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“The money is pouring in,” says David Mixner, who organized the gala through the L.A.-based Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality (ANGLE). “It is not a hard sell.”
“Every gain we have made since 1992 can be erased with the stroke of a pen,” frets David Elliot, spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Adds Torie Osborn, executive director of Liberty Hill Foundation, an L.A.-based progressive organization, “We either build on what we’ve achieved with Clinton, or we go back to spending our time fighting a real enemy and re-creating the goddamn wheel.”
Osborn witnessed how gay and lesbian political life changed inexorably on May 18, 1992, in the Hollywood Palladium. In his first campaign for the presidency, Bill Clinton actually embraced each of the 700 or so gays and lesbians in attendance. During the days leading up to the fund-raiser, Osborn, then executive director of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, had been “exhaustingly skeptical” -- that is, until Clinton walked onstage and looked her in the eyes. “If I had a magic wand and could cure AIDS,” he said to the rapt crowd, “I would give up this campaign in a second.” She heard a collective intake of breath and then some muffled sobs, including her own. “He became the accepting father we never had. We gave him all the financial, political and moral support we could.”
This blind grasp for approval proved to be the gay community‘s Achilles’ heel. While videotapes of Clinton‘s L.A. speech could be seen playing in gay bars throughout the country, so-called “close” gay “Friends of Bill,” such as Los Angeles’ Mixner, grew increasingly irate when Clinton, soon after he was elected president, turned out to be a worse-than-typical Judas on major policy issues. Despite the seeming naivete that led Mixner and Clinton into pushing Congress too fast on the gays-in-the-military issue, Clinton‘s compromise position -- “Don’t Ask, Don‘t Tell” -- resulted only in more serious harassment of gay and lesbian servicepeople than before. Furthermore, Clinton proved unable to push the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) through Congress to make it illegal to fire a gay person for being gay. As it now stands, only 11 states have laws protecting gays against job discrimination; in 39 others, it is perfectly legal to hang a sign saying, “Gays Need Not Apply.”
To make matters worse, anticipating political catastrophe in his own party during the upcoming 1996 election, a humbled Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a federal law that mandated that marriage could only be considered as taking place between a man and a woman. “It was not one of Clinton’s finest moments,” grouses the Task Force‘s Elliot.
These failures look good in comparison to Bush’s record, because Clinton did at least some good in terms of opening his administration to gays. For that reason, gays and lesbians are realizing that when they vote for a president, they‘re also voting for all branches of government. “Clinton brought gays and lesbians in unprecedented numbers into his administration,” says Gwenn Baldwin, executive director of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. “He brought us into the Department of Justice, into the Department of Housing and Urban Development, into the Office of AIDS, into Health and Human Services -- you name it, there was someone gay andor lesbian in almost every major division.”
So much of federal policy is made outside of the legislative bodies that gays are taking a fresh look at the incremental gains won through executive actions. Clinton, for example, issued executive orders forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal civilian workplaces. Would George W. Bush do that? Clinton was the first president to have a formal liaison, Julian Potter, to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. Would Bush do that? President Clinton appointed openly gay James Hormel to the ambassadorship to Luxembourg. Would Bush do that? Clinton repealed differential treatment in security clearance for people who hold federal positions. Would Bush do that? Clinton ordered federal officials to include gay and lesbian issues in surveys a of national health problems. Would Bush do that? Elliot’s answer: “Hell, no.”
None of what Clinton did for gays has any lasting power if Gore loses. The failure to translate the gay community‘s crush on Clinton (and especially Hillary) into solid legislation has as much to do with Clinton’s ability to sweet-talk as it does with the failure of gay leaders to push their agenda. (Sometimes gay leaders are more concerned with trying to assimilate into the heterosexual power structure in this country than with accentuating their innate and special differences.) “We failed to capitalize on our unprecedented access by allowing ourselves to get ‘mainstreamed,’” argues Vaid, who directs the Task Force‘s Policy Institute in New York.
“Before Clinton, we were outsiders pushing as hard as we could on the door barring government access to us. Suddenly, the door opened and we came tumbling through, so giddy that we failed to convert access to power into material and lasting gains for our community, and now we’re vulnerable to the worst.”