Bill Clinton during his first inaugural address in 1993 called for the renewal of the country through bold action of American citizens. On Saturday night, more than 20 years later, he told LGBT advocates they played a part in making the country a more perfect union.
Delivering the keynote address at the 18th annual Human Rights Campaign dinner in D.C., Clinton thanked the more than 3,000 attendees for the “poetry and prose” of LGBT activism that he said helped reshape the country in accordance with its ideals.
“We can no longer live with being against somebody, or a group of somebodies just because of who they are,” Clinton said. “You should be happy and proud about that; you’ve got a lot to celebrate. I’ve never seen a civil rights movement, at least in our country, move as far and as fast as your movement.”
But Clinton cautioned the audience not “to kid yourself” because work remains for people “left out and left behind, and there are still some barriers that need to be brought down.”
“All over the world, there are young people who still have to cower in fear of their governments, their leaders — and sometimes their families,” Clinton said.
Clinton also suggested more progress would be made based on the success that coming out as LGBT has already accomplished for the movement.
“One thing we have learned is that no human heart is immune to an honest outreach,” Clinton said. “No one can forever ignore their personal experience.”
As an example of how knowing gay people can affect someone on a personal level, Clinton talked about recently attending his 50th high school reunion. The former president spoke of three gay friends from childhood who are deceased, and an old male friend at the event proudly introduced his husband of 35 years.
“We’ve got to humanize these stories,” Clinton said. “There’s still enough of a storytelling culture left in the South to make a difference.”
It’s not the first time Clinton has spoken at the national HRC dinner. The former president delivered the keynote address in 1997 after he won his second term in office.
Reflecting on the changes in the perception of the LGBT community since that time, Clinton said during his speech 17 years ago he asked LGBT people who worked for the federal government to rise from their seats, saying their willingness to do so was remarkable. Now, Clinton said, what would be unusual is “if anybody noticed, and that’s a good thing.”
Making another reference to the change in attitudes from 17 years ago, Clinton recalled his nomination of out lesbian Roberta Achtenberg as assistant secretary for the Department of Housing & Urban Development.
“After the hearing, she knew she was on television and kissed her partner and you would have thought somebody had set off fireworks in the Capitol building,” Clinton said. “Now, if she had a hearing and didn’t kiss her partner, you’d think she was cold-blooded.”
Richard Socarides, a gay New York Democratic activist who worked as an adviser to Clinton, attended the dinner and said the speech from his old boss was “heartfelt and moving.”
“He still has a unique ability to talk about how we are all the same in a way that I think really resonates,” Socarides said. “That we should come to appreciate the things that unite us, not that divide us. Plus he appreciates how much more work we have to do and I think that really came through.”
Clinton was introduced by HRC President Chad Griffin, who at age 19 worked for the president as the youngest-ever member of a presidential staff. Following Clinton’s speech, the former president and his former staffer embraced onstage as the audience applauded.
Since the last Human Rights Campaign national dinner one year ago, the landscape of LGBT rights, particularly marriage equality, has changed significantly.
At the time of 17th national dinner on Oct. 25, 2013, only 14 states and D.C. allowed same-sex marriages. When the evening started for the 18th national dinner, 32 states had legalized gay nuptials.
In his speech introducing Clinton, Griffin predicted marriage equality would spread nationwide to “all 50 states not in a matter of decades, not even in a matter of years, but as soon as a few short months from tonight.”
Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa on Fox’s “The Simpsons,” was an honored guest at the dinner and told the Washington Blade the advancement of LGBT rights was due to Griffin’s work.
“It’s extraordinary,” Smith said. “I think the dominoes are falling so fast. And nobody ever though it could happen that quickly, but Chad could get it done. It’s very impressive.”
Clinton also endorsed initiatives that HRC has undertaken under Griffin’s tenure, such as the Project One America campaign to advance LGBT rights in the South, and work to advance LGBT rights overseas, which Clinton called “profoundly important.”
“There are people who lost their battle to hold you back in the United States who think they can take the show on the road and win somewhere else,” Clinton said.
Although Clinton billed himself as a champion of LGBT rights during his administration, advocating for hate crimes protections and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, he also was responsible for signing into law “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.
After his presidency came to an end, Clinton came out in opposition to both laws. In an op-ed for the Washington Post just before the Supreme Court ruled against DOMA, Clinton wrote the law should be declared unconstitutional. But the former president has never apologized for signing those anti-gay measures into law, nor did he issue an apology Saturday night.
The LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL said in a statement at the time of the speech that Bll Clinton’s appearance at the dinner for the nation’s largest LGBT group was “ironic” because the former president hasn’t apologized for those laws, which took decades to undo.
Clinton didn’t talk about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his speech, and he only made a passing reference to DOMA in which he suggested the law had a positive effect, enabling the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that “led to a rash of” court decisions determining state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
“Somebody figured out, ‘Hey we got to take this decision and run with it as far as we can go,'” Clinton said.
Despite speculation Clinton may have been joined onstage by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a favorite of the LGBT community, she didn’t make an appearance at the dinner.
But that didn’t stop Clinton from alluding to his wife’s potential 2016 presidential campaign by joking about the shared initials of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the nation’s largest LGBT group.
“I wanted to talked about the work ahead, and I kind of wanted to ask you what you think the HRC means,” Clinton said. “I love the HRC; the initials great.”
In a statement, GetEQUAL said it rallied outside the HRC dinner to deliver a message to the “Ready for Hillary” campaign to seek clarity on where Hillary Clinton stands as she considers a presidential run.
Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said the action was intended to send a signal that Clinton must stand for “progressive values as a champion and leader, not simply as a middle-of-the-road political candidate.”
“I hope Secretary Clinton hears that the LGBTQ community cares deeply not only about passing a full LGBTQ equality bill, but also about reforming our broken immigration system, ensuring full reproductive health access, ending widespread and systematic police brutality, and winning economic justice measures that allow us to provide for and support our families,” Cronk said. “Our community won’t be swayed simply by high-profile speeches — we need to see serious action.”
But the mood inside the dinner was decidedly different; Bill Clinton was received with a warm welcome. Attendees greeted him as he approached the stage with a sustained, standing ovation, and continued to hoot and holler as he spoke.
Socarides said the speech was particularly special to those who worked with Clinton in the White House when he delivered his first speech 17 years ago.
“No one in American politics can deliver this kind of speech to a gay-rights audience better than Bill Clinton, and he did not disappoint,” Socarides said.
Making a surprise appearance at the dinner was outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who reiterated news from earlier in the day that the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages in six more states where gay nuptials were recently legalized by the courts: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
Further, Holder said the administration would recognize the “window” same-sex marriages in Wisconsin and Indiana performed over the summer after district court rulings that were later stayed by the courts.
Expected high-profile LGBT people in attendance at the HRC dinner were White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard; U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic Wally Brewster; D.C. mayoral candidate David Catania; Air Force Under Secretary Eric Fanning; Export-Import Bank Chair Fred Hochberg; and Air Force general counsel