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The most pro-gay president in the history of the United States on same-sex marriage, gays in the military, gay and lesbian parenting, AIDS, the Bible and homosexuality, and what he willand wontdo in a second term
By J. Jennings Moss
From The Advocate, June 25, 1996
Devotees of John F. Kennedy liked to think of his White House as Camelot and of him as a noble and courageous leader. More than 30 years later, Bill Clintons backers could well look upon his White House as Oz and upon him as the Wizard. Millions of Americans believed the magic Clinton promised them in 1992, from tax cuts for the middle class to health care for all to an end of the militarys ban on homosexuals. Yet at the end of the road, they pulled back the curtain and discovered that the Wizard was not all-powerful.
The disappointment was especially potent for gays and lesbians. Here, for the first time, was the presidential nominee of a major party who really seemed to get it. A boy from Arkansas who had come of age along with the modern gay rights movement, he wasnt afraid of the words gay and lesbian. Tucked into the pages of his 1992 campaign manifesto were promises not only to lift the militarys gay ban but also to back gay civil rights, to fight hate crimes, to stop discrimination in federal employment, and to wage a Manhattan Project against AIDS. Gays opened up their pocketbooks for the Clinton effort to the tune of $3.5 million, and on Election Day, polls showed that Clinton got as much as 75% of the gay vote. There was even a gay inaugural ball complete with girls in tuxedos and a couple of boys in dresses.
But while gays and lesbians heard Clinton speaking to themsometimes directly, such as the Hollywood fund-raiser where he said they were part of his vision, but usually indirectly, through campaign literature and surrogatesthe rest of the nation didnt hear Clinton make these promises. The candidate himself wasnt talking much. When Clinton campaigned in downtown Portland, Ore., two months before the election, speaker after speaker who shared the podium with him railed against a referendum to deny civil rights to homosexuals. Not Clinton. Even though he looked out onto a sea of signs, many of which touted opposition to the measure, Clinton avoided the subject.
Reporters quizzed him later, and he called it a divisive measure before offering a pair of comments obviously designed to appeal to two divergent segments of the electorate: My own view is that this should be a country that is free of discrimination.
I dont think there should be affirmative steps to promote the homosexual lifestyle. Gay political groups stayed away from criticizing Clinton for the remark. But gays and lesbians were obviously watching and holding their breath. One sign at the Portland rally summed it up: QUEERS TO CLINTON. THANKS...WE WILL HOLD YOU TO YOUR WORD
As president, Clinton stumbled. He never followed through on his promise to open the militarys doors to gays and lesbians. He allowed his administration to stay out of the Supreme Court fight over an antigay initiative in Colorado even though, as president, he came out against such measures. He fired U.S. surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, who proposed open-minded, sex-positive policy. And the White House says he will sign the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal bill declaring that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Yet despite such high-profile disappointments, the Clinton White House has done more than any other to help gay and lesbian Americans. The Administration has by all accounts a record number of openly gay appointees. Clinton has changed the federal bureaucracy in order to prohibit antigay discrimination. Perhaps more significant, Clinton stopped the practice of denying federal employees security clearances just because they are gay or lesbian. The bill in Congress to prevent private employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation got the presidents blessing. As for the war against AIDS, Clinton hired an AIDS czar, took part in the first-ever White House AIDS and HIV conference, and lobbied against a plan to boot HIV-positive troops out of the militarysteps that have been deemed inadequate by some hard-line activists, who have dubbed Clinton a failure on AIDS.
Without a doubt the upcoming fight with the presumptive Republican nominee, Bob Dole, has helped convince the White House that it needs to reconcile with gay Americans. Clinton tapped an old friend, Marsha Scott, to be his liaison to gays and lesbians. The Democratic National Committee is working to energize the gay vote. And now, for the first time, a sitting president has agreed to be interviewed by a national gay and lesbian magazine on a range of sexually charged subjects that most politicians try hard to avoid.
