Hillary Clinton Must Decide Where She Stands on Gay and Trans Rights

In Depth

Although the former Secretary of State, presidential candidate, senator, and First Lady of the United States has played coy on whether or not she is running again, most political observers, both professionals and amateurs, think there is little question she will. I’m definitely one of those who believe she will. However, she has to convince the LGBT+ community how strongly she stands with us. Her record is mixed, and her history, bound up with her husband’s, is controversial.

A necessary disclaimer, I briefly worked on Clinton’s campaign in 2007 after meeting her in 2006 because of the generosity of a mutual friend, former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. Mauro and the Clintons go way back, when the couple slept on his couch during the McGovern campaign. At the time of my first meeting with Hillary Clinton, I was writing for the University of Texas at Austin school paper The Daily Texan, and our first conversation was definitely on the record, reporter to politician, as opposed to our later meetings, which was essentially intern to towering political legend.

Although I was around Clinton multiple times over my two years active in Democratic politics, I can hardly say I actually know her, as I was just one of many low level, bright eyed and eager youngsters who, from time to time, crowded into furniture crammed office spaces and conference rooms to hear her speak. I do have an orange tie she signed for me (which has also been signed by John Kerry and Bill Richardson), but let there be no mistake, there is no way she knows who I am, and it is highly unlikely she would remember me. I’ve sometimes shown the picture I have of the two of us together to my students, who even in Japan know who she is, but it would be false to say we’re even acquaintances, let alone friends.

I say all this just to explain how easy it is to be captured by Hillary’s immense gravity. How quickly one can be pulled into her orbit—and stay there. It’s difficult for me to criticise her, because like any amazing (not just good, but truly outstanding) politician, she made everyone in those crammed office spaces and crowded conference rooms believe. I’ve heard similar experiences from members of the Obama camp, but for me that feeling of yes we can did not come from Barack Obama, it came from Hillary Clinton. And seven years later there is still a part of me that believes. And I’m not the only one. Just listen to what the vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, Fred Sainz, has to say:

I have seen grown, adult men and women weep at the possibility of her becoming the next president. We feel this incredible attachment to her. In spite of tremendous challenges, she’s persisted and that’s a quality that LGBT people identify with.

There is also one more reason that I owe a debt of gratitude to Clinton, in this case, in her guise as Secretary of State. Under her watch the State Department made a huge change which massively affected transgender people—especially those like myself who are individuals living overseas. That huge change came in 2010 when the requirements for changing one’s gender marker on a United States passport came down to a simple letter from a doctor stating gender transition had been completed. No details required nor desired. With this change I finally had a document which changed everything in my country of residence Japan, as everything here is based on that one master document.

However, there’s no denying that Hillary has a marriage equality problem. While marriage equality is not the most important issue affecting our community (although it can sometimes seem this way), it certainly seems to be on the major issues driving the new civil rights movement. There’s no easy way to say this for a former Hillary staffer. There’s no way to blunt this. On the issue of marriage equality, Hillary is currently on the wrong side of the issue. She’s just wrong.

For me, marriage has always been a matter left to the states… I fully endorse the efforts by activists to work state-by-state. In fact, that is what is working.

Not good enough. Given how many current judicial rulings make it clear the constitutionality of such a position is questionable, the truth is that we are currently in a time where more and more Americans, and certainly most LGBT+ Americans, believe that marriage quality is a fundamental right, and one enshrined by modern understanding and precedent in the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

A far harsher critic than myself can be found in Mark Joseph Stern. In Stern’s Slate/Business Insider piece he gives Hillary very short shrift for “evolving” on the issue at all. I have to admit while I wince at how strongly he words his views of her “evolution” as political claptrap without much in the way in substance, his arguments are compelling.

Why won’t Clinton just say she’s sorry and join her fellow Democrats in supporting a constitutional right to marriage? The usual things, probably: baggage and ego. Thanks to her husband’s support of anti-gay legislation, Clinton has a much thornier history with gay rights than do most Democratic politicians; she simply has more to apologize for than most of her liberal colleagues…Clinton…has yet to settle on a narrative to explain her switch. And without one, the decision seems too tardy and lukewarm to be anything but a bald political maneuver.

Even if we do believe that Hillary’s position is genuine, that she supports marriage equality but would prefer to leave it at the state level to be passed, well…. Frankly, as John Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant and writer, points out, the position is just plain bizarre, as Hillary isn’t exactly known as a “states rights”er. There are many labels I would give my old “boss,” and that isn’t one of them. Aravosis seems to be on the same page as me regarding her attachment to this as an issue of states rights.

I like Hillary. I will support Hillary. But I think that made her sound weak and calculating. Does she have a long record of supporting states’ rights or something? And it is not as if conservatives who are against gay marriage are going to support her because she thinks it is an issue better left to the states or something.

While Stern’s tone in describing Clinton’s famous speech in Geneva in which she declared that “Gay rights are human rights,” is openly mocking, I’m not quite so unforgiving.

He also draws attention to something which needs to be discussed: her unwillingness to openly criticise the administration of her husband (and let’s not pretend that she was anything but a hugely active part of the Clinton adminstration as First Lady, there’s a reason why we got the moniker of Hillarycare). She has stated in the past that while she opposed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at the time when it came to an end under President Obama, it was an “incremental step” at the time it was passed by her husband. This is inconsistent and exactly what makes many members of the LGBT+ community wary. If it was wrong when it was ended, it was wrong when it was passed. And unless I am very much mistaken, she has never mentioned transgender service at all, or any acknowledgement that the ban is still in effect.

However, since becoming an elected politician in her own right, there have been signs that she is one of our staunchest supporters. In addition to the gender marker change mentioned earlier, Clinton also directed the State Department to offer equal benefits to same-sex partners, and as a senator openly worked for adoption rights for lesbian and gay couples. However, this makes her position on marriage equality all the more strange.

Sainz, the HRC vice president, said that the next president should focus on a federal law that protects LGBT+ individuals from discrimination, similar to the 1964 Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Baines Johnson.

We are looking for the next LBJ. Assuming the Supreme Court gives us marriage, we will have met that goal and we are looking toward an omnibus, LGBT civil-rights bill. And it will take a president like Hillary Clinton to make that happen.

This next LBJ-like president is unlikely to be Hillary unless she recasts her narrative, apologises for her missteps and those of the administration she served in under her husband, highlights the work she has done as senator and Secretary of State, and gets ahead of the fact that by the time she runs, if she runs, marriage equality with either be a nationally recognised constitutional reality or well on its way to becoming so. We are unlikely to forget if she is Hillary Come Lately.

The time of political pragmatism has come to an end. Time to choose a side and take a stand.

Image via AP Images.

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