Hillary and Bill Clinton, headed into the 2016 election, have to deal with what they did in the nineties. Many people have this problem. Senator McCain regularly acts as if he didn’t do what we know he did.
Hillary was asked this past week about her views on marriage equality—she was famously against it during the election in 2008—and whether it could be said that she changed or the American public changed. In her interview with Terri Gross, Hillary says, “I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you probably did either. This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly but surely convinced others of the rightness of that position.” The trouble with this—none of us even thought about it until a few people led the way—is that it leaves out the moral consequences of a person’s failure. Everybody has seen pictures of the couples who are finally allowed to get married, couples who have been together twenty or thirty years, and have been legally prevented from federal marriage rights in the eighteen years since DOMA was passed and signed by Bill Clinton. Children have grown up to adulthood without ever having married parents. Gay families—parents and children—have been denied all financial benefits that the federal government makes them entitled to. After DOMA was enacted, states had the right to enact what Justice Bader Ginsberg called “marriage lite” but the presence of DOMA made it extremely unlikely that any state would pass legislation that opened up marriage to full equality. DOMA was very seriously injurious to every single GLBTQ person. It was a stigma which GLBTQ people carried. Even if you want to get married, you can’t. Hillary Clinton was implicated in all this, and consequently she has an obligation to acknowledge it. If a person doesn’t do the right thing, it is incumbent upon that person to acknowledge that her failure has serious consequences no matter how good her excuses. Doing the right thing now is insufficient if she doesn’t also acknowledge her past.
The public consensus on marriage equality is changing fast, and many people are caught in the situation Hillary is caught in. As a kindness to everybody else in her predicament, Hillary ought to show us all how to do it. She should say this: “I was wrong in the nineties about marriage equality and about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and about DOMA. That hurt many people seriously. My thinking has evolved since then, led largely by the leaders of the GLBTQ movement.”
I can vote for Hillary Clinton. But I do want her to get her thinking straight about this. The lives of many Americans have been seriously damaged because of what she and her husband did in the nineties, and that ought to be acknowledged. We ought to hear her say, “Yes, I did that. That hurt people. That was wrong.”
Having said that, she would then be completely free to say, “I can now say, I am completely committed to marriage equality.” And I would be free to vote for her.