The Object of Our Affection

By

Originally published on Advocate.com September 21 2007 12:00 AM ET

"I come from a
very middle-class background,” Hillary Clinton is
telling me. “I consider myself to be pretty much a
typical American, and I think a lot of people my age
and older are really having to think hard. Younger
people are much further along. You just have to keep pushing
that door open.”

She’s
talking about the gay rights movement, about the
soul-searching it’s causing many Americans --
including herself -- but it’s typical political
boilerplate: all form, no content. She’s not really
saying anything, just bunting back a question about
marriage equality with the least amount of provocation
possible. That’s what politicians do, and by
all accounts she’s become a great politician.

Yet I find myself
believing everything she says, my natural skepticism
put on hold. I’m enamored with her. She just has that
effect.

Indeed, mere
moments before, she was wowing the crowd at the
Logo–Human Rights Campaign Democratic
presidential forum on LGBT issues in Los Angeles, in
spite of her evasions on same-sex marriage. Maybe it was the
way she looked, resplendent in a coral jacket and chic black
pants. Weeks earlier at the CNN–YouTube debate,
John Edwards, clueless as usual, panned a similar, if
not identical, outfit—though Barack Obama, befitting
his stylish reputation, complimented it—and when
moderator Margaret Carlson, the longtime Washington
journalist, introduced Clinton to the L.A. studio
audience, she good-naturedly exploited the incident for a
joke. “I don’t know if Senator Edwards is
still here, but from the last debate, let me go on the
record,” she said with a smile. “I like the
coral jacket.” On cue, the senator -- and her
audience -- laughed. Clinton chose the last slot on
purpose, and this was why: She was killing without
even talking about the issues yet.

Just why are we
so in love with Hillary? Her husband signed the vile
“don’t ask, don’t tell” law and
the nefarious Defense of Marriage Act, she refuses to
endorse same-sex marriage even though everyone suspects
she privately supports it, and on other issues important to
us she can sound a little soulless.

Nevertheless,
it’s Clinton whom gay voters are carrying the torch
for this campaign season. While Edwards has been
accused by a former political strategist of saying
he’s uncomfortable around gay people—and
often looks that way discussing LGBT issues, in stark
contrast to his magnificent wife—and Dennis
Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and Bill Richardson just seem
out of touch (and forget Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, who
didn’t show up at the HRC-Logo forum),
she’s the one who captured our hearts long ago,
and neither of us will let go. Only Obama has cast a similar
spell, but as much as he’s called a “rock
star” (so cliché!), it’s Hillary
who’s the true megawatt one-named wonder of fame --
and Obama’s record on gay issues pales in
comparison to hers.

Sure, to some
gays, as to so many Americans, Clinton is just a
politically calculating, frigid, liberal monster, a
nightmare who won’t go away -- her
unfavorability rating, cited with relish by foes,
currently stands at 48%, according to a USA
Today
–Gallup poll. But by the end of her
turn in the hot seat that August night in Los Angeles,
it surely wasn’t a stretch when moderator Carlson
suggested that Hillary is our girl. “I am your
girl! Absolutely!” Clinton replied, as a wave of
adulation once more ripped through the crowd.

Before I know it
she appears in front of me. Fresh from the stage, she
walks into the nondescript green room with a big smile and
shakes my hand warmly, saying my name. I’ve
caught her in a rare down moment -- next door a gaggle
of friends and staffers waits, and after this interview she
will head directly to the West Hollywood watering hole the
Abbey, where a viewing party for the forum, doubling
as a Clinton fund-raiser, is to conclude with an
appearance by the candidate herself.

A campaign
staffer told me she was up all night, having arrived in Los
Angeles on an 8 a.m. flight, and she looks it, the lines on
her face pronounced like a road map of the enormous
life she’s lived. But even though I can tell
she’d rather put her feet up and kick back, she is a
study in composure, her campaign face on, the gears clicking
in her head. She talks buoyantly, often looking into
the middle distance, and appears to be in a reflective
mood. Yet I know she’s just trying to say the right
thing. No mistakes, certainly not with a journalist from the
gay press. Stay on message.

Up close and
personal, I experience Clinton with a kind of double vision.
I have been a fan of hers since the 1992 campaign. I was
just a freshman in high school, and her willful
iconoclasm exerted a powerful hold on my imagination,
my sense of who I could be. I felt a connection with her in
the same way I did with Madonna -- as a suburban kid who
already felt exceedingly different from my peers, I
found their disregard for conventional wisdom
thrilling to behold. Since then, Clinton has continued
to inspire me with her smorgasbord of public identities: the
trailblazer who taught Arkansas a thing or two about modern
women and Washington about political wives. The
wronged woman who, like some country and western
heroine, won’t be kept down, whether by failed health
care reform or adultery. A feminist who knows what
it’s like to be discriminated against for
simply being who you are. Finally, though her campaign
is loath to talk about it, Clinton is a woman who enemies
have tried more than once to caricature as
“lesbian.” So she knows firsthand the
stigma associated with homosexuality.

