October 26, 2014 at 9:45 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Bill Clinton praises ‘poetry and prose’ of LGBT movement
Bill Clinton, Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, HRC, gay news, Washington Blade

President Bill Clinton gave the keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner on Oct. 25, 2014. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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
Gordon Tanner.

Eric Holder, Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, HRC, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the 2014 Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • They NEVER apologize. This is the whole Clinton team trying to brush DOMA/DADT under the rug. If they think Hillary will get off without addressing this, they're fooling themselves. That said, the media people are clearly weaving their game. Too bad for them that substance matters more than form. Where is Clinton Global Initiatives' commitment to LGBT work abroad? This is all fluff and we eat it up like sugar. Sad.

  • They NEVER apologize. This is the whole Clinton team trying to brush DOMA/DADT under the rug. If they think Hillary will get off without addressing this, they're fooling themselves.
    Blaming DOMA and DADT on Bill Clinton is a sad, twisted interpretation of historical facts.

    Those facts are real stubborn, too. No civil rights movement has moved in a smooth line without political and social opposition. Add to that the religious-based bigotry and hatred to same sex love, a fact for millennia, and you think LGBT allies like the Clintons should be apologizing?

    Here's another fact … even with DADT and DOMA — driven by Republicans and blue-dog Democrats, btw — Bill Clinton's administration moved the LGBT civil rights movement farther and faster than all previous presidents put together.

    We ought to be a little grateful for allies like that.

  • to revise and extend…
    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.
    That's a massive, not-even-half-truth distortion of LGBT history. The Blade ought to correct it. -b

    Bill Clinton has no cause at all to apologize to LGBT Americans.

    Blaming DOMA and DADT on Bill Clinton is an historic distortion. It's a big LIE, pure and simple. Historical facts are stubborn, and can't be overcome by the revisionism of some LGBT's who may not yet recognize their own political naiveté in the 1990s.

    No civil rights movement has advanced in a smooth line without political and social opposition.

    However, national opposition to LGBT civil rights, from left, right and center, became downright easy when the amateurish LGBT activists of 1993 — AND Clinton himself — made the incredibly stupid blunder of making "gays in the military" the new president's one and only issue within hours after he was sworn into office.

    That obvious political pandering rightly outraged an America which had just brought its sons and daughters back from a war — only to then stand in GOP unemployment lines . It was a grotesque misapplication of national priorities by a president whom so many had entrusted with their votes and their hopes for their kids.

    That 'out-of-the-gate' blunder forever weakened Bill Clinton's presidency. Worse still, it set the cause of ending federal anti-gay discrimination and marriage equality back by 12 years or more.

    The historical TRUTH is that President Clinton climbed way out on a high political tree limb for LGBT civil rights — before our movement had even organized itself into a credible, national force. Of course Republican bigots were only too happy to saw that limb off and beat Clinton over the head with it — for many years.

    DOMA sailed through both houses of Congress three years later with VETO-PROOF votes. It was designed by homophobic Republicans (and some Dems) to forever drive a wedge between the first truly LGBT-friendly president America ever had and his LGBT supporters.

    Unfortunately, with the active help of many of those LGBT, one-time Clinton supporters, that bit of GOP political homophobia succeeded.

    What is mystifying however, is that divisive wedge is still being driven today by misguided and/or spiteful LGBTs.

    Should we not demand apologies from religious-based bigots and their hatred of same sex families — a fact of LGBT lives for millennia? What of its 1990s version which has been pandered to GOP base voters by virtually 95%+ of Republican presidential candidates ever since?

    Are there equally pretentious demands for an apology from Bob Dole, the Bushies, McCain and Mitt? How about venerable old Dem, Sam Nunn?

    No. Apparently not. It does, however, make juicier news for embittered LGBTs to besmirch a LGBT-friendly president.

    Here is the larger, more important fact to remember …

    Even with DADT and DOMA — Bill Clinton's administration moved the LGBT civil rights movement farther and faster than all previous presidencies, prior to his, put together.

    Still some LGBT wags think LGBT allies like President Clinton should bow before us, confess his sins and give us some penance. For most of them, basic lessons in history, fact-finding and American civics are in order.

    LGBTs should stop shooting the LGBT civil right movement in the foot by bashing our most prominent LGBT allies with historic lies and distortions. And amateurish, schoolyard demands for politicallly-motivated apologies are just foolish in any event.

    LGBTs ought pay no attention to such distractions. As African Americans learned so effectively more than a half century ago, we ought to "keep our eyes on the prize."

    My guess is that Hill and Bill can help us with that.


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