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Watch: No DOMA Apology as Clinton Accepts GLAAD Award, Why That's Painful

Watch: No DOMA Apology as Clinton Accepts GLAAD Award, Why That's Painful

by Karen Ocamb on April 21, 2013

The 24th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the JW Marriott in Los Angeles Saturday night were fun and inspiring, especially the truly kick-ass acceptance speech by entertainment attorney Steve Warren as he accepted the Stephen F. Kolzak Award from Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron. I knew Stephen and I think he would have been thrilled. I’ll have more on that with photos later. But I need first to write about my experience watching former President Bill Clinton accept GLAAD’s first Advocate for Change award. (See video below)

Earlier in the day, Clinton campaigned for LA Controller Wendy Greuel as she seeks to become this city’s first woman mayor in the May 21 election. News reports show Clinton   as the rock star campaigner we’ve come to expect over the years and I think some of us expected to see the old politico who made arithmetic cool at the Democratic National Convention take the stage at the GLAAD Awards.  There was some of that after he donned his glasses and assumed a bit of the professorial mode. But Clinton seemed old and tired, even as he joked about it.

“I don’t know why Harvey made Jennifer do that,” Clinton said, referring to powerhouse producer Harvey Weinstein and how actress Jennifer Lawrence flubbed Clinton’s name during the introduction.  ”She really was like 2-years-old when I became president. I met her backstage and she looked like she was touring the Museum of Natural History.”

At times, though, Clinton seemed almost frail, as if accepting the GLAAD award was a swan song to the gays that he was doing as a favor for his very gay-friendly daughter Chelsea.  

Being honored for evolving enough to come out in support of marriage equality and advocating for the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act seemed to many of us like the perfect occasion to finally apologize for signing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA.  He did note that he wished Edie Windsor could have been there and acknowledged attorney David Boies in the audience – Windsor’s case against DOMA and Boies’ case (with Ted Olson) challenging Prop 8 are now in the hands of the Supreme Court. 

“I believe you will win the DOMA fight, and I think you will win the Constitutional right to marry. If not tomorrow, then the next day or the next day,” said Clinton, simultaneously wishing us good news and offering support if the wish is unfulfilled.

But from the minute he hit the stage, expectations were high – especially as he talked about DOMA.  “You signed it!” someone shouted out from the back of the packed ballroom. For a moment, it looked like Clinton registered the complaint – he’s dealt with so many hecklers over the years (his famous line “I feel your pain” was in response to an ACT UP heckler) and has been so applauded since he left office, perhaps he thought he could escape being insulted this final time. But, no. So he went on, hardly skipping a beat. “I want to keep working on this until not only DOMA is no longer the law of the land, but until all people, no matter where they live, can marry the people they love,” Clinton said.

Later, he seemed back to his old self, laughing off the heckler with one line: “I’m getting this award tonight because I was the object of your affections – or not, as the case may be.”

Clinton began and ended his remarks almost humbly, talking about how the award actually belonged to the people in the audience. “You have helped me come to the place where I am today. That’s why you are the true agents of change,” he said, adding the accurate and interesting point that while so much effort has been put into securing marriage equality, little has been done on trying to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  “I supported and tried to pass ENDA without success. We still need to pass that. We still need to fight bullying and we need the right kind of immigration reform that doesn’t discriminate against anybody” – the latter mention earning a round of applause.

In closing, like the proud father he is, Clinton talked about how Chelsea has had “a profound impact in many ways on the way I see the world.” There was a sweetness to him as he credited Chelsea with his evolution on marriage equality.

“Chelsea and her gay friends and her wonderful husband have modeled to me how we should all treat each other regardless of our sexual orientation or any other artificial difference that divides us,” Clinton said. “Many of them come and join us every Thanksgiving for a meal. I have grown very attached to them. And over the years, I was forced to confront the fact that people who oppose equal rights for gays in the marriage sphere are basically acting out of concerns for their own identity, not out of respect for anyone else.”

That was something of a head-scratcher. Was he talking about himself or the Tony Perkins of the world? I would have loved to have asked him – but my requests for an interview were declined. As he finished, Chelsea came on stage, waving the award. They hugged very tightly as the audience rose and gave the pair a standing ovation. But as the show ended, I felt a kind of weird deflation. I turned to some of those around me: “Did you expect him to apologize for DOMA?” Yes, one person said quickly, the expression of disappointment wrestling with the simultaneous feeling “Yeah, but look at how much he did for us!”

