Would a President Hillary Clinton have made more progress on LGBT issues over the course of her first term as opposed to what we’ve seen under President Obama?
The secretary of state certainly stole the spotlight on LGBT issues when she gave a high-profile speech in Geneva earlier this month calling for an end to anti-gay abuses overseas and emphasizing her previously stated belief that gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.
“In our lifetimes, attitudes toward gay people in many places have been transformed,” Clinton said. “Many people, including myself, have experienced a deepening of our own convictions on this topic over the years, as we have devoted more thought to it, engaged in dialogues and debates, and established personal and professional relationships with people who are gay.”
MORE IN THE BLADE: WATCH THE HISTORIC GENEVA SPEECH
Clinton had a strong LGBT following in 2008 when she was competing against Obama for the Democratic nomination for president. There were many high-profile LGBT Clintonistas, although many of them became Obama supporters after he won the Democratic mantle.
Former members of Clinton’s 2008 LGBT steering committee praised her speech in Geneva, but noted that it took place as part of a coordinated effort under the Obama administration.
Elizabeth Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and a Clinton backer in 2008, said the Clinton speech was “bold and historic,” but wouldn’t have taken place if President Obama didn’t want it to happen.
“It was as deeply thoughtful and intelligent as Secretary Clinton herself,” Birch said. “But we all know that the secretary of state serves the president and our nation. This speech took place because this administration — including Secretary Clinton — wanted it to take place.”
Peter Rosenstein, a gay D.C. Democratic activist and 2008 Clinton delegate, noted Clinton’s speech followed Obama’s speech at the United Nations in which he became the first sitting president to mention gay rights in a speech before the full U.N. General Assembly.
“I think Hillary made a brilliant, heartfelt speech on LGBT rights but let us not forget that President Obama spoke out first at the United Nations on the need to protect gay and lesbian people around the world,” Rosenstein said.
But questions linger among some Clinton supporters over what progress the LGBT community would have seen if she had won the presidency.
Clinton’s LGBT advocacy in her role as secretary of state has been aggressive. Early on during the administration, Clinton instituted a change to offer equal benefits to same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers.
The change allowed same-sex partners to have access to diplomatic passports, use of medical facilities at posts overseas, medical and other emergency evacuation privileges, compensation for transportation between posts and training in security and languages.
The Obama administration has no seen no shortage of major advancements for the LGBT community. Notable among them is passage of hate crimes protection legislation, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the discontinuation of the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
Clo Ewing, an Obama campaign spokesperson, touted the president’s record in response to an inquiry on whether a President Clinton would have accomplished more than President Obama.
“President Obama’s administration has done more to advance LGBT equality than any other, accomplishing the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act into law and ending discrimination based on gender identity in the federal government,” Ewing said. “And if he’s reelected, that progress will continue.”
Still, many LGBT advocates are frustrated that Obama has yet to come out in support of same-sex marriage. Obama has said he could “evolve” to support marriage rights, but more than a year has passed since he made that statement and he has yet to do so.
Moreover, one major piece of legislation that Obama backed during his 2008 campaign continues to languish in Congress: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Passage would be difficult given the current makeup of Congress, but Obama in the interim could issue an executive order preventing federal dollars from going to contractors that don’t have their own non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in place for workers.
Lane Hudson, a gay D.C.-based Democratic activist and 2008 Clinton supporter, thinks she would have made more progress on ENDA and marriage if she were president.
“My gut tells me that Hillary would have evolved to a position supporting full marriage equality,” Hudson said. “While her speech in Geneva didn’t mention it specifically, I feel that it is implied in her statement that ‘gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
Hudson went to 10 states — including New Hampshire where Clinton won the primary — to campaign for the then-Democratic presidential candidate. He also served as host for LGBT-focused fundraisers in D.C.
Clinton, in her role as secretary of state, has continued to support civil unions as opposed to same-sex marriage. But, during a speech at the State Department this year commemorating June as Pride month, she praised the marriage law in New York, saying it, “gives such visibility and credibility to everything that so many of you have done over so many years.”
Still, she hasn’t endorsed marriage rights even as at least one other member of Obama’s cabinet has declared his personal support. Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Shaun Donovan expressed his support for same-sex marriage last month.
It’s difficult to say whether ENDA would be further along under a Clinton administration because employment protections haven’t been under her purview as secretary of state.
Still, Hudson said he believes Clinton would “have been more aggressive in helping to get ENDA passed into law.”
“Without question, Hillary would have been more successful at legislating,” Hudson said. “Not only does she have a solid record as a senator, but she would have been far more engaged with the Congress. ENDA didn’t even leave the House committee in the last Congress.”
But many prominent LGBT Clinton backers say they’re pleased with the Obama administration and she and the president have been working closely to advance LGBT issues.
Other former Clinton supporters were dubious that the secretary of state would have come out for marriage equality or guided ENDA to passage had she been elected president instead of Obama.
Hilary Rosen, a D.C.-based Democratic activist, called herself “Hillary Clinton’s greatest fan,” but expressed skepticism that Clinton would have succeeded on ENDA or evolved on marriage.
“ENDA is stuck in the Congress not the White House and I just don’t know if she would have changed her view publicly by now about marriage if she were president,” Rosen said. “And anyone who tells you they know is making it up.”
Birch said Obama achieved tremendous legislative success for the LGBT community — counting passage of hate crimes legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as two signature accomplishments — and said people should “work harder than ever in their lives to re-elect a president that invested in real change.”
“President Obama has achieved what no other president has ever achieved — a breakthrough of majority votes in the United States Congress to actually change the federal law of our country,” Birch said. “He has done it twice. He prioritized us and that is how it happened.”
Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist, said he doesn’t think “we’d see any difference” if Clinton were president instead of Obama.
“I was an enthusiastic Hillary backer; I am an enthusiastic Obama backer now,” Elmendorf said. “In terms of passing of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [repeal] and hate crimes, I think Obama has done a terrific job and, I think, the community should be enthusiastic about him — particularly if they watch the Republican primary process play out and see what the alternative is.”
Elmendorf, also a member of Clinton’s 2008 LGBT steering committee, said the only thing Obama hasn’t done is come out publicly for marriage equality, but noted Clinton also has yet to make such an endorsement.
“The opposition is so horrible, and marriage is just one issue and he’s got such a good record on just everything else that it doesn’t in any way diminish my enthusiasm for him,” Elmendorf said.