The Object of Our Affection

Her husband let us down, she won’t support marriage equality, but still we can’t stop dreaming about Hillary. Sean Kennedy sits down with the front-runner for the White House and finds out what’s keeping the romance alive.

BY

September 21 2007 12:00 AM ET

The Clinton
acolytes who know her well point to another reason to vote
for her: her pure comfort level with gay people. Fred
Hochberg, the head of the Small Business
Administration under President Clinton and now the
dean of the business school at the New School in New York,
has known Hillary since the 1992 campaign, when he
raised funds for her husband. He sits on her
campaign’s LGBT steering committee, cannily launched
on the eve of this year’s Stonewall
anniversary, and he talks admiringly not only of the
“hard work” she’s done behind the
scenes, such as organizing meetings of the Senate
leadership on LGBT issues, but also of her
“enormously relaxed” vibe at the HRC-Logo
forum -- and with Hochberg and his partner, Tom Healy.

“She’s one of the very few people in life, let
alone public life, who will unfailingly always ask,
virtually the first question, ‘How’s Tom?
What’s he doing?’ ” Hochberg tells me.
“She was at an event for the New School, and as
I said goodbye she said, ‘Make sure to give Tom a hug
for me.’ That kind of expression feels
personal, genuine. Not a lot of people do that period,
let alone a sitting senator or first lady. It’s
unique among faculty members. I’m dean of the
school, and they don’t ask me about my
partner!”

Hochberg also
recounts a fascinating story: that when Clinton’s
father died of a stroke in 1993, her parents’
gay male neighbor came to the hospital to be with the
family. “I introduced her at a fund-raiser in
Washington, and Hillary spoke very eloquently about
that,” Hochberg says. “That’s a
deeply personal experience any of us endures, the loss of a
parent, and the person that was with her father was her
mother and father’s gay neighbor. She just made
that part of the story of her life -- I think
that’s meaningful.”

Neel Lattimore,
who served as press secretary to Clinton for five years
when she was first lady, has similarly warm and fuzzy
anecdotes to share. When he was promoted to the highly
visible job, Lattimore took Clinton aside and told her
he was gay, just so she would know in case any of the
Clintons’ numerous political foes wanted to make an
issue of it. The conversation in the Map Room turned
into a heart-to-heart. “I said, ‘I want
to be a good role model for my nieces and nephews --
there’s not a lot of role models out there for
gay men,’ ” he remembers. “I thought
that was a perfectly logical thing to say. But she was like,
‘Who are you running around with?’ I
said, ‘Excuse me?’ And she said, ‘If
you don’t find some people that you consider to
be role models in the next several weeks, come back to
me and I’ll introduce you to some.’

“That’s when it was clear that she had friends
who were gay,” he says. “If I was
struggling to find people that I could look up to, she was
like, ‘I’ll give you a list, I’ll set
up some meetings. You can feel good about
this.’ ”

Several years
later, no longer in her employ, Lattimore held a
fund-raiser for her New York Senate campaign at
Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, attended largely
by gay friends of his. It was a campy affair --
“We’re showing pictures of her with bad hair
on the screens, and she’s just
laughing!” -- but the tone turned downright mushy
when Lattimore introduced his mentor to the crowd.
“I told the story about the role models, and I
said, ‘Mrs. Clinton, I want to introduce you to my
role models.’ ” He pointed to the 500
guests in the room. “And I heard her very
quietly in the back go, ‘Oh, Neel.’ ”

His memories
aren’t all so serious, though. Speaking of her hair,
for instance, Lattimore—the only man in
“Hillaryland,” as her devoted staffers
call their private world—was often called upon for
certain styling tasks. “I’m telling you,
when you travel around the world on a small plane full
of women and you’re the only man, yes, you take
curlers out of hair!” he says with a laugh.

Indeed, that
Clinton is a woman cannot be underestimated in her appeal to
gay people, and vice versa. Bill Clinton often spoke of a
“politics of compassion,” but Hillary is
the one who has lived the struggle for respect and
equality just as gays have. That common experience informs
not only her personal solidarity with us but also her sense
that the fight for marriage equality is by necessity a
long-term proposition, something that can’t be
won overnight.

“When I
was a young woman there were colleges I couldn’t go
to; there were jobs I couldn’t have
had,” she tells me. “But I tried to live my
life as fully as possible, even though I wasn’t
always supported in the rest of society.”

She’s
quick to point out that the first time women publicly
claimed the same rights as men was in 1848 and that
they didn’t win the right to vote nationwide
until 1920. “We didn’t get written into our
Constitution because the Equal Rights Amendment was
effectively demonized by the right,” she says,
sounding a familiar note in these Roveian times.

“The gay
rights movement has been unbelievably successful over a
relatively short period of time. I know that if
you’re in the midst of it” -- here she
smiles, brightening -- “you see the failures to move
forward, not how much forward motion has occurred. The
lesson is to keep going, don’t give up. Know
that you’re laying the groundwork for people
being more understanding and accepting. But just keep
going.”

For her to become
the first woman president, she knows, could only
benefit gay people. “I think it would be
huge,” she says. “For too long the right
wing has tried to pit marginalized groups against
marginalized groups and basically have a zero-sum game
in American political life. And if I can break this
barrier, I think it really lets the energy come out.
People will feel that there’s a greater inclusion --
and that they’re a part of that
inclusion.”

Clinton’s
pioneering ways have, of course, met with fierce resistance
in the past. Her detractors are legion, and many
people simply hate her for being a powerful woman. The
animosity is such that as soon as her husband was
inaugurated in 1993, rumors started circulating that she was
a lesbian, Lattimore recalls. “Where that came
from, I just could never figure out,” he says.
“It was so ridiculous.” One man would call the
press office repeatedly, posing as a reporter for different
newspapers, seeking comment on his scoop that Clinton
was gay. Lattimore eventually transferred him to the
Secret Service, letting them deal with him.

“I never
talked to Mrs. Clinton about it, but we had to be responsive
to that question in a way that didn’t make it
sound like being a lesbian was a bad thing,” he
says. “No, she’s not a lesbian, move on. Next
story.”

If she
wasn’t aware of the speculation then, she surely
heard about it when author Edward Klein brought it to
the surface in his 2005 smear job The Truth About
Hillary,
in which he dubiously asserted that “the
culture of lesbianism has influenced Hillary’s
political goals and personal life since she was a
student at Wellesley.”

No one is ever
courteous enough to ask Clinton directly how she feels
about the lesbian chatter. So I do.

“People
say a lot of things about me, so I really don’t pay
any attention to it,” she responds.
“It’s not true, but it is something that I
have no control over. People will say what they want
to say.”

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