Originally published on Broadly / Vice. Read the original here.
Perhaps the most ironic part of Hillary Clinton's Nancy Reagan gaffe following the first Lady's death earlier this month, is that by all accounts, Clinton's work around HIV / AIDS is the strongest part of her record on what are broadly considered LGBTQ issues – even stretching back to her time in Arkansas.
Both on her own and as part of global power couple 'Billary,' Clinton has often been at the forefront of national and international-level HIV politics—publicly expressing her support for people with AIDS throughout her time as First Lady; pushing to preserve Ryan White Funding for states hit hardest by the AIDS crisis while she was in the Senate; using her pulpit at the State Department to work towards an "AIDS-free generation;" and working with the Clinton Foundation to push companies to make generic, affordable AIDS drugs. She may not have been on the ground at protests in the 1980s, but as mainstream national politicians go, that's about as good as a record gets.
But Clinton's broader history with the LGBTQ community is a hot button issue in a primary season that has become a referendum on the Democratic candidates' progressive bonafides.
For the first time in history, Democrats have fielded two credible primary candidates who are willing to admit publicly that same-sex marriage should be legal; that firing people simply for being transgender should be illegal; and that so-called "religious freedom acts" should not be used to create a backdoor to discrimination. One has a long and checkered history to examine; the other comes with less baggage (and fewer successes) to take into account. It's like living in a town with one gay bar—when a new one opens shop, you suddenly have to decide how you felt about the original one all along. When it comes to Hillary, activists, policy makers, and pol-watchers across the queer left are sharply divided around the question.
"She deserves to be ruthlessly examined," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist and Clinton supporter, whose work with ACT-UP's Treatment Action Group was immortalized in the documentary How to Survive a Plague. In his opinion, even actions taken by her husband while president—like the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell— are on the table when considering Hillary. "She wasn't in the kitchen at the White House picking the china. They were very much a policy partnership during those eight years."
Their history on DoMA, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, is indefensible despite recent revisionist attempts by both Clintons to position it as an effort to forestall a potential Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage entirely. DoMA enshrined discrimination as federal policy and should be looked on as a black mark in our nation's history. If Clinton is going to apologize to the LGBT community for anything, this should be high up the list.
But while he called her conversion on marriage "disappointingly slow," Staley says that our 20/20 hindsight has blinded us to Don't Ask, Don't Tell's original purpose, which was to allow gays into the military at all. "Some of the grays [the Clintons] were dealing with," Staley says, "are completely lost on a new generation." Still and all, DADT prompted a huge increase in dishonorable discharges for LGBT service members, and while the nuanced considerations that led to the policy's creation should be taken into account, so too should it's overall failure.
Documents from the Clinton administration, released in the last two years, offer interesting insights, but no clear picture as to Hillary's thoughts on these and other LGBT matters. Behind the scenes, the First Lady's staff (unsuccessfully) pushed the White House to vet an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation (the same order that President Obama would eventually sign in 2014). At the same time, she sidestepped responding directly to letters about same-sex marriage, and seemed to try to avoid having a clear opinion on the issue at all.
This kind of triangulation, obstructionism, and opacity are exactly what Clinton detractors point to when discussing her history on LGBTQ rights. "Her choices are often made based on what's politically expedient for her at the moment," says Jim Morrison, the host of For & Against, a progressive political talk show on LGBT issues. He called it the "51% strategy," meaning that Clinton only comes out in favor of LGBT issues when it's safe, or when 51% of the country is already in agreement. Far from being a leader around these concerns, he says, "she's been a follower – when she hasn't been actively working against them." In particular, he returned to her glacially slow embrace of same-sex marriage, which she only came out in full favor of in 2013.
Even some of her biggest supporters, like Beth Shipp (the Executive Director of LPAC, the "lesbian political power" PAC that endorsed Clinton early last year), agree that her stance on marriage was, at best, disappointing. "We were paid lip service, I will say that, by democratic establishment candidates for a very long time," she says. However, she continued, "I believe in their heart of hearts that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and a whole host of progressive candidates worked for equality behind the scenes."