More than 3 1/2 years into the presidency of Bill Clinton, gay men and lesbians are asking themselves just where this winding road has led them. Are they better off today than they would have been had George Bush been elected to four more years in office? By most accounts, yes. But what about all the promises that were broken and all the hopes that were dashed? As the Wizard would say: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
In 1992 you said to gay people, I have a vision, and you are part of it. What is that vision in 1996, and how do gay men and lesbians figure into it?
I have a vision of America in which every individual is valued and respected. As president, I have sought to promote inclusion and heighten public awareness in order to send a powerful message of equality and acceptance to people everywhere. Increased opportunity makes citizens more productive, building stronger communities and a stronger nation. I believe that we must continue to help people rise as far as their talents and determination can take them in order to make the most out of our great diversity.
You have been praised by gays and lesbians as the most pro-gay president in history. Yet there is also a profound sense of disappointment among them because the expectations you set in 1992 were so high. What do you say to those gay voters who invested so much emotionally in your candidacy but have felt let down?
We have truly accomplished a great deal during my administration. We have also learned a lot about what we can doand how to get it done. My administration has taken more steps than any previous in bringing the gay and lesbian communities to the table. I am proud of my record, and it is a record to build on.
I remain dedicated to ending discrimination and to protecting the civil rights of every citizen in our society. I am proud that my administration has more openly gay and lesbian individuals serving in appointed positions than in any previous administration, and their impact, both in expertise and in efforts to advocate for the concerns of gay men and lesbians, is significant. We have increased AIDS funding, research, and educational outreach. I am the first president ever to endorse a gay and lesbian civil rights bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We have also opened the door for qualified gays and lesbians to receive top security clearances. I pledge to you that I will continue striving for greater education and compassion, working not simply to tolerate our differences but also to celebrate them.
What is your own personal comfort level with homosexuality? Is it one of tolerance or acceptance or something else?
I believe all Americans should be judged on their merits, not on their orientation. I strive to do this in my personal life. It was one of the most fundamental lessons that my mother taught me from a very early ageto make decisions about people based on who they are, not what they are.
In public life I have worked relentlessly to empower people who historically have been discriminated against based on race, class, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. I remain committed to achieving that goal.
Having grown up in a segregated society, I have always felt strongly that everyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules should be allowed to participate in American life. My belief is that we dont have a person to waste. We should try to protect the rights of all our citizens to live up to the fullest of their capacities.
What gay or lesbian person has had the biggest impact on your life?
This is hard to answer because I know so many individuals, many of whom I brought into my administration. Bruce Lehman, Roberta Achtenberg, Richard Socarides, and Bob Hattoy, to name just a few, have all made valuable contributions. Ive worked closely with congressmen Barney Frank and Gerry Studds and with Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign. Ive had a long friendship with David Mixner, whose advice has meant a great deal to me over the years. In 1978, I was governor of Arkansas, and I hired Dr. Mike Rankin to be the states mental health commissioner, and he has become a good friend of mine. Today he serves as an outstanding member of my advisory council on HIV/AIDS.
As a strong Baptist, do you have problems reconciling your religions views on homosexuality with your personal beliefs?
I have been blessed by having people of strong faith in my life, and this faith is a major sustaining force and motivation. It is through my religious beliefs that I have learned compassion, tolerance, and inclusion. Through prayer and Bible study I have learned that Gods love is extended to all people.
Jimmy Carter recently denounced some religious and political leaders for embracing strong antigay views. And he said it must be made clear that a platform of I hate gay men and women is not a way to become president of the United States. Do you agree with Carter, and do you intend to do anything to counter what he calls obnoxious attitudes?
Yes, I believe that those who promote discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or any other grounds are gravely mistaken about the values that make our nation strong. I will continue to move my administration in the direction of compassion, acceptance, and understanding.
The recent attempts by extremists in Congress to expel HIV-positive service members, regardless of their ability to serve, was a good example of what President Carter is saying. Im very proud of the coalition my administration built in our successful repeal effort. This provision was unconstitutional, served no military or public-health policy, and was just plain wrong. Once people understood this, we were able to have it repealed.
Perhaps your biggest accomplishment in the area of gay rights has been with changes in the federal workplace. Federal departments have written nondiscrimination policies. Gays and lesbians are no longer denied security clearances. What do you feel is the long-term impact of these changes?
