Tagline: Until the Work Is Done
Can LGBT community’s soft spot for Hillary Clinton endure the competition?
October 2, 2015 at 3:24 am

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Lauren Gambino, The Guardian

When then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton strode onto the stage at a fundraising event in Los Angeles in 1992, Rick Zbur swelled with emotion.

There under the national spotlight for what many said was the first time in history, a presidential candidate openly courted the lesbian and gay community.

“I have a vision of America,” the charismatic young Democrat told the crowd. “And you are a part of it.”

“I wrote a $1,000 check for the first time in my life at that event,” recalled Zbur, at the time a young attorney who still wasn’t open about his sexuality at work. “I remember I recognized how symbolically powerful the moment was, and I felt like I was a part of history.”

It was in part the desire to elect a president who was not afraid to embrace the LGBT community that drove Zbur to join the increasingly visible political movement, one that had been born out of the urgency of the Aids crisis and a deep anger at the government’s silence during the early years of the epidemic. The rallying cry then was “silence equals death”.

More than two decades later, the once-marginalized constituency has grown into a political force – and Democratic fundraising juggernaut – with an enduring soft spot for the Clintons.

“They have this history of providing dually significant leadership that has been symbolic and important to the LGBT community for decades,” said Zbur, who now heads Equality California, a major LGBT advocacy organization that endorsed Hillary Clinton weeks before she officially entered the race.

Though that relationship has been tested over the decades, especially by policies enacted by the Clinton administration – including “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, a measure that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages – it is one that has ultimately endured and still binds an influential swath of the community to the Clintons, and the former secretary of state in particular as she makes her second bid for the presidency.

On Saturday morning, Clinton is scheduled to address hundreds of gay and lesbian political activists at an event hosted by Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest and most influential LGBT political organization in the nation. But just hours later, Vice-President Joe Biden will deliver the keynote speech at the group’s annual gala in Washington.

Clinton was reportedly offered top billing at the organization’s event, but had to turn it down in order to appear on Saturday Night Live. Nonetheless, the event sets up an interesting, not-quite confrontation between two Democratic favorites and potential rivals for their party’s nomination.

“The gay community absolutely adores Joe Biden,” said Aisha Moodie Mills, the president of Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates but will not endorse a presidential candidates. “If he got in, it would be much more competitive for Hillary in terms of the gay support but right now for the most part they’re lined up behind her.”

Dueling records
Among Clinton’s chief Democratic primary rivals who have declared their candidacies, both boast strong records on LGBT equality.

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley took a political risk in 2012 when he pushed for the passage of same-sex marriage in the state, though he too evolved on the issue and previously only supported civil unions himself. And Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is closing the gap on Clinton in both polls and in fundraising, has a particularly long record of supporting LGBT equality that dates back to his time as mayor of Burlington.

Gary Erwin of San Francisco, who set up the Facebook page LGBT Voice for Bernie Sanders, said Sanders’ record proves he’s the candidate who will fight hardest for the gay community.

“Bernie is equal rights to a T,” Erwin said. “He’s for equal rights for us and for all people … I think he is the one who can bring the US to where it needs to be in the year 2015.”

Erwin rattled off Sanders’ accomplishments on same sex equality, noting that he supported a gay pride parade as mayor, and in 1984 pushed forward an anti-discrimination ordinance that extended protections to people on the basis of “his or her sexual preference”.

Erwin’s favorite clip is of Sanders, then a US Representative, rising to his feet during a 1995 House floor debate to chastise a Republican congressman who had used a derogatory term to describe gay people serving in the military. “You used the word ‘homos in the military’,” Sanders shouted. “You have insulted thousands of men and women who have put their lives on the line.”

“I have such a love affair with Bernie Sanders,” Erwin reflected after reciting the exchange by heart. “I want a Bernie Sanders husband,” he joked. “But, you know, younger.”

The Vermont senator was also one of only a few dozen congressmen and women to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which Clinton signed into law in 1996.

Hillary Clinton and her allies have said that Doma allowed the states to act on marriage equality, staving off a worse option of a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. (The former president has since said signing the act was a mistake.)

“What Doma did is at least allow the states to act,” Clinton told NPR’s Terry Gross during a 2014 interview that turned testy when the radio host pressed her on her change on marriage equality. “It wasn’t going yet to be recognized by the federal government, but at the state level there was the opportunity.”

It wasn’t until March 2013, soon after leaving the State Department, that Clinton declared her support for same-sex marriage, belatedly by comparison with other progressives in her party. But for many of her supporters, this is evidence of Clinton’s famous political pragmatism – hardly an offense worth noting.

“It’s been clear to us that she’s been a proponent of marriage equality for much longer than she’s said publicly,” said Lane Hudson, LGBT activist and Hillary for America finance committee member. “That speech that she gave at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, it was absolutely clear where she stood.”

While many LGBT Clinton supporters shared similar views, the former secretary of state has expressly said that her position on marriage equality evolved. In a recent interview, Clinton was asked about marriage equality and whether she thought Sanders was gaining in the polls because progressives think “he was there when it wasn’t popular”.

