Scroll To Top

The Object
of Our Affection

The Object
of Our Affection


Her husband let us down, she won't support marriage equality, but still we can't stop dreaming about Hillary. Sean Kennedy sits down with the front-runner for the White House and finds out what's keeping the romance alive.

"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 cliche!), 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.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Outtraveler Staff