To be fair, as I randomly canvassed strangers and people I knew asking the same question, the answers were essentially evenly divided between “Yes” and “No” with one attendee thinking Clinton had apologized in the way in which he spoke about the need for DOMA to be overturned. 

Driving home, I knew Clinton’s failure to offer an outright apology – which would have just raised the roof on the place – would be the lead of the piece on the GLAAD event. And I was surprised he didn’t say something significant about AIDS. But as the minutes ticked away, I kept going back to his comments about how Chelsea “modeled to me how we should all treat each other.” Now Chelsea’s great and Hillary – well, LGBT support for her is off the charts. But something was off, something was being revised, something was being wiped out.

By the time I got home, I was practically in tears with rage. Clinton’s sweet fatherly moment seemed to in an instant erase all the hard work, the agony, the love so many gays and people with HIV/AIDS had for him when he was just the long-winded Gov. of Arkansas running as a dark horse candidate for president in 1991/1992.  Here’s a clip of Clinton at the Palace in Hollywood – the first time a presidential candidate addressed a specifically gay audience, organized by ANGLE and HRC.  That was the Bill Clinton who went off script, waved his hand over the audience and said if he could, he would take away their pain. This was the Bill Clinton who said, “I have a dream and you’re a part of it.” The straight man from the South who thanked the gay community for fighting against AIDS and sharing that hard-earned knowledge with people who didn’t like them:

I just want to thank the gay and lesbian community for your courage and your commitment and your service in the face of the terror of AIDS. When no one was offering a helping hand when it was dark and lonely, you did not withdraw – but instead you reached out to others. And this whole nation has benefited already in ways most people cannot image from the courage and commitment and the sense of community that you practice. It was your community that created the first AIDS service organizations, who did the first important work in pioneering AIDS drugs. You sounded the alarm and created the first education programs. You stood strong in the face of all the governmental opposition and discrimination and killing silence. This nation owes you thanks for that. And I want to give you my thanks and my respect for that struggle today. 

After his remarks, Bob Hattoy (who later spoke as a person with AIDS at the Democratic National Convention) grabbed me and ACT UP’s Dan Levy to talk with Clinton as he left the building. He and Dan agreed on almost everything – except lifting the ban on federal funding for needle exchange.

That became a very big deal during Clinton’s presidency – many on his AIDS Commission resigned after he continued to refuse to lift the ban despite science and HHS’s Donna Shalala’s recommendation to do so. Dr. Scott Hitt  stayed on, though. It was at the house Hitt shared with his longtime partner Alex Koleszar that ANGLE – lead by Clinton’s anti-Vietnam War friend David Mixner – decided to endorse the long shot and raised $3.1 in early money for him and organized the first-ever gay voting bloc.

I don’t know if Clinton sent Alex a condolence note after Scott died (Alex still hasn’t recovered) but Hillary spoke at Bob Hattoy’s memorial in Washington DC. And both Bill and Hillary released a statement following Bob’s death in 2007 

“We have lost a pioneer, a leader and a friend,” former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York said in a joint statement released today.

“Bob Hattoy devoted his life to the fight for civil rights and social justice for the gay community and people living with AIDS,” the Clintons said. “We will always be grateful for his courageous and moving speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and, afterward, for his years of dedicated service in the administration. He gave hope to a community that feared their voice would never be heard at the highest levels of government.”

Did these gay people not “model” how we should all treat each other – or should we parse everything Clinton says in a political context? After all, Hattoy shares one paragraph with Elizabeth Glaser and Mixner is only mentioned once, fleetingly, in Clinton’s 957-page tome, “My Life.” I might have missed it, but I could find no reference of DOMA anywhere. On the other hand, in his 2009 interview with Anderson Cooper, Clinton said:

 So I said, you know, I realized that I was over 60 years old, I grew up at a different time, and I was hung up about the word….I had all these gay friends, I had all these gay couple friends, and I was hung up about it. And I decided I was wrong.

But saying you’re “wrong” is not the

same as saying, “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused.” And expecting a Clinton apology for DOMA is not uncalled for. After all, in 2002, he apologized for failing to lift the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs.  

Richard Socarides, former Clinton liaison to the LGBT community, wrote about the behind-the-scenes decision to sign DOMA, which Clinton then and now argued was to avoid a Republican-pushed federal amendment to the Constitution to ban marriage rights for same sex couples during Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. While a Hawaii marriage case was going through the courts, neither Socarides nor I remember the constitutional threat being that seriously realistic at the time. Of course, Karl Rove used it very effectively to turn out votes and win re-election for George W. Bush in 2004. But that was after Massachusetts had marriage rights actually in place.So the question is whether there was genuine concern about denying gay people their rights or concern about gays becoming a campaign issue.

