The Tale of the Tape: Hillary Clinton's Gay Marriage Evolution

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A cassette tape from 2000.

The other night, Hillary Clinton sat down for an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, one of the nation’s most famous lesbian broadcasters. About two-thirds of the way in, a sore subject came up — President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, as it's called. The act banned federal benefits for gay partners and prevented states from recognizing other states' gay marriages.

Leaning in a bit, Clinton confided her husband had signed DOMA to prevent something worse — a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. "Occasionally I would, you know, chime in and talk about, 'You can’t be serious. You can’t be serious,'" Clinton said. "But they were. And so, in a lot of ways, DOMA was a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further."

"It was a defensive action?" Maddow offered. "A defensive action," Clinton affirmed.

Within 24 hours, Bernie Sanders was seizing on those words during a campaign stop in Iowa.  

"Now today, some are trying to rewrite history by saying they voted for one anti-gay law to stop something worse." Sanders parried to the large Democratic crowd. "That’s not the case. There was a small minority in the House opposed to discriminating against our gay brothers and sisters and I am proud that I was one of those members." The audience roared in support.

This dispute over the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is Hillary vs. Bernie in a nutshell. Is it better to go all in, at every moment in history, or is it better to pull your punches sometimes, for a larger good? Can you trust Hillary Clinton to do what she believes, or will she only do what is politically expedient?

I lived through the actual debate on the Defense of Marriage Act, the one in Congress, where the proponents spent months loudly warning of the dangers of pedophilia, incest, and other abuses they thought gay marriage would usher in. It was a particularly painful time — I was a reporter at the New York Observer covering the 1996 campaign, and an out lesbian. I remembered the whole episode as a nasty punch in the gut. The bill passed both houses with gigantic margins.

Then President Bill Clinton, an avowed gay rights supporter, signed it.

"Oh it was horrible," said Elizabeth Birch, who was head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay group. "We were furious. It was devastating." 

After the tiny state of Hawaii began making noises about legalizing gay marriage, the idea for a federal bill emerged. "This came out of research from the Republican National Committee to separate Democrats from their natural constituency," Birch recalled. "They were looking for a way to drive a deep poison-piercing wedge between President Clinton and the Democratic constituency that are LGBT and that issue was so potent it ended up being used for a decade."

The Republicans had assumed Clinton would veto the bill at a time when only 27% of Americans supported gay marriage. The bill passed two months before election day, and Republicans were hoping Clinton's opposition would be used to drive up Republican turnout. As late as 2004, support of gay marriage bans was a potent Republican tool in general elections.

But Clinton signed the bill. "It was a difficult day," Clinton's openly gay White House adviser, Richard Socarides, told me. "But there’s a lot at stake in a presidential election. It was not a tough choice: do you want the guy who is signing this reluctantly because he feels he has to protect his political flank, or do you want to, by your inaction, help elect the person who’s proposing it?"

So Bill Clinton signed the bill, and won handily over Bob Dole.

Four years later, I found myself covering Hillary Clinton’s run for U.S. Senate in New York, the birthplace of the gay rights movement. And her views on DOMA were a lingering mystery.

Hillary was still unpacking boxes in Chappaqua when she held her first extended question-and-answer session with reporters in a cold January day. The first question was about a custody dispute involving a Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez. The second was mine: If she were a senator, would she vote for DOMA?

"The Defense of Marriage Act has already been before the Senate," Clinton pushed back. "What I’m concerned about is what’s going to happen at the state level." She went on to express her support for partnership benefits, not marriage. I pressed. Did you agree with Mr. Clinton on DOMA or not?

"He was against it, yeah, I agree with that. But it's moot. It’s already been through the Senate." Then The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and I shot back. "But he signed it. He signed it."

"He signed it," Clinton agreed. "But he signed it because it was something the Congress said, 'Take it or leave it. You’re going to have to do it.' They would have passed it over his veto."

Listening back to that tape — recorded on a long-gone cassette recorder — it's hard to believe how many questions Clinton took on the issue, until she eventually cried uncle. "I would have voted for it at that time but I think to go back and talk about DOMA now something that is divisive."

So then, why was she against gay marriage? 

Here's the part of her answer that later became famous. "Because I believe marriage means something different. Marriage is about a historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been between a man and a woman."

To be fair, at the time, not one major elected official in either party supported gay marriage, including Bernie Sanders.

Clinton won her election and — still stopping short of marriage — became a vigorous defender of gay rights. By her 2006 re-election campaign, the love was palpable. At the gay pride parade that year, she was a rock star. One man ran up tor her shouting, "I love you! I’ve been wanting to meet you for so long you have no idea!"

In 2008, during her first run for president, pretty much all the Democrats, including Barack Obama, were for civil unions and against same sex marriage. It wasn’t until the following year, 2009 that Bernie Sanders came out publicly and affirmatively for gay marriage — just as his own state was making it legal.

That’s right about when Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was equating gay rights with human rights, all over the world.

Then she resigned, and a month later, March 2013, she came out in support of same sex marriage. In a lengthy exchange, Terry Gross, of NPR's Fresh Air, grilled her over her shift. Here’s an excerpt.

GROSS: Just to clarify — just one more question on this. Would you say your view evolved since the 90’s or that the American public evolved allowing you to state your real view?

CLINTON: I think I’m American, and I think we have all evolved its been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations that I’m aware of.

GROSS: No, I understand that, but a lot of people already believed that back in the 90’s.

CLINTON: But not that. To be fair, Terry, not that many. 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.

GROSS: I just want to clarify so I can understand —

CLINTON: No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify I think you are trying to say that you know I used to be opposed and now I'm in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong, so let me just state what I feel like you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue and I am proud of what I've done and the progress we are making, and when I was ready to say what I said I said it.

GROSS: Ok, thank you for clarifying that. 

Whatever she thought before, now Hillary is all in. Her announcement video, back in April, included a gay couple. When she announced her campaign on Roosevelt Island, she mentioned gay marriage three times. A month later, she released a tearjerker of a video featuring gay couples declaring their love.

"This progress was not easily won," Clinton said over soaring music. "People fought and campaigned in public squares and in private spaces to change not only laws, but hearts and minds."

Today, Elizabeth Birch, the 1990’s gay rights leader who felt so betrayed by Bill Clinton, has nothing but praise for Hillary Clinton. "Despite the back and forth on this particular issue, Hillary Clinton has emerged as one of the most powerful global voices on LGBT rights and at the end of the day what matters is now," Birch said.

Nine days after the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, I married my partner of 27 years. A week later, back from the festivities, there I was covering Hillary yet again, at a speech in Manhattan. Afterwards, I went down to record her conversations as she shook hands after the speech, as I frequently do. Usually, I’m ignored.

But the candidate turned towards me, and called, clearly, into my microphone... "Hey Andrea! Congratulations on your marriage! That is so great!"