One of my
strongest images of Clinton is from years before she rose to
national prominence, when she had a brief taste of the
limelight following her impassioned commencement
address to the graduating class of Wellesley in 1969.
She took to task the previous speaker, Massachusetts
U.S. senator Edward Brooke, for being a symbol of political
inaction. “Part of the problem with empathy
with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do
us anything,” she said pointedly then. But this
person talking now -- “I come from a very
middle-class background” -- reminds me less of
her idealistic younger self than of Diane Keaton’s
neurotic intellectual in Manhattan, who during a
snobby conversation about fine art says, “I’m
just from Philadelphia, you know? I mean, we believe in
God.” Woody Allen’s character retorts,
“What the hell does that mean?”

In every
presidential campaign cycle of recent vintage, the hopes of
LGBT people have been raised high, only to be
painfully dashed. Like a blushing schoolgirl, we take
the varsity jock’s flirtations at face value,
deluding ourselves into believing he’s going to ask
us to the prom, when in reality he’s just using
us to get to our sexy friend who will actually put
out. The Democratic presidential candidates whisper
sweet nothings into our ear and gladly take our money, but
they never say what we truly want to hear: “We
think you should be able to get married.”
It’s an understandable impulse -- our hunger to be
recognized is so great that only the president (or a
credible wannabe) can sate it -- but isn’t it
asking too much? According to polls, some 60% of Americans
are against same-sex marriage, which means it’s
too risky for a presidential candidate to go p there.
Still, with our affection unrequited, we want him or
her to go there anyway.

And Clinton
won’t. That she has by far the longest and best
record on LGBT issues -- she’s an original
cosponsor of both the Employment Non-Discrimination
Act and the hate-crimes bill currently pending in
Congress; she helped devise strategy to defeat the Federal
Marriage Amendment in the Senate; she’s pushed
for expanded funding for HIV and AIDS services; and as
her queer supporters love to point out, she was the
first first lady to march in a gay pride parade -- is a moot
point. She doesn’t support same-sex marriage,
arguably the only litmus test that counts anymore for
a politician who really wants our vote. Her Achilles’
heel is so exposed that even my contact at the campaign, the
press officer for specialty media, Jin Chon, pulled me
aside before the interview and tried to persuade me
not to ask Clinton about marriage equality. In a
conference call that morning with two of her policy
advisers, I had apparently asked “a lot” of
questions about the subject. “She’s not
going to change her mind about it,” Chon told me.

Her verbal
maneuvering on the issue frequently seems like an elaborate
in-joke between Clinton and gays, as if she knows we know
she supports marriage equality personally but that we
understand she has to pretend to be against it
publicly for the sake of winning elections. (Isn’t
the general electorate so funny!) During the forum she
resorted to two explanations for not supporting
federal marriage rights for gays: that the states
should “maintain their jurisdiction over
marriage,” for which she was roundly
criticized, and that her opposition was simply a
“personal position.”

She seconds the
latter answer when I ask her about it -- “It’s
probably rooted in my background, like we all are
results of our experience,” she says -- but
despite what seems to be sincerity, it’s still hard
to take. We’re supposed to be convinced that
this brilliant Yale-educated lawyer and lifelong
feminist, who hobnobs in Martha’s Vineyard and Malibu
with her well-heeled friends from the business and
entertainment worlds -- who famously declared that
women’s rights were human rights at the 1995 World
Conference on Women in Beijing while China was on lockdown
-- is having trouble with the concept of same-sex
marriage?

Could she perhaps
be a closet supporter of marriage equality? Her
“evolution” on the issue has been much
ballyhooed since she said at a private meeting of New
York City and State gay elected officials last year
that she wouldn’t be opposed if a pending marriage
bill in the state became law. It was an opinion,
people have noted, she wouldn’t have dared
voice in her inaugural run for office seven years earlier.
But there also wasn’t a bill then, and poll
results have changed for the better. Then this summer
Clinton came out against the part of DOMA that prevents the
federal government from recognizing states’ decisions
on same-sex unions, saying it should be repealed. And
why would she tell me that marriage equality is
something “I’m going to keep thinking about,
obviously” if not to leave room to eventually
embrace it?

