Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveled before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 State Department employees celebrating gay pride at the agency’s Loy Henderson Auditorium in Washington, D.C. last summer. “Gee, let’s do this every week!” she said. This, it seemed, was to be more of a reunion of old acquaintances than a perfunctory speech on diversity.
At first, Clinton glanced down—to the lectern and her prepared remarks. But her focus on the written page melted away as she looked up and rolled on with the speech, channeling the myriad mental notes she had made over the years.
Displaying an uncanny depth of understanding for the challenges that many LGBT youth experience, Clinton spoke of tragedies that would only come to national attention months later after a spate of heart-wrenching teen suicides dominated headlines for weeks. She called on the staff members before her to help create a safe space for gays and lesbians everywhere, “Particularly young people, particularly teenagers who still, today, have such a difficult time and who, still, in numbers far beyond what should ever happen, take their own lives rather than live that life.”
Men and women around the world were being “harassed, beaten, subjected to sexual violence, even killed, because of who they are and whom they love,” she said.
“This is a human rights issue,” Clinton told the rapt audience. She ad-libbed, recalling an oft-quoted line from a landmark speech on women’s rights at a U.N. conference in China: “Just as I was very proud to say the obvious more than 15 years ago in Beijing—that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights—well, let me say today that human rights are gay rights, and gay rights are human rights, once and for all.”
Asked months later what was going through her mind when she offered the unscripted line at the pride celebration, Clinton responds with her inimitable laugh. “Oh, heavens, I don’t know—I don’t know,” she says before settling back into the moment. “I was looking out at the audience where a lot of longtime friends, political supporters, colleagues were sitting, and it just seemed so important and right to make that statement.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the midst of running damage control on one of the most revealing and frenetic episodes in State Department history when I interviewed her by telephone in early December. Two weeks earlier I’d still been planning for a sit-down meeting to discuss her work on LGBT rights at the State Department when I received an ominous preemptive e-mail from the White House press office.
“We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments,” the statement began, foretelling a tidal wave of international correspondence that would become equal parts historical treasure trove and diplomatic nightmare. From that moment on, my place on the secretary’s calendar was tenuous at best. Finally, Clinton’s schedulers managed to work in a call two days before this magazine went to press.
Feeling your way through an interview with one of the world’s most powerful women is more art than science. Marriage seemed like the place to start, since Clinton had been caught off guard by a recent inquiry on the issue while visiting Australia. Her husband has said that he now supports full marriage equality: Many of his gay friends are in committed relationships, former president Bill Clinton said in 2009. As far as marriage goes, he said, he had just been “hung up about the word.”
Did she share his experience? I wondered. Was she at odds with President Barack Obama’s stated position in support of civil unions but against marriage equality?
But on the phone, Clinton is circumspect about her husband’s comments. “Well, I share his experience because we obviously share a lot of the same friends, but I have not changed my position,” she says without elaborating. The secretary wasn’t taking any political bait, nor was she going to tangle with anything that could figure negatively for her boss.
Clinton’s chief of staff and counselor, Cheryl Mills, had modeled the same on-message discipline when I sat down with her a few weeks earlier, avoiding any comparison between the secretary’s movement on LGBT issues and the president’s. Mills and Clinton have been friends for nearly 20 years, dating back to when Mills served as deputy White House counsel for President Clinton. She arrived on the national stage as part of a legal team defending the president during the 1999 impeachment trial. A quick Google search of Mills’s name turns up the crux of her argument, spoken on the Senate floor from the perspective of an African-American woman: “I’m not worried about civil rights, because this president’s record on civil rights, on women’s rights, on all of our rights, is unimpeachable.… I stand here before you today because President Bill Clinton believed I could stand here for him.”
Anyone who’s worked in a high-level government position knows the hours are grueling, the pay is paltry, and the demands are endless. But when Hillary Clinton asked her friend Mills to leave her position as a senior vice president at New York University, Mills acquiesced. Despite her intellectual heft and considerable accomplishments, Mills is surprisingly down-to-earth. When I first meet her in the maze of State Department hallways and address her by title, she is quick to say I should just call her “Cheryl.”
No one has ever questioned Hillary Clinton’s wit, her policy credentials, or her ability to outmaneuver the most agile of Beltway operators in order to achieve her goals. But rarely does one read about her personal touch, the fierce loyalty she inspires in the people who work for her—emanating from her inner circle of advisers all the way to the outer reaches of the State Department walls.
“It’s just evident—this secretary cares about people,” says undersecretary Kennedy. “She wants to make sure that we hire the best people, give them the best training, do what we can to retain them, do what we can to deploy them in ways that advance the national interests.”
Mira Patel had only worked in the office of then-senator Clinton for about six months when Obama appointed Clinton as secretary of State. “I was still feeling my way around in what I thought was the greatest job I had ever gotten,” says Patel, who was 25 at the time and serving as Clinton’s legislative correspondent for foreign affairs and finance. She had started as an intern, tasked with meeting Clinton at her car each morning when she arrived at the Senate to help carry her briefing book–laden bags upstairs. “She knew my name after the first week of picking up her bags—knew I had gone to Wellesley [College], where she had gone,” Patel says.
