In an op-ed for the The Washington Post published today, former president Bill Clinton joins the growing number of Americans calling on the Supreme Court to find the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. But some advocates, including the former president's chief adviser on gay rights, are highlighting explanations — and apologies — that are notably absent from the 42nd President's article opposing the legislation he enacted.
Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996, but now says he did so in an effort to avoid harsher, "quite draconian" alternatives, like a federal amendment banning marriage equality. And indeed, the hysteria surrounding same-sex marriage reached a fever pitch in the years leading up to DOMA. After Clinton signed the law, 31 states passed constitutional amendments banning marriage.
"I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory," writes Clinton. "It should be overturned."
Clinton points out that when the legislation arrived on his desk, just 81 of the 535 members of Congress opposed the bill, which bars the federal government from recognizing any union as a marriage besides that of one man and one woman, and allows states to essentially ignore legal same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
But gay Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart noted an important word that was lacking from Clinton's article acknowledging that the law he passed was — and is — discriminatory.
"As welcome as Clinton’s words are, there are two that are conspicuously absent: I’m sorry," writes Capehart. "Sorry for signing the bill. Sorry for crowing about it in radio ads on Christian radio stations during his ’96 reelection campaign. Sorry for the harm it has caused same-sex couples and the income inequality it exacerbates."
And while Clinton cites the fervent antigay tenor of the country 17 years ago when he signed DOMA, Richard Socarides at The New Yorker has a different recollection of what led Clinton to pass the discriminatory law. Socardies, who served as Clinton's advisor on gay rights when he was in office, commends the former head of state for admitting his mistake, and for reportedly leading the charge to publish the op-ed; Socarides says an aide told him the article was Clinton's idea, and that the former President wrote the text himself, by hand, on a legal pad.
"How was it that Bill Clinton, the first President to champion gay rights, put his name on one of the most discriminatory anti-gay statutes in American history?" asks Socarides. "The simple answer is that he got boxed in by his political opponents, and that his campaign positions on gay rights ran ahead of public opinion. But there was another important factor: a failure to imagine how quickly gay rights would evolve, and how difficult it would be to undo the damage that DOMA did."
David Mixner, a prominent, longtime LGBT activist and former adviser to President Clinton, appeared on MSNBC with Thomas Roberts to stress the importance that gay and lesbian Americans not get too overeager to rewrite history with Clinton's about-face, noting that then-president Clinton also signed into law "don't ask, don't tell," which was repealed in 2011. Roberts asks if Clinton is hoping to reverse a significant part of his legacy as President, to which Mixner replies "absolutely."
"[DOMA] is the last remaining piece that [Clinton] had to reverse," says Mixner. "We've spent the last two decades trying to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell,' and now DOMA."