Hillary: Up close and personal

By David Kirby

Originally published on Advocate.com October 09 2000 11:00 PM ET

Even by New York’s colorful standards, this year’s U.S. Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio has been one for the books. No first lady had ever run for public office before Clinton entered the race for retiring senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat. Lazio was little known outside his Long Island district but was soon able to tap into a sizable anti–Bill and Hillary donor base.

For gays and lesbians, the Clinton-Lazio race has turned out to be—after the presidential campaign—the most-watched election battle of the fall. Clinton has been embraced wholeheartedly by many gay and lesbian New Yorkers, a love affair made evident by her appearance at June’s gay pride parade in New York City. She upstaged Lazio simply by showing up: Lazio spent that day at a dairy farm upstate.

Still, despite the support she enjoys from many gays and lesbians, Clinton has never spoken in-depth about gay issues—until now. In mid September the first lady agreed to sit down with The Advocate and discuss her positions on gay issues from marriage to military service as well as her experiences with gay friends. (Officials at Lazio’s campaign expressed interest in having their candidate interviewed by The Advocate but then stopped returning phone calls.)

Clinton was interviewed in an upper east side high-rise on a muggy Manhattan afternoon just prior to a private, high-roller fund-raiser. Because her husband, the president, decided he wanted to attend the event, a full complement of police, Secret Service officers, and special security details swarmed in and around the building. There, high on the 45th floor overlooking the East River, the Senate hopeful was ensconced in an office down a small hallway jammed with large men wearing earphones. She was dressed in a conservative black suit and pearls.

Despite the whirlwind around her, the first lady seemed calm, focused, even serene as she answered questions about gay and lesbian issues, something she can address with remarkable fluency and eloquence. She was generous with her time; she even kept the president waiting upstairs so she could complete the interview. Her campaign literature shows her to be squarely behind antidiscrimination and hate-crimes measures, AIDS funding, domestic partnerships, gays in the military, and granting immigration rights to foreign gay partners of U.S. citizens.

But there were a few disappointing moments during the interview too. Clinton could not point to a single gay-related topic other than AIDS that she had addressed as first lady. And she would not let herself be pinned down when it came to public funding for the Boy Scouts or voting for judges who had antigay rulings in their histories.

Finally Clinton, who opposes gay marriage, said she did support the recent controversial ruling in Vermont that provides sweeping legal benefits to gay couples. Clinton would like to see a similar law in New York, saying she considered it a top priority for gays and lesbians.

How has it been campaigning in New York? Is it what you expected? It’s been great. I’ve had a wonderful time traveling around the state, meeting people, enjoying the diversity of New York, which has an extraordinary range of people and landscapes and challenges, all of which I find exciting. It has also been a learning experience for me because I have never been a candidate before.

Do you feel like a New Yorker yet, or are you still becoming one? Well, I feel very much at home. As someone was telling me the other day, it’s like the convert in the congregation who becomes the most zealous or the adopted child who wants very much to be loved. And you know, there might be some similarities to that experience in that I have chosen to move here and build my future here. So it’s not something I was born into. I’ve had to come as an adult, and I feel very excited about that.

You had quite a reception at the New York gay pride parade. Did you expect that? Oh, it was great. I didn’t know what to expect.

Had you ever been to a gay pride parade before? No, not in New York. I mean, I had observed them on TV and been in conversations with friends who had been there. But I loved it. I loved the energy and excitement and enthusiasm. It was also just extraordinary and almost overwhelming to walk down the street and see such an incredible crowd on both sides. I loved just being there. It made me feel so good. I saw a lot of people that I know, in different settings, from different parts of my life. And everybody was just in such a good mood.

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.

Would you take a position on public money going to the Boy Scouts as long as they discriminate? I think people have to look at that on a state and local basis. And make that decision.

What about in New York? Well, in New York, I don’t know what all the statutes are, but I would hope that that kind of confrontation could be avoided and that the Boy Scouts would recognize that changing their policy is appropriate.

So you haven’t formulated a final position on public support of the Scouts? I haven’t formulated a final policy on it. I’m hoping that persuasion and, frankly, lobbying by people who are concerned will lead to a change in policy.

You had a unique vantage point on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Did you always think it was a flawed policy, or did something convince you to change your mind at some point along the way? I think, like a lot of people, we hoped that it would work, that it would accommodate the concerns and positions of many with respect to military service but also be a means of permitting gays and lesbians to serve their country. And the evidence demonstrates to me that it has not worked. And that it is a flawed policy.

When did you change your mind? Sometime over the last several years as the stories came out and as the people who were being discharged spoke out about how they had been pursued and harassed and outed and mistreated in violation of certainly the spirit of the policy. So I am convinced that gay people should be permitted to serve in the military, and they should be judged on their conduct in the military. I’ve thought that for some time.

Let’s suppose the president, even President Gore, appointed a highly qualified candidate for federal judge or Supreme Court justice, one who agreed with you on a number of key issues but who had made rulings that could be construed as antigay. Would you support that nomination? Well, that would trouble me. It would very much trouble me.

Do you have a litmus test, the way you might with, say, abortion? Well, you know, nobody’s ever asked me this question before. I would have to look at what those rulings were. I’d have to question the nominee as to what their beliefs were and what their willingness to enforce the law was because I think the law is rapidly changing, and I want to see it continue to change. And I wouldn’t want somebody on the Supreme Court who came with an preexisting prejudice that would undermine whatever legal progress could be made in ending discrimination.

I want to ask you about attacks from the right wing. The attacks on you and your husband—do you think any of it could be explained by homophobia? Not just because of gays in the military but also the whole whispering campaign against you, which nobody believes is true, but how do you feel about that personally, and how do you feel about using homosexuality as a smear tool in politics? Well, I think there are a lot of people who oppose what Bill and I stand for, what we’ve tried to do in our public lives, the way we’ve tried to demonstrate respect for people and be inclusive and reach out to all people and find an opportunity to use the talents that everyone has to contribute to improving our society. I think there are people who are very much against any changes in the treatment of gays and lesbians, who do not believe that we should be extending civil rights and [think] we shouldn’t be recognizing the legitimacy of people’s life choices, and I think it’s very frightening to them.

Do you think there might be a connection between homophobia and the right-wing attacks on you? Well, there could be.

And how do you feel about gay baiting in politics? It’s abhorrent, and it is an unfortunate relic of a sad chapter in human history. Every time we’ve had great change happen, whether it was overcoming slavery or the women’s movement or civil rights or standing against anti-Semitism, it’s always been necessary to stand against both the evil and the weakness that still stalks the human heart, stand against how people try to lift themselves up by putting others down and how they try to externalize and project their own insecurities and their own fears onto the other. And I am convinced that it remains one of our biggest challenges. And it’s true whether you’re talking about gay baiting or the remnants of any kind of discrimination anywhere in the world. We have got to overcome the tendency of people to revert to the lowest common denominator in the face of change. That’s what I think what the president has tried to do, and he has exemplified what I have tried to do to break down these barriers.

Why should gay and lesbian New Yorkers vote for you, and in a close race like this, can it make the difference? Any vote can make the difference. But I hope that gays and lesbians will vote for me because I intend to be a strong advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians to lead full and meaningful lives without the fear of discrimination and have access to equal opportunity and equal treatment as I think they are entitled to in our society.