Reflections on Marriage and Clinton

Terry Gross's interview of Hillary Clinton on NPR is getting some press, because of a length exchange in which Terry Gross pressed Hillary Clinton for an answer as to whether or not she had "evolved" on the issue of same-sex marriage, or whether she had been in favor of it much longer, but didn't take a stand for political reasons.  After several exchanges, the picture emerged of an evolving perspective on Clinton's part. 

Clinton said:
Were there activists who were ahead of their time?  Well that was true in every human rights and civil rights movement, but the vast majority of Americans were just waking up to this issue and beginning to think about it, and grasp it for the first time, and think about their neighbor down the street who deserved to have the same rights as they did, or their son, or their daughter. It has been an extraordinarily fast, by historic terms social, political, and legal transformation and we ought to celebrate that instead of plowing old ground when in fact a lot of people, the vast majority of people, have been moving forward.  
And then a bit later she said:
“I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you did either. This was an incredible new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay right movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others about the rightness of that position. When I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”

Hillary's painting the picture of a world where only the most vocal and "front lines" of advocates were for marriage equality in 1996 made me think, as another heterosexual female, "When did I decide same-sex marriage should be legal?"  I wasn't, by any means, a "front line" advocate on any issue in 1996.  How does my own timeline compare to hers on this issue?

Now, I'm quite a bit younger than Hillary Clinton, so I think I came later to this issue in terms of dates than I would have as an older adult who might have been thinking about the issue a decade before me.  But truly, I can't remember not believing in same-sex marriage.  I can, however, remember a time when I probably hadn't thought about it at all.  I know it was an issue I never even thought about in high school.  I wasn't even really aware of the gay rights movement, as far as I can remember, until I got to college.  The first time I can remember arguing with someone about LGBT rights was with my friends in about fall of 1990 -- my junior year in college -- when I had my first couple of close friends who were out as bisexual.  But I don't really remember any discussions we were having on marriage specifically.  I was more focused on AIDS awareness and domestic violence as the issues I was working on. 

Bill Clinton's first term was the second presidential election I got to vote for as an adult.  He was elected just after I finished college.  At that time, some of my friends weren't "out" yet, and I didn't have many LGBT friends that I knew of, only a couple. 

After college, I took a couple of years off from school, and was not terribly active in any social justice causes during those years, although I do remember that my mother was starting to get involved in LGBT advocacy.  My mother, for the record, is just slightly older than Hillary Clinton.  Their college years overlap. My mother and I talked about it a lot during the next couple of years, as I entered graduate school.  My mother was in seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and involved in a GLSEN group there.  She was vocal enough about LGBT rights, including ordination, that her local Methodist church refused to endorse her for the ministry, and her ministerial career was stalled.  (I'll explain some other time how it is that my mom was a Methodist seminarian at this point, but who raised me UU.)  In graduate school, my number of LGBT friends increased dramatically, and I remember being more strongly an LBGT advocate, to the point where my Dad, as I remember it, sat me down to assure me that if I was a lesbian they would still love me. During that time, I remember I attended my congregation's Welcoming Congregation workshops and was a strong supporter of that process.

DOMA was signed by Bill Clinton in September 1996, which was the same fall I entered seminary.  I can't remember if it was before then or at that point, when I was close to getting engaged myself and also considering performing weddings, that I started to believe so strongly in same-sex marriage.  It's the same with LGBT rights in general -- I can't remember not supporting them, and I can't remember when the issue first came to mind for me, but I'm pretty sure I supported it the instant it occurred to me that it was something to support.  But I do know by the time I entered Meadville Lombard in 1996, I was solidly in favor of same-sex marriage, but hadn't done any real advocacy work on the issue.  By the time Peter and I got married in 1999, we personally spent a lot of time discussing whether we ought to get married at all with same-sex marriage not legal.  I performed my first same-sex marriage during my internship in the spring of 2000, and my second that summer while doing summer ministry in Rockford, IL.  So you could say that from my first being aware of the issue of gay rights until the time I performed my first same-sex marriage, a dozen years had passed, during which I had evolved from awareness to advocacy to direct involvement. 

By 2002, newly in the ministry, I was writing articles, sermons, and taking stands on same-sex marriage, as well as doing direct lobbying on the issue.  In 2003, I stopped signing licenses in Massachusetts until same-sex marriage was legalized there.  That year I performed the wedding of a friend who hadn't been out to me (or anyone) when we were college roommates a dozen years before.  And in 2004, when we got marriage equality in Massachusetts, I happily performed many ceremonies before moving to Michigan, where we promptly banned marriage equality that fall.  When Obama was elected in 2008, I wasn't a fan at him at first, for two reasons.  One was that he wasn't in favor of same-sex marriage, and the other was that I thought his healthcare plan didn't go far enough.  Of course, Hillary Clinton wasn't in favor of same-sex marriage, either, yet.  But some candidates did -- Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.  Edwards was saying during the campaign that he was "conflicted" while his wife publicly said she supported it.  Hilary was perhaps the most hampered from coyly suggesting support, tied as she was to her husband's passing of DOMA.  After he was in office, Obama began "evolving" (2010) on the issue. 

In the end, I think if Clinton is accurate in saying that "When I was ready to say what I said, I said it," then she was very late to the game in terms of opening her mind.  She announced her support of same-sex marriage in 2013 at the point where fully half the people in polls were saying they did, too.  She didn't evolve with the second lines or even third lines of supporters.  She didn't evolve when progressives and mainstream liberals were evolving.  Her support came after most liberals, half the moderates, and some conservatives were supporting it.  To put it in perspective, the month Clinton announced her support for same-sex marriage we had the first Republican U.S. senator announcing support, too, and by the end of that spring, we had three Republican U.S. senators.  But at this point, is it more respectable for her to say she waited to announce her support for political reasons, which she denies, or to have evolved so slow?  

What I can say, is I wasn't a front-liner on this issue.  And as woman legally married to a man, I wasn't called into this issue by my own necessity.  But I had been performing same-sex weddings for over a dozen years by the time Hillary Clinton decided she could support the idea.  From my perspective, she was about a decade late of where I would have hoped a national leader would be.  And so I'm rather happy Terry Gross pushed her on the issue and brought it into the national spotlight. 


Tim Cravens said…
She didn't just fail to support same-sex marriage -- in 2000, while running to replace Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of only 14 senators to vote against DOMA, she said she would have voted for DOMA, and made her infamous statement that "marriage is as marriage always has been, between one man and one woman" (thus proving her biblical illiteracy as well as her anti-gay views, obviously unaware of the prevalence of polygamy in the Hebrew Scriptures).

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