But when I
suggest that her “personal position” is
actually not her position at all, she quickly
interrupts me, sitting up in her chair with a start.
“I don’t think that would be fair,” she
says. “Because, you know, I would tell you
that. This is an issue -- I’m much older than you
are -- and this is an issue that I’ve had very few
years of my life to think about when you really look
at it, when you compare it to a whole life span. I am
where I am right now, and it is a position that I come to
authentically. But it is also one that has enormous room and
support both in my heart and in my work to try to move
the agenda of equality and civil unions
forward.”

It’s
anyone’s guess how Clinton really feels -- maybe she
is legitimately wrestling with same-sex marriage, who
knows? -- but her supporters are more than willing to
play her game. Later that night at the Abbey, after
Clinton has come and gone, delivering her stump speech to a
thunderous ovation, I talk to two clean-cut
professional guys in their 30s. Police officers are
still patrolling the closed-off street outside, and as the
sign-holding demonstrators -- antiabortion activists,
“Impeach Bush” types, Hillary fans --
start to pack up, the men cite the usual reason for
supporting her: her experience. But they also tell me
they’re disappointed by her position on
marriage equality.

“She has
the ability to lead on this issue, but for whatever reason,
she’s not,” says one. Then he whips out his
digital camera and excitedly shows me the photos
he’s just taken of her. “We were right by the
velvet rope!” his friend squeals, referring to
the club world staple that held back the senator from
rabid admirers like them.

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.”

The most
poignant moment of the HRC-Logo forum was when Melissa
Etheridge, redeeming herself after one too many asinine
questions about bark beetles and other unrelated
esoterica, pressed Clinton on her husband’s
failures in office. For better or worse, the two are
inextricably linked, and his record affects perceptions of
her. With Hillary Clinton in the driver’s seat
at least for the time being, a field of Democratic
candidates uniformly good on gay issues, and a long,
divisive period of Republican rule seemingly about to end,
it’s been hard not to think back to that
equally heady moment 14 years ago, when Bill
Clinton’s inauguration positively radiated promise.
His tenure in office, however, was not all that we had
hoped it would be. On “don’t ask, don’t
tell” and DOMA, he definitely let us down.

“Our
hearts were broken,” Etheridge said. “We were
thrown under the bus. We were pushed aside. All those
great promises that were made to us were broken. And I
understand politics. I understand how hard things are, to
bring about change. But it is many years later now, and what
are you going to do to be different than
that?…. A year from now, are we going to be
left behind like we were before?”

Clinton politely
sidestepped a response -- “Well…Melissa, I
don’t see it quite the way that you describe,
but I respect your feeling about it” -- yet the
question still lingers: Would she leave us behind?

In many ways the
Clintons were my first love. When I was growing up
during the 12-year Reagan–Bush reign, the Republican
political landscape was all I knew. Gay people were
still feared. I hadn’t come out to myself. And
then this fresh-faced, passionate, progressive couple with a
commitment to change and a vision of hope emerged from the
ether and changed all that, charming me along with the
rest of America. But like all infatuations, this one
was too good to be true. Slowly but surely I was
disillusioned.

Yet isn’t
that why politics often seems so much like romance, why we
fall for politicians time and time again, only to be
forcibly shown the limits of our dreams? “You
have to realize you are empowering them to hurt you,”
Lattimore tells me in an aside. Indeed, the higher the
expectations, the harder the crash.

As any good
therapist would say, no partner is perfect. At least
Clinton’s willing to try. “I cannot promise
results,” she says to me. “I can only
promise my best effort. I can only promise to do everything
that I can do to make the case, to put together the
political majority, to take the message to the
country, and I will do that. But there are no
guarantees in life or politics.”

So, I say to her,
even if the negative feedback is deafening, would you
still push forward on repealing “don’t ask,
don’t tell”? “I’m certainly
going to continue to push forward,” she says.
“But again, I can’t guarantee that the
negative feedback will go away. The president is not a
king, despite George Bush’s efforts to be
one…and don’t forget, there’s
another set of agenda items too. We’ve got ENDA and
hate crimes.”

“If they
reached your desk,” I press, “you’d
promise to sign them?”

“Absolutely, because as president I would be trying
to get them to my desk,” she says with an
exasperated laugh. “That’s the whole
point!”

She sounds like
she means it, like the filter is off for once, and I
believe her -- I really do. But as I write this, several
weeks later, I still don’t know. Commitment is
so hard. Do I want to get in bed with Hillary again? I
take a deep breath. If a relationship is about trust, I
guess she has mine.