not ready to move on.
I’m not going to tell anyone what to feel about Hillary’s statement, but plenty of people felt the right to demand that her supporters denounce her before even hearing her out, and their viciousness verged on cartoonish. I even observed Bernie Sanders supporters lashing out at activists like Peter Staley on social media for not eviscerating Clinton thoroughly enough. I am a Hillary supporter, but I am an activist first; I am a member of ACT UP, have spoken at AIDS Walk New York and amfAR events, have written numerous pieces about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, and am developing a film about the consequences of high drug prices for people living with HIV. I may not have “erupted” with the rest of “gay Twitter” but I was shocked, hurt, and offended.
And I accept her apology. Hillary Clinton isn’t Nancy Reagan. The Clinton Foundation has done incredible things for the global fight to cure HIV and AIDS. I understand why people were angry, but it’s important to look at situations like this objectively.
I’ve stayed generally impartial in the Democratic primary because, like many on both sides, I have a tremendous amount of respect for both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. To be clear, if you've suddenly realized that you hate Hillary or Bernie in the last three months, you are unaware that you've been manipulated by the media. They don't want a civil debate, they want a blood sport, and it's dangerous. We have two good candidates and we can respectfully disagree about who would be a better president — but get in line and support whoever wins come November.
I supported Clinton in her first presidential run, was heartbroken when she lost to Barack Obama, licked my wounds and volunteered at a call center for his campaign in the general election. It is my sincere hope that any Sanders supporters reading this will not interpret these words as a condemnation of them, their views, or their candidate. But the great Facebook flame war that has unfolded over the last few weeks as the race has become more competitive has compelled me to add my voice to the fray.
There have been countless debates and think pieces surrounding the role of gender in this election: Are Hillary supporters playing the gender card by calling out Sanders for interrupting her? Is Sanders tacitly endorsing the aggressive behavior of his followers on social media? I’m confident Sanders supporters will claim the opposite, but on my Facebook feed I am constantly scrolling through snide, dismissive comments about Clinton, including many from LGBT people. It’s certainly anecdotal, and I suppose it’s possible that Facebook is conducting some sort of twisted stress test to see how long I can go without losing my temper. That said, I find the vitriol confusing, especially considering how aligned the two candidates are on the vast majority of substantive issues. What is the origin of so many Democrats’ distaste for Hillary, and why do so many of the attacks against her seem personal, while the attacks on Sanders largely center around policy? And what responsibility do gay men have to speak out against gender inequality? (Other than risking the wrath of Rose McGowan at a party.)
I suspect many of Clinton’s supporters have kept their views to themselves over the past few months because they didn’t want to squelch the passion of Bernie’s supporters or to undermine the importance of his message about the flaws in our system. Many of her supporters want the same things as his do; we just have a different opinion of what the strategy should be. Clinton is a savvy politician who is uniquely equipped to navigate a flawed political system, and Sanders is a necessary, disruptive voice who is calling for certain elements of that system to be upended in order for him to achieve his vision for society.
I definitely agree that certain elements of the system need to be upended, especially considering we have a Senate that is refusing to fulfill its constitutional mandate to fill an empty Supreme Court seat, gerrymandered districts, corrupt voter registration laws that call the integrity of our democracy into question, and massive amounts of money from giant corporations flowing in to both political parties. But I stand in awe of the huge advances that we have made in certain areas, including LGBT rights, by navigating this flawed system. And I don’t understand the anger laid at Clinton for coming late to the party on marriage equality — where’s your rage for Barack Obama? Or Joe Biden? Or the vast majority of liberal elected officials in this country? Before marriage equality was the litmus test for support of LGBT people, Clinton was a champion on many other divisive issues, and she had the bravery to declare that “gay rights are human rights” in her famous speech to the United Nations in Geneva in 2011, asserting our country’s position as a standard-bearer in the international community and echoing her declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” in her historic speech to the U.N. in Beijing as first lady in 1995.
How quickly some forget that less than a decade ago, not even the most optimistic commentators considered national marriage equality plausible. She may not have thrown the first punch, but in recent years Clinton has come out swinging for us, which has undoubtedly made an impact on her older, more moderate following. Savvy politicians have to wield the passion of social movements like a scalpel, making incisive changes that cause the ultimate goal to appear inevitable by the time it is achieved. When people see that the success of these incremental measures has had no impact on their lives but has had a profoundly positive impact on the lives of others, hopefully they are able to put aside their anger at feeling like their country is being taken away from them and realize that this country belonged to everybody living in it already (I’m looking at you, straight white men).
And speaking of straight white men, I’m still waiting for a “Bernie Bros” XXX parody. That said, it really isn’t outlandish to think that misogyny has seeped its way into the aquifer of the Democratic Party, as we live in a profoundly sexist society. I absolutely believe you can be a Sanders supporter and a feminist, but I am very skeptical of those who can’t seem to recognize that Hillary Clinton has been attacked with a ferocity that very few primary candidates have ever been subjected to.
Clinton has had to weather more than seven transparently partisan congressional investigations into her work as secretary of State, at a total cost of over $20 million in taxpayer money, while Sanders’s name almost never escapes from the lips of the Republican candidates, apart from the occasional murmurs about an unnamed socialist. She has had to endure 11 hours of questioning, and the only "gaffe" the Republicans could muster from the hearing was an awesome GIF of her looking exasperated, echoing the feeling of the majority of sensible people watching. It’s pretty easy to see why Republicans would prefer Sanders as the nominee; they’ve been trying to knock Clinton down for decades, but she keeps getting back up. And that’s scary to a political party that has made one of its central platforms for the last 50 years the subjugation and ownership of women’s bodies.
Gloria Steinem, when asked about the intersection of feminism and LGBT activism, said she viewed it less as an intersection and more of a circle, adding, “It’s so important that we not see ourselves in silos, but we understand ourselves to be absolutely, intrinsically aligned.” I agree that a society that does not respect women’s agency will never accept any form of sexuality that does not end in reproduction. In short, our fates are linked.
I am a feminist because I believe women are every bit as capable of doing anything they want in this life and that they should have the same right to make their own choices that I have enjoyed as a man. I am a feminist because the argument for equality between the genders hinges on the same ethos as the argument for LGBT equality. I am a feminist because I feel a responsibility to advocate for women with as much passion as women have advocated for me. I don’t believe that feminists have a responsibility to vote for Hillary Clinton, and I don't believe anyone should turn a blind eye to inaccurate statements about something as important as the history of the AIDS crisis. But I do believe that feminists have a responsibility to speak out against the disproportionate criticism and scrutiny Clinton has faced throughout this campaign, and I believe gay men share that responsibility.
KIT WILLIAMSON is an actor, filmmaker, and activist living in New York City. He best known for playing the role of Ed Gifford on Mad Men and creating the LGBT series EastSiders, which is available on Vimeo On Demand.