As the senator prepared to transition into her new role, Clinton called Patel into her office. “She had her glasses on, and a cup of tea, and a whole stack of policy papers,” Patel says. “She said, ‘Mira, sit down, I want to talk to you. As you know, I’m going to the State Department, and I would like you to come with me.’ ”
At that moment, the senator’s future chief of staff walked into the room. “Before I could react, Hillary said, ‘Oh, and I’d like you to meet my friend Cheryl—why don’t you tell her a little about yourself?’ ” says Patel, who eagerly informed Mills of her background and areas of interest. “I was thrilled. I just remember saying it would be an honor to do anything for the senator. If she had said, ‘I’d like you to wash the windows in my car,’ I would have happily done it.”
Patel ended up on the secretary’s policy planning staff with women’s and refugees’ issues in her portfolio. “As I was here, I realized there was an acute need to cover LGBT issues,” she says with the classic enthusiasm of a young Washington overachiever.
With Clinton’s blessing and Mills’s open-door policy, junior staffers such as Patel—as well as GLIFAA members on up to deputy assistant secretary Dan Baer, the highest-ranking openly gay official domestically based at the department—have been able to effect change in the U.S.’s approach to LGBT issues, one that’s visible from Serbia to New Zealand to Uganda. “Having a very visible commitment from the top makes everything that I do on this issue easier,” Baer says.
As part of the policy planning staff, Patel is stationed in the office that vets every memo bound for Clinton’s desk—meaning she can flag any gay-related matter and weigh in if necessary. When LGBT issues were added to Patel’s portfolio in the fall of 2009, she authored her own memo on gay human rights strategy that helped facilitate a dialogue on the subject between top State Department officials—people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of the policy planning staff, and Mills, who emerged as a central figure in almost every conversation I had.
“Cheryl has really been the point person who has helped to lead these efforts along with the senior leadership at State,” Clinton says. If the e-mails start flying at 5:30 a.m. about some antigay atrocity overseas, Mills is on the list, along with the corresponding bureau, Baer says. If Patel and GLIFAA’s Tollefson have a concern, they’re never more than an e-mail away from getting on the chief of staff’s calendar.
Sitting with Mills in the State Department, I can’t help but compare her to another recent chief of staff in the Obama administration: Rahm Emanuel. Both served in the Clinton administration, and while Emanuel seems to have emerged gun-shy on LGBT issues, Mills frankly is just the opposite. Although she avoids saying much of anything on the record that is overtly personal, she does offer me a window into why the battle for LGBT equality stirs her.
“My life has been created based on the other people who have fought for the privileges that I have—the privileges that I have to be a lawyer, to have gone to the institutions that I’ve gone to, even just to get educated as an African-American,” Mills explains. “So when I look at some of the limitations that others experience, I’m conscious of the fact that other people chose, for me, to put their lives and their privileges on the line, and I have an obligation to step up as well.”
And as Mills sees it, the State Department under Secretary Clinton has been perfectly positioned to change and even mainstream the global dialogue on LGBT rights: “One of the opportunities of being Secretary Clinton, and certainly one of the opportunities of being at the State Department, is you are representing America’s highest self, if you will, in terms of how it engages the world. At least, that’s what we seek to do.”
But as close as she and Clinton are, Mills says she had no idea the secretary was going to couple human rights and gay rights during her speech at last summer’s State Department pride celebration—a speech that might well go down in history as a turning point for LGBT rights around the globe. “This struck me as part of the continuum and consistency of where [Clinton] starts from and how she looks at the world. So I was glad that she did say it,” Mills says. “But it’s also something that she lives every day.”
Not everything where LGBT rights are concerned has gone perfectly at the State Department under Hillary Clinton. A U.N. vote last November removed “sexual orientation” from a resolution condemning executions on a variety of discriminatory grounds. Advocates said administration officials should have seen the vote coming and disrupted the group of African countries that banded together to push it through. But the setback was quickly erased by a successful December vote that reversed the ruling.
HIV/AIDS activists have railed against the administration’s PEPFAR funding levels, which in 2010 fell far short of Obama’s promises during the campaign to provide at least $50 billion by 2013—which would have necessitated an increase of about $1 billion each year. But a new plan of providing $63 billion over six years for a broader global health initiative in which 70% of the funding is dedicated to HIV/AIDS now appears to have set the administration on course to reach Obama’s campaign pledge by 2014, albeit a year late.
And an internal effort to designate a specific person as an LGBT policy adviser failed based on disagreements about such a position’s overall efficacy.
But here’s what has become objectively clear: It’s not necessary to have such an adviser when people like Clinton and Mills are thoroughly conversant on the issue— constantly leaning into it rather than away and empowering those below them to help change the culture.
I made one interview request to the secretary’s office, and after a short vetting process, it was granted. Clinton’s communications staff also set up more than a handful of interviews with high-ranking officials and gay people serving in the department in order to illuminate their internal policy making regarding LGBT rights.
Clinton also kept a commitment to discuss her department’s LGBT advances at a time when most people in her position might have understandably tabled the interview. “I just really have a strong negative reaction to prejudice, discrimination, hatred, violence—anything that tries to delegitimize or marginalize any of our fellow human beings,” she says. “So it fits into my long-term and personally felt commitment to expanding the circle of human rights for everyone."
On the next page, see Secretary Clinton in action.