When President Obama officially came out in support of same-sex marriage, he referenced Sasha and Malia. He referenced the fact that they had friends who were being raised by gay parents and how, in their minds, it wasn’t odd. And that is a part of what helped him to evolve. I understand that from a political perspective, when he was running for office, he couldn’t be fully supportive. Did you also have a political evolution and not just a personal one? Did you always believe that gays had the right to things like marriage and adoption? Or was that something that over the course of time, you came to see as being fundamentally the right thing to do?
No. I have evolved as well. I was a young judge here in Washington, D.C., when a case was brought by a same-sex couple seeking to be married. And a judge wrote what I thought was a very thoughtful opinion, denying that right. I remember reading that opinion and thinking it was legally appropriate, and thinking, “I guess I agree with that.” But what struck me about that was that it wasn’t clear, necessarily, to me. I think back now to that young judge, to that opinion, and I’m in a fundamentally different place than I was then. This would have been the late ’80s or so. People are educated. We evolve. We get better.
Things get better.
I hope that I’ve gotten better.
What do you see on the horizon for transgender equality? We’ve had greater visibility for transgender Americans, but they continue to face high levels of violence and discrimination. Much of that discrimination and violence is directed at trans women of color. Has the administration considered specific action to address the needs of trans people?
We issued regulations in December of last year that references the Civil Rights Act — to say that discrimination against transgender people is illegal, inappropriate, and inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act. Beyond that, we have been very forceful in our enforcement of the Hate Crimes Act, so that people could not be attacked because of who they are or how they appear to be.
It took a long time in getting that expansion of the Hate Crime statute, and it is something that I think is a proud achievement of this administration.
I know you said you can’t predict the future, but I’m looking at what happened with respect to the Voting Rights Act and it bothers me that we’re making so much progress and yet when generations pass, many people don’t see why it was even necessary that particular progress needed to happen. With respect to what the administration is doing in support of marriage equality, there is no codified law like the Voting Rights Act. What do you see as being necessary to solidify the rights of gay people? Do we need the equivalent of a 13th Amendment or 14th Amendment?
I’m not so sure. I think it really comes from a shift in attitudes, a shift in sensitivities. We have to remember in 1967 when interracial marriage was prohibited, that was a big deal. We look back now and think, “How could we possibly ban marriage between an African American and a white person? How could that be something you would even think about doing?” I think we will see a similar progression here when it comes to same-sex marriage. And I want to keep emphasizing that same-sex marriage is extremely important: It has impacts on people’s financial lives. It has impacts on health care, impacts on child rearing — a whole range of things. But it’s only one part of the larger struggle for the recognition of Americans as Americans regardless of their sexual orientation.
I think the nation is ready for that. Once the nation has moved in that direction, once my kids are adults having their own kids, I’m confident that we, as a nation, will not only evolve, we will stay in the place to which we have evolved.
A perception exists that African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities are more homophobic than the general population. But as you and President Obama have become trailblazers on this issue, have you witnessed a change in the black community on this issue? And what are the cultural and social factors that may contribute to a disparity in acceptance for African-American and Afro-Caribbean gays and lesbians?
I’m not sure why that has taken as long as it has. I don’t think that we’ve made the same progress in the African-American community that I would have hoped. I still have friends who I talk to and who think that maybe I’ve gone a little further than they’re comfortable with. So I’m not sure what it’s going to take to get the African-American community as a whole to a place where I think we need to be.
But I think we have to be honest. There is still work that needs to be done there. And I frankly don’t quite understand, given the experience that we had to deal with as African Americans — being the other, having to deal with discriminatory laws, discriminatory practices directed at us. So it seems to me that there would be a natural affinity for people being supportive of the same things that we’ve fought so long and hard to eradicate. It seems to me that there is a need for a greater understanding, a greater unity, and greater struggle — jointly. My hope will be that over time that will happen.
