Activist Lane Hudson, attending the Netroots Nation convention, took on former president Bill Clinton about two pressing issues languishing in Washington: the Defense of Marriage Act and the military's ban on openly gay service members. Each law was enacted by Clinton during his 1990s administration, and each has since caused legal problems for gays and lesbians across the country.
When it became clear there wouldn't be a question and answer session during Clinton's address to the progressive blogosphere's annual conference, Hudson shot out of his seat to go toe-to-toe with him. He tells us why he did it, and whether Clinton properly answered his question.
Advocate.com:Was it your plan to speak with President Clinton?Lane Hudson: I thought they were going to have a question period, so I spoke to a couple of friends about what would be a really good question. And we decided to get him to repudiate DOMA and "don't ask, don't tell." It could have potentially started moving the ball forward. When we got there, it became pretty apparent that they wouldn't be taking questions. I didn't plan to stand up and yell out a question, but I got caught up in the moment. He was talking about all the great things that have changed in America, how we're in a new progressive era, and how we need an honest and open dialogue. I was just like, "I'm going to do it." It was kind of the right time. What he was saying was just asking for it.
I asked him, "Mr. President, would you support the repeal of DOMA and 'don't ask, don't tell'?" His initial response was very defensive. I don't think he heard the first part of the question, asking if he would support a repeal.
He's heard so much grief from activists that he probably gets defensive about it. The first thing he said was, "You need to go to one of those health care town halls. They would be glad to have you." I wasn't sure what he was saying, but I remembered from when I was a delegate at the 1996 Democratic Convention, I was at a speech he was giving, and someone stood on a chair and was yelling to him about welfare reform. He at first tried to ignore it, but you could see this thing click in his head where he couldn't ignore it anymore, so he started answering it. In my mind, I was thinking, He's going to answer this. I've seen it before, and I can't see him resisting it.
The point of my question was not to hash up something from 1993 or 1996. It was to talk about now. He was talking about how America has changed since 1993, and I thought it was appropriate. I mean, here we are today, talking about the repeal of these two laws. He did talk about how "don't ask, don't tell" was a failure, and that he didn't want to do it, and he was forced into it. He called for its repeal, in the strongest wording he probably has to date, I think, and discussed it far more publicly than ever, to my knowledge.
On the DOMA question, he didn't spend as much time talking about it, but the reasoning for DOMA. He hasn't really talked about it too much.
Did he sufficiently answer your question?I'm really satisfied with what he had to say, but I regret that it wasn't a two-way conversation because I wasn't trying to attack him, but these are our rights that he was talking about. We're trying to end discrimination. These are two laws that he signed that stripped the rights of a minority in this country. I'm passionate about it, and I wasn't trying to attack him, but I wanted to discuss this [with] the man who signed this into law.
The ideal answer would have been him saying, "I'm unequivocally ready to call for the repeal. That would have given us a little momentum, and a little progress. We've got that partially, so I would say it was worth standing up and forcing the issue.
Do you feel that the way you asked the question was too drastic?When you're in a large hall, and you're not very close, you have to speak very loudly in order for the person at the podium to hear. Just the volume alone carries certain perception of people around. That's just the realities of the space that you're in.
I know it's not what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to sit still and listen, but we're not going to change the status quo if we don't get uncomfortable sometimes.
President Clinton said he didn't have enough support from Congress against these laws. Do you feel that the current situation in Washington mirrors the past?It's not 1993 and 1996. There's certainly some pressure on elected officials to hold up to the promises they made to us when they ran for office. There's plenty of support. We've supported them with our money, with our votes, and it's time for them to deliver, but unless we ask for it, they're not going to.