In the midst of a relatively rocky return to the public stage, it may have been the roughest moment. Hillary Clinton, on NPR, struggling to explain to Terry Gross on Fresh Air how she went from a “No” to a “Yes” on the question of same-sex marriage.
“No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify,” Clinton snapped at one point. “I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons.”
The exchange was catnip for reporters, and Republican political operatives passed the clip around with glee. But for gay-rights activists, there was another piece of the conversation, one that was little noticed by the mainstream press. It was when Clinton told Gross that, “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.”
In interviews with activists around the country, many said that those comments were disheartening to say the least, because they come at a time when a growing number of Americans think that marriage equality is a fundamental right, enshrined in the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
“I like Hillary. I will support Hillary. But I think that made her sound weak and calculating,” said John Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant and writer. “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.”
One activist told The Daily Beast that he was asked to defend Clinton’s gay-rights record by some Clinton-world insiders after the Gross interview—he responded that he could not defend her comments on states’ rights.
“She wanted to have her cake and eat it too,” said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to anger the Clinton camp. “The states’ right issue is such an old and tired form. When something is in clear violation of the Constitution, it is not an issue about states’ rights.”
A Gallup poll from last year found that 52 percent of Americans think there should be a law legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The issue may soon be moot regardless, with the Supreme Court likely to rule before 2016 on the series of lower-court rulings that have found that gay-marriage bans violate the Constitution.
By some measures, the LGBT community would be well within their rights to be lukewarm about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton bid. After all, it was under her husband that laws were signed banning the federal recognition of gay marriage, that restricted gay people from serving openly in the armed forces, and that gave greater protections to those seeking religious exemptions. The gay community has spent the better part of two decades trying to undo most of those laws. Plus, both Clintons were relatively late to come on board as marriage-equality supporters, an awkwardness revealed in the Gross interview.
But both Hillary and Bill Clinton remain beloved figures in the gay community.
“I have seen grown, adult men and women weep at the possibility of her becoming the next president,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of Human Rights Campaign, who said he has friends in the gay community who are saving money so they can afford to volunteer on a future potential Clinton campaign.
“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.”
At this point, the Clintons tardiness on the marriage question is mostly met with a shrug. What matters, activists said, is where you stand now, not how long it took you to get there.
“It’s about maintaining your sanity. If you spent all of your time bellyaching after the fact when somebody came on board you would go nuts,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to get more LGBT politicians elected. He compared lawmakers coming on board to marriage equality to the way that young gay men and women have to come out of the closet.
“Everybody has to do it in their own way, at their own speed.”
Wolfe added that public opinion on this issue was moving so quickly that he expected the eventual Democratic nominee to support full federal equality. In other words, if Hillary Clinton was “evolving” on the issue along with the rest of the nation, as she told Gross, she would evolve on this matter soon enough, too.
“Politicians are pragmatic. They are rarely going to be ahead of the curve,” he said. And on gay issues, “Every politician is behind where the American people are, except for gay politicians, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest otherwise.”
Nathan Schaefer, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York, said he had not heard Clinton’s interview with Gross. But he did hear about her comments on marriage as a state matter from friends and associates, and disagreed with them, despite Clinton’s long record with his organization (she keynoted their annual gala back in 2000).
“We have seen so much progress in so many states, but I don’t think leaving it to the states makes a whole lot of sense. There are a lot of states with constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage, so it is going to be difficult in many states. I think a lot of folks have been forgiving about how long it has taken her to come around on gay marriage, but given where we are, I don’t think there is any other answer than full equality.”
On other matters, LGBT activists say that Clinton has been a loyal ally dating back to her time in the U.S. Senate, when she worked to lift restrictions on gay and lesbian couples adopting children. As Secretary of State, she gave a famous speech in Geneva in which she declared that “Gay rights are human rights” and directed the State Department to offer equal benefits to same-sex partners.
As the next election approaches, LGBT activists are confident enough that same-sex marriage will soon be fully realized that they do not even see it as a central element of the Democratic Party platform. Rather, they want to see a more comprehensive agenda that includes workplace, housing, and family protections for gays.
“I mean, I want everybody to find love and get married, but even more important is the ability to have a job and not be afraid of losing your job because of your sexual orientation,” said Wolfe.
And Sainz said that on the next president’s docket should be a federal law that protects gay men and women from discrimination, much as laws passed in the 1960s forbade discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
“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.”