These changes are important because they represent another step forward in making sure that all Americans can contribute and that everyone has a seat at the table. Its particularly important to open up the civil service fully to ensure that the most capable people are not denied the opportunity to serve. These men and women in our governmentand their workwill outlast any president.
People still debate what happened with the gays-in-the-military issue. Given a second term, would you revisit this topic? Is there a chance you might issue the executive order you promised in 1992?
Few issues in recent times have spurred the kind of debate that has occurred since I pledged to change our nations policy toward homosexuals in the military. I know that this is a sensitive and emotional issue for many people. And as you know, many of these issues are being actively litigated in the federal courts.
If you had the chance to start over, only this time knowing the extent of the opposition to opening the militarys doors to gays and lesbians, how would you approach the issue? What lessons did you learn from the fight?
Its fair to say that I have thought a lot about this and that there are some things I think I should have done differently. I now believe that we needed to build a broader consensus on this important issue before moving forward. Sometimes change comes best when it is achieved through incremental steps.
Do you believe gays and lesbians face the same kind of obstacles that other minority groups have confronted?
No two groupsjust as no two peopleface the same obstacles. Although some are quite similar, the gay and lesbian communities are themselves diverse and encompass members of all minority communities. We all want liberty and freedom. We want the embrace of family and community. We want to make the most of our own lives. That is why Ive always said that our great diversity is a source of strength to unitenot divideour country.
Why do you feel the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is appropriate and necessary? Given a second term, will you actively push Congress to pass it?
I dont think its right for employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Men and women in 41 states may now be fired from their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation, even though it has no bearing on their job performance. Those who face this kind of job discrimination have no legal recourse in either our state or our federal courts. This is wrong.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, for which I announced my support last fall, is designed to protect the rights of all Americans to participate in the job market without fear of unfair discrimination.
Why do you oppose same-sex marriage? Is there a chance you could reconsider?
I remain opposed to same-sex marriage. I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or reconsidered. I also strongly believe that issues relating to gays and lesbians should not be used to tear our communities apart. Even on the most difficult social issues we face, we must work together to find common ground. Every American deserves no less.
What about the slate of proposed laws to limit marriage to individuals of the opposite sex? Should Congress establish a national standard for marriage?
I am opposed to same-sex marriage. If Congress sends me the Defense of Marriage Act in the form now being considered, I will sign it.
Are there steps, such as changing the tax code or immigration laws or creating domestic-partner benefits for federal workers, that you believe the federal government should take to help gay couples?
I am aware that many communities and institutions are considering whether certain basic benefits can be provided outside the context of traditional marriage. The challenge in addressing these issues is to remain sensitive to the traditional values of our communities while preserving the fundamental right to live free from unjustified discrimination. In our countrys history we have, for good reason, looked first to state and local governments, as well as the private sector, to consider issues like these involving community values and matters of conscience. I believe that these issues continue to be best resolved at this level of civil discourse.
An increasing number of gays and lesbians are having children, either biologically or through adoption. Is this trend acceptable to you? Is there anything government should do to encourage or discourage gay child-rearing?
This question, with all due respect, misses the point. The most important thing is that children find themselves in loving, healthy, and safe environments. State and local officials need to ensure that the best interests of the child are being served. That interest, not the interests of others, is paramount.
Some parents object to teaching anything positive about homosexuality in the public schools. At the same time, some troubled teens kill themselves because of confusion over their sexuality. How far should the nations schools go in discussing homosexuality?
Our nations educators have made great strides in how to deal with issues that affect our children in these rapidly changing times. Decisions about what is said and what is taught must be left to teachers, local school districts, parents, and students.
I am deeply troubled by the numbers of teen suicides, especially among gay and lesbian youth, and of the rise in violence among all youth. Secretary [of Health and Human Services Donna] Shalalas conference on gay and lesbian teen suicide brought this discussion to a national level, and my administration is continuing to work to find solutions to these complex problems. I recently met with a large number of people from throughout the country to discuss the issues of drug use and violence among teenagers. These discussions are very important and will continue.
