Socarides’ 1996 DOMA, Don’t Ask Talking Points

Gay Obama critic said he spoke out when he worked for Clinton, but ex-president’s papers suggest otherwise

When he worked in the Clinton White House, Richard Socarides authored debate preparation materials and talking points that defended the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

“The President has long opposed gay marriage based on his belief that the institution of marriage should be reserved for unions between one man and one woman,” Socarides wrote in a September 3, 1996 memo that he co-authored with George Stephanopoulos, a senior Clinton advisor. “The President strongly believes that gay and lesbian individuals should not be subject to unfair discrimination, which is why he has endorsed legislation outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace. But he does not believe that the federal government should promote gay marriages.”

The memo, titled “Same-Sex Marriage Talking Points” and labeled “Internal Use,” was written as the US Senate was preparing to debate and vote on DOMA, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allowed states to do the same. DOMA passed the House and Senate by overwhelming votes. Clinton signed it on September 21, 1996.

Socarides has emerged as a leading critic of the Obama administration, most recently publishing a June 25 editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled “Obama Is Missing in Action on Gay Rights” and appearing on MSNBC, the cable news channel, on June 27 to chastise the White House.

Gay bloggers, notably Michael Petrelis, who has been very critical of the Obama administration, pointed out that Socarides worked for the president who championed and signed the legislation that Socarides is now using to flail the Obama administration. The suspicion is that Socarides may have an agenda — such as weakening Obama among gay voters to help a 2012 presidential aspirant, a suggestion he specifically refuted to Gay City News — in addition to advancing the gay community’s interests.

In a June 29 email that Petrelis posted on, Socarides defended his tenure in the Clinton White House.

“I urged Clinton not to sign DOMA at the time, both publicly and privately,” he wrote. “I did everything I could to stop it. This is all part of the public record. I was not part of the WH policy group during DADT implementation but fought against it too, after I arrived. I have talked about all of this publicly, both then and now, including saying that Clinton was wrong, very wrong, even saying this when I worked for him.”

Gay City News searched multiple news databases and could find no record of Socarides publicly opposing DOMA or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell during that period. The September 3, 1996 memo went beyond opposing gay marriage and said the federal government should not recognize domestic partnerships.

“If asked about domestic partnerships or providing federal benefits to partners in gay and lesbian partnerships,” the memo read, White House staff should say, “These decisions are best left to state and local governments and private institutions. But since the President does not believe that the federal government should recognize gay marriage, he does not believe it is appropriate for scarce federal resources to be devoted to providing spousal benefits to partners in gay and lesbian relationships.”

Another memo, with a fax date stamp of October 4, 1996 and titled “Debate Talking Points: Gay and Lesbian Issues,” was authored by Socarides alone and supplied the president with answers to potential questions.

“You have said you oppose discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans, yet you signed legislation which would deny federal benefits to same-sex partners, even if they can be legally married where they reside. Isn't that a form of discrimination?” one question read.

“No, I don't think so and let me explain why,” was the answer. “First, I have long stated my personal belief against governmental recognition of same-sex marriage. Having said that, I don't believe we in America have a person to waste. Our country is bigger than that. I believe that all Americans — gay or straight — who are willing to work hard, pay their taxes, play by the rules, obey the law and be good citizens — should be treated fairly and have equal opportunities to prosper. No other president has taken more steps to bring gays and lesbians to the table. And despite my personal feelings about same-sex marriage, I don't think we as Americans should discriminate against anyone.”

On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Socarides wrote, “DO NOT talk about service members’ right to privacy in answering questions on gays in the military. This is insulting and demeaning to gay people. 2. Don’t say that you have been ‘pilloried’ for standing up for gays. 3. Remember that more gays have been discharged from the military under the ‘don't ask, don't tell’ policy than under the old policy. Allegations of ‘witch hunts’ are rampant — so much so that [Defense] Secretary [William] Perry has asked the DOD Inspector General to conduct a formal investigation. Moreover, at least one federal court has ruled the policy unconstitutional. Thus, the policy is not generally viewed as a success.”

Socarides suggested that a possible question was, “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 changing the policy again?”

Socarides’ answer was, “Few issues in recent times have spurred the kind of debate that occurred over our nation’s policy toward gays 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. I thinks [sic] it’s best to let those cases run there [sic] course and see what the results.”

On adoption by gay men and lesbians, Socarides recommended that Clinton adopt a neutral position, arguing that it should be left to the states to decide.

Gay City News sent the document, which was downloaded from the Clinton Library website, to Socarides and asked for comment. Via email, he told Gay City News that he has no involvement with the presidential aspirations of any potential challenger to Obama. “I am a Democrat,” he wrote. “I voted for President Obama and continue to support him on most issues.”