Bill and Hillary Clinton have a colorful history on the marriage issue. Before gay marriage ever landed on their doorstep, their own marriage was the constant focus of conservative opponents. But their marriage endures in spite of many challenges, some of which played out very publicly. Their commitment to marriage is something many top conservatives cannot claim.
Their marriage has also produced a daughter that has gone on to become an admired young woman who is slowly embracing the Clinton legacy of public service. In Chelsea Clinton’s first public interview with Vogue, she and others discuss in detail the dynamic and close relationship that exists among the Clinton triumvirate.
Chelsea is a key part of her parents’ long slog on gay marriage. Bringing her gay friends to Thanksgiving dinner in Chappaqua helped bring the former President along. Chelsea commented in the Vogue interview, “Those conversations often start in families and then billow out into the community. Change is hard. And I was really proud of my dad.”
In the 1990s, however, Clinton had a mixed record on LGBT issues. He was the first presidential candidate to openly embrace gay support and came into office intent on allowing gays to serve in the military. Overwhelming opposition led to the “compromise” of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
A court case in Hawaii put gay marriage front and center. Soon after, we ended up with another “compromise” called the Defense of Marriage Act. Both the former president and Hillary contend it was necessary to prevent a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Not everyone agrees, including Elizabeth Birch, president of the Human Rights Campaign at the time.
In August of 2009, I interrupted a speech that President Clinton was delivering at the annual progressive blogger conference, Netroots Nation. I explained that I did this because I was frustrated with Clinton recasting his presidency as a wonderfully progressive era without acknowledging the decidedly antiprogressive DOMA and DADT.
President Clinton launched into a stinging rebuke that included a strong defense of his record. It was a surreal experience for me, but I refused to let it end there. It occurred to me that he was more focused on defending his past in order to define his legacy. So I apologized for interrupting him and also urged him to focus on what he can do now and in the future to determine his legacy on LGBT issues.
To my surprise, he sent me a handwritten response. In the note, he first offered an apology to me. He asserted that he has been involved in gay issues for 40 years, referencing a selection from his memoir, My Life, in which he details his behind-the-scenes work to prevent a bill to criminalize homosexual acts when he was attorney general of Arkansas in 1977.
He also referenced his then-recent change on gay marriage and said he “will look for more opportunities to advance repeal of DOMA.” It is clear that he has kept his promise, by writing an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing for the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA. It was a rare move by a former president to make such a case for a law he signed, especially mere weeks before the Supreme Court was to consider arguments to do just that.
Days later, Hillary Clinton announced her support for marriage equality. Free from the tradition that secretaries of State refrain from involvement in domestic issues, she filmed an eloquent video for the Human Rights Campaign making her own case for marriage. She referenced her historic speech at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in which she declared that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
In 1996, Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign even ran radio ads bragging about DOMA. Twenty years later, things will have come full circle, with her support of marriage equality being an asset of a potential Hillary Clinton campaign for president.
With this, the Clinton family has put itself squarely on the right side of history — to the point that Bill Clinton will be honored this weekend by GLAAD. Their journey wasn’t always smooth. I welcome both of the Clintons to the party because I know they believe it and they help change the status quo thinking on the issue. Their personal journey is one with which many people will identify and that helps us get closer to winning.
LANE HUDSON is a writer and activist.