You spoke out against the spate of antigay initiatives that were popular in past elections, yet your administration decided to sit out of the Supreme Court fight on the issue. How can you justify speaking out in one instance and then staying silent in another?
Ive never stayed silent on this issue. I have continually stated my belief that those who would legalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or any other grounds are gravely mistaken about the values that make our nation strong. The essential right to equality must not be denied by a ballot initiative or otherwise.
AIDS continues to be a crisis in America. How has AIDS affected you personally?
My administration has worked hard to respond aggressively to this epidemic. Im proud of the fact that despite the enormous pressures of a zero-growth budget, we have increased spending for AIDS research, prevention, and care by more than 40%. We have approved a whole new class of AIDS drugs in record time and made sure that people living with HIV would have the means to pay for them. We have also more than doubled the funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, which brings high-quality medical care to hundreds of thousands of people every year. And we have preserved the Medicaid program, which provides health coverage for almost half of those Americans living with AIDS.
Every case of AIDS affects each of us and the future of our country because we are losing part of the next generation of leaders for our nation. Like many Americans, I have lost close friends and colleagues to AIDS, and I keep them in mind as a potent reminder of the task we all face in eradicating this disease.
Some AIDS activists say youve done more than either of the two prior presidents to fight the disease, and in the next breath they criticize you for not doing enough or speaking out enough. Are both critiques accurate?
We have done more, but we will not have done enough until there are no more infections, no new cases, and no more deaths. Our first priority must be to find a cure for those living with HIV and a vaccine for everyone else. We will continue to invest in research and keep our commitment to providing medical care to those living with HIV and AIDS. My administration will continue to fight to preserve Medicare and Medicaid and to continue our investment in the Ryan White CARE Act. I have been frustrated by Congresss inability to approve the funds I have requested for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will continue to work to invest in prevention.
During the White House Conference on AIDS, speaker after speaker called for explicit AIDS education programs in the nations schools that would be honest about transmission and education. How explicit should public schools be?
Decisions about what is said and what is taught must be left to local school districts, parents, and students. Responsible education can help students protect themselves while reducing the levels of fear and discrimination.
At the national level we have done a great deal to support AIDS education. We have increased AIDS prevention funding by more than 20% and have given power to communities through a community planning process that puts the decisions into the hands of local leaders. This past year we released a
series of public-service announcements that feature young people talking about their lives and their experiences. There are strong indications that when young people hear from their peers, they are more likely to take that advice to heart and make changes in their behavior.
Congress was stalled for many months on reauthorizing the Ryan White CARE Act. One reason was the debate over a proposal to test newborns for HIV. Is this a provision you can live with? What are your thoughts on mandatory HIV testing?
I was pleased to be able to sign a five-year reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act in May. Throughout those congressional debates I reminded the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader of the importance of this program to people living with AIDS and HIV and their families. It was reassuring to see both houses reject the kind of divisive rhetoric adopted by Sen. Jesse Helms.
We must all work to do whatever we can to reduce the number of infants born with HIV. The Public Health Service guidelines recommend that every pregnant woman be counseled by her doctor on the benefits of testing and, if she tests positive for HIV, that she be treated with AZT. Those guidelines are supported by all of the national medical and public-health organizations. We should all follow the advice of the expertsadvice that is reflected in the final legislation.
What will a second Clinton term do to fight the war on AIDS?
First and foremost, we must continue the search for a cure and a vaccine. At the same time, we will continue the search for better treatments for people living with AIDS. No president can guarantee success in science, but we must marshal all our resources, public and private, toward this effort. We will keep working on prevention efforts. And we must preserve the Medicaid program. I will continue to stand up to efforts to dismantle this program by the Republican majority in Congress. This program is a lifeline of support for millions of Americans, including many people living with AIDS.
Any final thoughts?
There are, without question, real differences in the life experience and backgrounds of people who make up America, but there is also a rich fabric of shared experienceof common problems, common hopes and fears, common ground. It is a matter of utmost importance for our nation that all citizens expand that common ground, focusing more on what unites us than on what divides us. Just as important, our public discourse must help guide us down the path toward greater unity. I want to lead a nation that is coming together, not coming apart.
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