You’ve talked a lot about your children, you’ve shown me the photos of your employees with their families, and in your recent op-ed you juxtaposed gay Americans and children. I think the idea of gay people raising children, adopting children, and having children of their own would have been unthinkable to talk about so naturally before this administration. Why is that important to you?
Because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the pictures I’ve shared with you of the great people in this Justice Department, the wonderful things they’re doing with their kids. I saw it at the elementary schools where my kids went. I got to interact with same-sex couples who raised great kids…and raised not-so-great kids. They were just common, ordinary parents who were dealing with the same conditions that we were dealing with: kids who were dealing with their homework wonderfully and kids who didn’t do their homework so wonderfully. But they were just people, just people trying to do right by their children. That is the thing that people have to understand.
It’s a good thing that more gay people come out, because it is hard to demonize somebody that you know.
I can go back to Uncle Sonny, or other people who I grew up with who were gay, like a kid who was my age, Sammy. And I can think about those guys. I think of Sammy, who was a great ballplayer. He’s a good guy. Uncle Sonny was the coolest guy I knew growing up. Rest in peace to my father, but Uncle Sonny was cooler. If you can have a person in your life, a gay person, and say this is a gay person to me and that person is cool to you, good to you — it means that you view people of the same orientation in much the same way.
On the other hand, if gay people don’t come out and the myths are allowed to exist — the misperceptions, prejudices — and not countered by real-world experiences — then progress is hindered.
You talk about this cultural acceptance versus legal protections. Though we have the great privilege of living in a nation with an African-American president and an African-American attorney general, young men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and millions of boys like them, are targeted as criminals and dismissed as thugs. What should we glean from this? It seems we’re in this amazing time in American history and yet so much prejudice and ignorance still prevail. Do you think that greater legal protection for gays will lead to better quality of life? Or do we need greater cultural acceptance? And if so, how is that achieved?
I think we have a moment in time. We have a moment in time where all the tragedies — from Trayvon to Michael Brown to the Garner case in New York, and a case in Cleveland — coupled with where we are dealing with this whole question of same-sex marriage—this is an opportunity. This is a real opportunity for this nation, on a couple of fronts, to make substantial progress. These kinds of chances happen every other, every third, fourth generation.
The nation dealt with a huge issue, and fought a civil war, and decided that slavery was a sin. The early part of the 20th century, we decided that women should get the right to vote. This is another one of those moments, it seems to me. And I think that those two struggles can be interwound; and if we do well in one, it will certainly help in the other. If we do well on both, it will help the nation.
You will vacate this office soon. How do you intend to remain the advocate for gay and lesbian Americans once you’re out of office?
I hope that I will still have a voice that people will listen to and hopefully some will find persuasive. I took this job not to be a bureaucrat, not to simply move paper. There are four attorney generals’ portraits in this conference room. The one over my shoulder…
Robert F. Kennedy?
Yes, Robert F. Kennedy, he is my idol, because he used his position as attorney general to make this country better, to make this country more perfect. He dealt with issues of his time, the civil rights movement. It was under his leadership that my sister-in-law [attended the integrated] University of Alabama when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door.
I’ve had the opportunity, as a result of serving under a great president, to deal with the issues of my time. And among those issues is the fight for same-sex equality, in all of its guises. Same-sex marriage is the issue that the Supreme Court will deal with soon, but the issues are larger than that.
My hope would be that fifty years from now — as we are about 50 years removed from Robert Kennedy — that people would say that Eric Holder struggled. He got it more right than he got it wrong, and that the nation was better as a result of his being attorney general.
This interview was conducted before the RFRA was signed into law in Indiana. The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision on state marriage bans in June. At the time of this interview the U.S. Senate had not yet confirmed Holder’s
Edward Wyckoff Williams (@WyckoffWilliams) is a television producer, correspondent, and columnist. He is a contributing editor at The Root and has appeared on MSNBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Al Jazeera, ARISE, and national syndicated radio. In January 2015 his work was nominated for two GLAAD media awards.