And in an interview with the Huffington Post at the GLAAD Awards, longtime Clinton friend Mary Steenburgen suggested Clinton felt the pain of his decisions.

“Actually, (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) was a sorrow for him,” Steenburgen said. “So, I think he’s spent a large part of his life making up for that. But I tell you this: He’s never not had his heart in the right place, in terms of the gay community.”

But many of the Baby Boomer gays who survived the height of the AIDS crisis spent a large part of their lives enduring the discrimination of DADT and DOMA. And now that we are as old as Clinton – with or without supportive children – a simple apology for the legal morass and the indignity of official second class citizenship is not too much to ask before it’s too late.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Bedwell April 21, 2013 at 3:21 PM

We’re sad to see you selectively reshaping what former President Clinton did/did not do years ago without matching it with a Reality Check on what the CURRENT President has done/hasn’t done/is still refusing to do—you know the one who was for unequivocal marriage equality [1996] before he was against it [2007 before he was for partial marriage equality [2012] before he was for full marriage equality [2013]; the one who still hasn’t apologized for those political contortionas—nor to the some 700 more gays and lesbians he needlessly let be kicked to the curb between 2009 and 2011.

1. Not only were neither DOMA nor DADT Clinton’s creations, and while I wish he had SYMBOLICALLY vetoed them, his refusing to sign them would have done NOTHING to stop them. BOTH were passed by overwhelming veto-proof margins: DOMA by a vote of EIGHTY-FIVE to 14 in the Senate and a vote of THREE HUNDRED & FORTY-TWO to 67 in the House of Representatives. DADT passed the Senate by NINETY-TWO to 7, and the House, THREE HUNDRED & ONE to 134.

2. Worse still is your perpetuating the popular fiction that those bills CREATED such discrimination rather than simply codifying it. NO gay relationship of ANY kind was recognized by the federal government before DOMA. And some 100,000 gays and lesbians had been kicked out of the military before anyone ever heard of DADT. Clinton’s no more perfect than any human, but he did as much if not more with the current and Congress of his times than Mr. Obama has with his. Thank you.

Reply

Jason Dautel April 22, 2013 at 11:11 AM

I agree that a clear apology would be a sweet sentiment, but I think Mr. Clinton has made his current feelings on gay rights rather clear. We should be thankful for his present support, and for the fact that he, and many other elected officials, are changing their opinions about gay rights. Life is a process, and it is natural that our ideas and beliefs evolve as we learn from each other.

An outright apology would indicate that Clinton believes he made the wrong decisions when he was in office, and that he is currently ashamed of them. I don’t believe that this is the case, nor should it be. Back then, public support of gay rights was not nearly as strong as it is today. If he was as passionate about gay rights back then as he is at present (which he was not), the American people would not have stood behind him. If he had been more outspoken during the first term of his office, he would most likely not have been reelected for a second term. Even his most liberal advisors would have distanced themselves from him.

History must be put in the right perspective. When in office, Clinton brought about realistic changes for the better. We need to appreciate his efforts rather than criticizing him for not accomplishing what was then impossible.

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Marc April 22, 2013 at 12:18 PM

Karen Ocamb’s piece makes some activists look bad. You asked people to change their view and join the fight for equal rights and when they do so, you start whining and scolding them about their past views and actions. How is that helpful in advancing the current debate? As Michael Bedwell’s comment indicates, the environment in the 90’s was quiet hostile to gay rights and not putting Clinton’s policies in context is just disingenuous. Abraham Lincoln was in favor of slavery before leading the fight to free the slaves, it is okay to evolve and change position and those who have seen the error of their ways should be applauded not insulted.

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John Voelcker April 23, 2013 at 5:49 AM

I’m shocked by the three previous comments. I’d like each of the commenters to answer one simple question: What would it have cost Clinton to do the right thing and apologize for the hurt?

Sure, DoMA would have passed. Sure, DADT became the law of the land. And perhaps he made the right decisions in a broader context at the right time. But he’s a smart, savvy man, and he missed a huge opportunity to extend a hand to a group of people who worked their asses off for him only to be thrown under the bus when it was politically expedient.

My answer to the question above: It would have cost him nothing. And it would have been the right thing to do. The fact that he didn’t recognize that may mean time has passed him by even more than he acknowledged.

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