Hillary: Up close and personal

In an exclusive interview, the first lady and Senate candidate talks in-depth for the first time about gay issues



As first lady, did you ever speak out publicly about policy issues specific to gays and lesbians? Did you ever speak to the president about any of those, and did you ever change his mind about them? Well, I never talk about my conversations with the president. But I have spoken out. I have been a very strong supporter of human rights and civil rights and have spent a good part of my adulthood speaking out against and acting against discrimination of all sorts. I’ve also been actively involved in the work on behalf of AIDS policy, going back to the very beginning of the Administration.

What about non-AIDS issues? Well, you know, I just don’t believe in discrimination. And I don’t believe in the government drawing distinctions, whether it’s in the military or in education or housing, employment, or any other walk of life. And I think we were probably the first people ever to invite openly gay couples to the White House, which we just did as a natural course of who our friends were and who should be part of our social life there.

Are there any in your close circle of family and friends? Did any of them ever tell you about discrimination they faced? Oh, absolutely. And you know, it’s been an issue for me for probably 20 years, I guess. I knew people in Arkansas, people from around the country. Also at Wellesley and then Yale Law School. I had many friends who struggled with their sexual orientation. Some are still struggling, and some are open. And I had a really dear friend who died of AIDS in the early ’80s, one of the very first people who I knew with the disease.

Can you tell me his name? Well, his first name was Doug. It probably would be all right now to tell you his last name, but I would have to check with his family. He was in Florida, but I worked with him in the ’70s. And David Mixner has been a friend of mine since 1972, I think, or maybe ’68. A very long time. We knew David before David was openly gay and know something of his struggles. So there are a number of people I have grown up with, including a close high school friend who has just in the last ten years become open, a woman. So I have a lot of friends, going back 35, 40 years. But most of them didn’t start coming out till the late ’70s or early ’80s. And in the last 20 years, there’s been a real sea change among friends of mine who for the first time became comfortable with being open to the general public as well as to people who know them.

What would you say are the three most pressing gay and lesbian issues nationally, and would they be the same for New York? Well, I think they probably are the same in that we still have work to do to overcome stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, to ensure equal treatment and equal opportunity. That’s a general goal that has both legislative and regulatory and judicial implications as well as personal, attitudinal, and behavioral implications. And I think it’s the same at both the national and state level. Certainly we also have to do more to address the problems of young people and harassment and mistreatment that a lot of young people face as they struggle with their sexuality.

Can you list the three most important? I don’t know if I could put them in order. But I think that extending civil rights, whether through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or through extensions of equal rights to other areas, such as public accommodations, education, credit. The SONDA bill [the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit] in New York is a more expansive bill than ENDA is in the Congress, and I’d like to see us pass SONDA in New York and then pass ENDA and then expand on it. I think we still have to pass hate-crimes law at the national level. We were finally successful in doing that at the state level, and I was very pleased about that because it was a long struggle. And I think we have to extend the legal rights and protections to same-sex unions that have begun in Vermont. So if I were to pick legislative priorities, those would probably be my legislative priorities. But I think you can’t overlook this sort of more intangible set of issues about acceptance, both external and self-acceptance, and of ending harassment.

In your campaign literature you make a number of positions on gay and lesbian issues fairly clear, but I want to ask you something specific. On gay marriage, what’s your reaction to Tim Sweeney [deputy executive editor of the Empire State Pride Agenda] calling your position a “hollow” promise because you supported the Vermont model but not actual marriage? Also, I heard that you went out of your way to state that you oppose gay marriage, even though it’s not an issue in the New York race. Why? Right. Well, I support same-sex unions, domestic partnerships, whatever legal protections and rights we can afford to same-sex couples so that they can have the protection of the law and the rights that people in a relationship should be entitled to have. I think that marriage has a traditional meaning as an institution that I think most people in this society accept. And I think it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And we need to do whatever we can to move forward in securing people, people I know who are in committed relationships, the right to inherit property from one another, to be in a hospital room when their partner is being treated or dying, being able to own property, and enjoying the rights and protections that they should be entitled to.

What about the Boy Scouts? Do you have a position on that yet, on providing them with public funding and accommodations? You know, I am the honorary chairperson of the Girl Scouts, and we don’t have this problem. Even though the Supreme Court has essentially given the Boy Scouts the right to discriminate, I would hope they would change that policy. I’d certainly urge them to do that.

And if they don’t? If they don’t, most of the action that can occur will be at the state and local level, where there are existing statutes.

Tags: Commentary