Absorbing Gay Pain & Praise, Clinton Says She's Evolved

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting with city LGBT leaders on Wednesday. In an appearance early Wednesday evening in front of roughly three-dozen LGBT leaders, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton indicated that she would not oppose efforts by Eliot Spitzer, the odds-on favorite to become the new governor, to enact a same-sex marriage law in New York.

She also suggested that language she used when she first ran for the Senate in 2000 explaining her opposition to marriage equality based on the institution's moral, religious, and traditional foundations had not reflected the “many long conversations” she's had since with “friends” and others, and that her advocacy on LGBT issues “has certainly evolved.”

On Wednesday, Clinton presented her position on marriage equality as more one of pragmatism.

“I believe in full equality of benefits, nothing left out,” she said. “From my perspective there is a greater likelihood of us getting to that point in civil unions or domestic partnerships and that is my very considered assessment.” Clinton addressed a gathering organized by the Greater Voices Coalition made up of LGBT Democratic organizations citywide. Leaders of those clubs, along with out elected officials, including Democratic district leaders and state committee members, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, state Senator Tom Duane, and Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Daniel O'Donnell, were in attendance. The meeting, which was held at the Upper East Side home of a Clinton supporter, ran for more than an hour.

Representatives of the gay press were invited to the meeting, which was on the record.

The session included both warm, enthusiastic praise for New York's junior Democratic senator and sharp questioning about her posture on marriage equality.

Quinn opened the meeting recalling a number of issues-LGBT-related and not-which she had worked with Clinton on in the 10 months since she's been the Council leader. She focused in particular on their efforts to strategize about the Senate Democrats' response to this summer's efforts by Republicans to revive a federal constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage beaten back in 2004.

“Every single time since I've been elected speaker, I ever time I've picked up the phone to ask Senator Clinton to help the LGBT community, she has said yes,” Quinn said. “She's assigned staff, she's taken her own time and political capital to put in on the deal.”

Ethan Geto, a long-time gay activist who described himself as an advisor to the senator on LGBT issues, introduced Clinton, addressing what he called “the elephant in the room.”

“We're engaged in a dialogue with someone who has the stature, who has the credibility, the viability to be the party's standard bearer in 2008,” he said. “I think when you look at Senator Clinton's record, she may not agree with us on every last policy issue, but when you look at the totality of the record, there is no one in this country who may be the president of the United States with whom we have a warmer, a stronger, a closer productive working relationship.”

But once the meeting moved from introductions to questions, Clinton faced a considerably more varied reception-and, hands down, the most challenging issue she faced was marriage equality.

Doug Robinson, the co-president of the Out People of Color Political Action Club who with his partner of more than 20 years has raised two sons, spoke about the pressures his family faces in sending both to college without the benefits of marriage's economic advantages. In what began as a strong challenge to Clinton, Robinson said, “We need your support on marriage, we need you to look at that.”

Yet, just as Robinson was about to yield the floor for Clinton's response, he offered her a bit of wiggle room. “Even if you say civil marriage isn't as important as equal benefits, in my mind I don't care what you call it,” he concluded. “But I need the same things that everyone does so I can sustain my family.”

It was at this point that the senator stated her support for “full equality of benefits, nothing left out,” before saying that civil unions offered the more certain route to that goal.

“If you go the next step and say, 'But I want what is called marriage,' you're going to have a problem.”

Following up, Allen Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, worked to hold Clinton's feet to the fire. Recalling a conversation he had with her during her first Senate campaign, Roskoff said, “It was right after you said that you were against same-sex marriage on moral, religious, and traditional grounds and I found that incredibly hurtful.” He also criticized the senator for volunteering her support for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, even if not asked, and for not speaking during the Senate marriage amendment debate in June regardless of the work she did behind the scenes.

Clinton offered Roskoff some consolation regarding her earlier characterizations of marriage's history as an exclusively heterosexual institution, an argument that she made in an interview with this reporter as well during the 2000 campaign.

“Obviously my friends and people who spoke to me-we've had many long conversations and I think-and which I believe-that the way that I have spoken and I have advocated has certainly evolved and I am happy to be educated and to learn as much as I can,” she said.

Clinton went on to defend both DOMA and her decision not to speak during the marriage amendment debate this past June, and in fact linked the two. She said that without being able to point to the U.S. law which bars federal recognition of gay marriage and allows states to similarly refuse to acknowledge such unions from other states, many more members of Congress would have voted to amend the Constitution, especially when that effort had its first vote two years ago.

She explained that her choice not to speak on the Senate floor about the amendment this year was strategic. “Very few Democrats spoke, because maybe you thought one way, which is that you want people out there speaking for us. We thought as-force the Republicans out there, make them look like they're trying to enshrine discrimination in the Constitution. We don't even want to dignify it.”

Later in the discussion, Larry Moss, who as a Democratic state committeeman led the charge for the state party's endorsement of marriage equality, raised the issue with specific reference to politics in Albany. Noting that Spitzer, if elected governor, plans to introduce a “program bill” legalizing gay marriage as a sign of his commitment to the issue, Moss asked, “How do we keep your words from being cover for conservative Democrats who want to compromise with Eliot and say, 'Just do civil unions?'”

Clinton's response was probably the evening's most newsworthy moment.

“My position is consistent,” she said. “I support states making the decision. I think that Chuck Schumer would say the same thing. And if anyone ever tried to use our words in any way, we'll review that. Because I think that it should be in the political process and people make a decision and if our governor and our Legislature support marriage in New York, I'm not going to be against that… So I feel very comfortable with being able to refute anybody who tries to pit us or pit me against Eliot.”

Asked several moments later by Gary Parker, the Greater Voices leader who chaired the meeting, to clarify that point, Clinton reiterated, “I am not going to speak out against, I'm not going to oppose anything that the governor and the Legislature do.”

No other issue raised during the gathering garnered the heat that marriage did. Clinton spoke passionately against what she said was the injustice, waste, and stupidity of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that has led to 10,000 discharges in the past 13 years, including some involving personnel with specialized skills such as language translation. The senator won praise from several at the meeting for her work in blocking Senate approval of a Ryan White AIDS Care Act reauthorization that would mean the loss of millions in federal dollars to New York each year. Asked by Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist who is a former president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, if she would support the inclusion of gender identity and expression protections in the long-stalled federal employment nondiscrimination act, or ENDA, Clinton noted that the federal hate crimes measure also lacks such language, but said only, “We are very aware of that and we are raising that.”

Asked about a measure authored by West Side Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler that would allow immigrant partners of Americans to gain citizenship just as foreign-born married spouses can, Clinton said movement on that awaits a comprehensive solution to the immigration issue that moves beyond the current Republican emphasis on penalties and border fences. With a Democratic Congress, Clinton said, much more is possible “and I think that will be included in it.”

Only at the very end of the meeting did Clinton get around to foreign policy, the Iraq War, and what she called the Bush administration's “abuse of power.”

“I think they put Nixon to shame,” she said, in what was an indisputable crowd-pleaser.