“Like a lot of people, including our president, I did evolve,” Clinton told Chuck Todd on NBC News’s Meet the Press this week. She again emphasized that her evolution was not a decision made of political expediency, but a true change of heart. “I was not raised to even imagine this,” she said. “I am thrilled now that it is the law of the land.”

‘Chelsea’s Mom’
So what is it that endears Clinton to LGBT voters, and in particular, white affluent men? An irresistible mix of personality and pragmatism, say her supporters.

During her tenure at the State Department, Clinton used her perch to champion LGBT rights around the world. Most memorable, perhaps, is a 2011 speech she gave in Geneva in which she declared “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights”. Then after leaving the state department, she continued those efforts and made advancing the rights of the LGBT community a priority.

Hudson, of Ready for Hillary, said there are significant parallels between Clinton’s political career and the LGBT movement, and that many in the community – as diverse as it is – connect with Clinton’s glass-ceiling breaking drive.

“She has been personally attacked and beaten up, politically speaking,” Hudson said. “But she always gets back up and dusts herself off and keeps going.”

Hudson noted the other candidates’ achievements on gay rights, and said they were welcome voices on the issues, but said he “never hesitated in supporting Hillary because she has a long record of getting things done”.

“She’s the only one that’s battle-tested,” he said.

Since launching her campaign, Clinton has made clear that she has the LGBT community in sharp focus. From her official launch, to her campaign staff to merchandise shop, the Clinton campaign has loudly and proudly embraces the LGBT community.

Her campaign notes that several senior staff members are openly gay, including campaign manager Robby Mook. Clinton’s online store is stocked with rainbow-colored merchandise. For $35, supporters can purchase a “Pride Pack” that includes an LGBT T-shirt, pins and bumper stickers. After a supreme court ruling brought marriage equality to all 50 states, Clinton’s campaign changed its official logo to rainbow-colored.

Her candidacy has inspired the viral musical parody, Chelsea’s Mom, by the Well Strung quartet. And on the popular blog, Humans of New York, Clinton responded to a young gay boy who feared for his future. “Prediction from a grownup: Your future is going to be amazing,” Clinton wrote.

Even from the start, Clinton launched her campaign with a video that included a diverse group of supporters, among them Jared Milrad and his fiance Nathan Johnson. Their inclusion, Milrad proudly notes, marked the first time a same sex couple appeared in an official presidential campaign video.

Now married, Milrad said he and his husband recently saw Clinton at a campaign event in Los Angeles and said she congratulated them on their nuptials.

“She really comes across as genuine and warm to our community, and add that to the fact that she’s supported our civil rights and our equality for a very long time,” Milrad said. “I also think she’s someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously, and to some degree that reflects well in our community.”
The next battle
But rainbow merchandise doesn’t resolve the significant issues LGBT community is still facing, said Michelangelo Signorile, an LGBT rights activist and Sirius/XM radio host who is credited with elevating Clinton to gay rights icon with his 1999 article “Hillary: Viva la diva!”.

“There’s a lot she needs to maintain and keep that vote,” Signorile said. Clinton needs to excite the community again, and show that she is not taking the community’s votes “for granted”, he said. This, he thinks, could be achieved with a sweeping speech on the state of LGBT rights.

“A really passionate moment about what’s at stake would really galvanize people,” he said.

Anecdotally, several gay and lesbian activists and their allies said they believe Clinton is the clear favorite among the establishment LGBT community, earning both their support and their donations.

“The majority of the LGBT community is supporting Hillary Clinton – right now,” said Mills, of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. “But that’s only because that’s what their option is. Joe Biden is not in the race.”

Biden earned widespread support from gay and lesbian community after he unexpectedly declared his support for marriage equality in 2012, making him the highest ranking elected official to embrace that level of civil rights for gay and lesbian couples. His announcement paved the way for President Obama to endorse same-sex marriage just days later.

Biden has said he is in the process of deciding whether he will run for the White House, while he mourn the lost of his eldest son, Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general, who died of cancer in May at age 46.

Apparently sensitive to the activists’ concerns, the Clinton campaign this week hired Dominic Lowell to coordinate its LGBT outreach, as Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign did. Signorile said while belated, the move was a promising sign.

LGBT activists say that presidential candidates seeking their vote need to wage the next battle in their fight for equality: passing federal non-discrimination legislation.

“We’re in this awkward position of being able to get married over the weekend, have a lovely wedding, then go to work on Monday and could be fired, legally, from our job because we posted a wedding picture,” Mills said.

“There’s still a whole layer of discrimination that exists against LGBT people,” she said. “So the question now is who can we support that will move us forward.”

In July, Clinton tweeted her support for the Equality Act, which would prohibit workplace and housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity.

“A tweet!” Signorile scoffed. “She needs to speak about anti-discrimination laws, about the use of religious liberty as a ruse to still discriminate. She should be leading that debate and really showing that she’s committed to the issue.”

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