Guest Post: The Clintons And The Gay Community

Joshua Green is a senior editor of the Atlantic.

Darn. I was hoping to hop the plane to Ames and shirk my promised post, but Marc has (shrewdly!) called me out publicly, so I’ll add this bit of context to last night’s Democratic forum.

One of the major fault lines in the gay community is over the Clintons—something I was surprised to learn while reporting a piece earlier this year on Tim Gill , by several magnitudes the biggest gay donor in the country and—like Melissa Etheridge, apparently—no great fan of the Clintons. This accounts, I think, for the tenor of some of the questions directed at Clinton last night.

The debate essentially boils down to whether or not you think the Clinton administration was a net positive or a net negative for the gay community. Two quotes from my Gill article do a pretty good job of characterizing the two camps. The first is from Patrick Guerriero, a Republican who works for Gill’s political organization, the second from Jeff Soref, a philanthropist for gay causes and (former, I think) DNC appointee.


“When [Bill] Clinton was elected, everyone thought there would be this epiphany on gay rights. Instead, the only two major pieces of legislation were a disaster: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ and the Defense of Marriage Act. The experience of the ’90s taught us that there is no magic president who’s going to fix everything.”


“Clinton broke the silence about the AIDS epidemic. He told gay people we were part of his vision for America. He directed federal money to AIDS research. He gave us an AIDS czar and a liaison in the White House and an executive order banning discrimination in the federal workforce. He invited us to the table and gave us a place in the Democratic Party.”

A couple things to think about. Hillary Clinton has gone about as far as Hillary Clinton will go in disavowing her earlier positions on major gay issues. As Linda Douglass points out in this helpful National Journal article , Hillary, like the rest of the Democratic field, now supports repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and says she would repeal the federal provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (Obama would go further and repeal the whole thing). But as many people like to point out—most recently, to me, Tucker Carlson on his show yesterday (Linda and I were his “panel”)—Hillary and the other first- and second-tier candidates do not support gay marriage, so why are many gays supporting them?

The answer is political pragmatism. The Human Rights Campaign made a big push on gay marriage in 2004 that was politically disastrous (The HRC has become as much a fault line as, well, HRC, as Andrew will happily tell you). So a kind of détente has arisen: HRC and other gay organizations don’t push too hard on the marriage question, and Democrats support almost all of the rest of what they’re asking for: a federal hate-crimes law, civil unions, repealing Don’t Ask, etc.

Of course, not everyone wants in on this deal, as Etheridge and a few others make clear. But that hasn’t stopped Clinton from making serious headway with the gay community, despite a few tense moments like the ones last night. So don’t be misled. One of the underappreciated stories of this campaign is how effectively Clinton has shored up endorsements and support, and in few places is this truer than the gay community. The impression I’ve been given is that HRC’s eventual endorsement of Clinton is a mere formality.