This is a commonly expressed sentiment among LGBT supporters of Clinton (and Obama), that underneath it all, they believed in equality much more than they could publicly express. Yet when Terry Gross pushed Clinton to say exactly that in a 2014 interview on NPR, Clinton insisted that wasn't the case; that she had been against same-sex marriage until 2013; and that what we had seen was her very real, very public "evolution" on the issue.
For Staley, the later part of her career also carries more weight than her actions in the '90s and early 2000s. He pointed to her 2011 speech in Geneva, in which she proclaimed that "gay rights are human rights," as a watershed moment in international LGBT politics. Although it's hard to measure the impact these kinds of declarations have, it was interpreted as a major policy shift by media outlets around the world.
With that speech, Clinton also launched the Global Equality Fund "to support programs that advance the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons." As of 2015, it had given out more than $20 million to LGBT rights groups around the world.
Yet even during her time as Secretary of State there were squirrely moments that would give any LGBT activist pause. Emails released in 2015 showed that when a member of Clinton's staff changed forms for overseas parents to read "parent 1" and "parent 2" (as opposed to "mother" and "father"), Clinton was very upset.
"I'm not defending that decision, which I disagree [with] and knew nothing about, in front of this Congress," she wrote. "I could live [with] letting people in nontraditional families choose another descriptor so long as we retained the presumption of mother and father."
"It seemed like an example of her looking out for herself," trying to avoid censure from the right, regardless of what was right, says Morrison.
On the whole, Clinton's history adds up to a whole lot of evidence, but no set narrative. Some activists, tired of endless attempts to read the murky tea leaves of her stance on LGBT issues, have attempted to shift the frame of the discussion entirely. The real issue, they contend, isn't Clinton's history on a few narrow issues like same-sex marriage, rather, it's with how we define the very idea of "LGBT rights."
In discussing Clinton's record, writer and activist Darnell Moore invokes a word recently taken up by Clinton herself: intersectionality. Coined by legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality focuses on the unique experience created by overlapping, inseparable identities. A straight black woman, for example, will experience racism in a different way from her lesbian sisters, because of her sexuality.
A politics of intersectionality, Moore believes, requires a broader frame of investigation than what we traditionally label gay issues. LGBTQ people are more likely to live in poverty than straight people; this should be a queer issue. Trans people, queer people of color, and queer youth are overly incarcerated; this should be a queer issue. He points to the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of real intersectional queer politics.
"Here is a movement that is very much animated by the real life presence of queer and trans people of color," he pointed out. "We're concerned about LGBT rights, yeah? But we know that those concerns cannot be separated from concerns for racial justice, for economic justice, for a million things."
For Moore, it's a matter of where we place the emphasis in our organizing. Should queer politics be built from the center, focusing on solely those issues that could, theoretically, affect everyone in the community – like same sex marriage? Or should we begin from the margins, building a political movement whose aim is to protect everyone, but especially the most vulnerable members of the community?
"The path of critique I'm trying to offer can be applied across all candidates," Moore was quick to point out. In his eyes, a politics truly rooted in the experiences of a broad spectrum of LGBTQ folks – brown, female, young, black, old, trans, cis, etc. – has yet to emerge in the Democratic primary.
To the degree that the primary has tacked in that direction, however, Moore is thankful – mostly to the disruptors who have dragged the candidates to talk about these issues, but also to the candidates themselves.
"I don't know if it's so easy as she did some good things and some bad things," he says, offering a final evaluation of Clinton from an intersectional perspective. "I think it's all of those at once."
All of those things at once—the good and the bad, the pandering and the advocating, the triangulation and the triumphs; this is the record that Hillary Clinton has to run on. The question of whether she is good or bad on LGBT rights might simply come down to which you weigh more, the gaffe or the apology, the promises for the future or the failures in the past.