The 2016 presidential election is yielding yet another sign of the changing times on LGBT issues.
For the first time, Democratic presidential candidates are coming to blows over who is more supportive of LGBT rights as they contend for the nomination.
The change became prominent last week at the high-profile Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. Democratic contender Sen. Bernard Sanders, citing his 1996 vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, accused his competitor Hillary Clinton of rewriting history in recent remarks on the now defunct anti-gay law.
“That was not a political, easy vote,” Sanders said. “Now today, some are trying to rewrite history by saying they voted for one anti-gay law to stop something worse. That’s not the case. There was a small minority in the House opposed to discrimination against our gay brothers and sisters, and I am proud that I was one of those members.”
Sanders was apparently responding to comments Clinton made on “The Rachel Maddow Show” in which she called DOMA — as well as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — a pair of “defensive” actions to prevent worse discrimination against LGBT people. Clinton cited the possibility of a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage entirely.
Many gay rights activists, even those who support Clinton, joined Sanders in accusing Clinton of revisionism on Twitter. After all, Congress didn’t vote on a U.S. constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage until 2004 after Massachusetts legalized it.
The recollection of activists over whether a Federal Marriage Amendment was in play in 1996 at the time DOMA was considered in Congress is mixed, but Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson and former Human Rights Campaign chief Elizabeth Birch have repudiated that view.
It’s not the first time during the 2016 election one Democrat has accused another of being lax on LGBT rights.
After Clinton in April clarified her position on same-sex marriage and called on the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage equality, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley responded with a veiled criticism, sending out on Twitter a video message in which he said, “History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience.”
Political observers say this election marks the first time — at least to this degree — mainstream Democratic hopefuls have criticized one another on LGBT rights in a high-profile capacity.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said he couldn’t immediately recall Democratic sniping on LGBT rights occurring in earlier races.
“Whatever the case, this is significant because LGBT rights, including marriage equality, are now such a fundamental part of the Democratic platform that candidates argue about which one is most fervent in support,” Sabato said. “It’s inconceivable that someone could win the Democratic nomination without being enthusiastic about gay rights. This is a massive sea change even from most of the first decade of the 21st century, and a complete transformation from the 20th century.”
To be fair, Democratic presidential candidates have differentiated themselves on LGBT rights in the past. In 2008, Clinton supported repeal of only Section 3 of DOMA while then-candidate Barack Obama wanted to repeal all of it.
In 2007, the slew of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination offered differing views in a Logo forum moderated by the Human Rights Campaign. U.S. Sen. John Edwards went further than most candidates by saying he would look for unilateral action to undo “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But none of those candidates publicly attacked others at a high-profile event like the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a political scientist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Sanders’ attack on Clinton for not supporting gay rights in a timely manner is “unprecedented.”
“In caucuses and primaries, candidates compete over their party’s base,” Pinello said. “Since LGBT voters support Democratic presidential nominees over their Republican rivals about 75 percent of the time, Sanders is trying to position himself closer to that base in the primary/caucus process — just as Clinton has attacked Sanders over his failure to support gun-reform legislation, in the hope of wooing NRA opponents to her side. So it’s political tit for tat.”
In the past, Democrats have also been uncomfortable attacking Republicans for opposing LGBT rights as the GOP has used them to its advantage as a wedge issue, although that changed as well. In 2012, Obama took Republican nominee Mitt Romney to task for his support of a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Nowadays on the Republican side, some contenders like Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal continue to pledge anti-LGBT policy initiatives; others like Jeb Bush and John Kasich continue to oppose same-sex marriage, but say it’s time to move on after the recent LGBT victories.
Pinello said squabbles over LGBT rights in the Democratic Party are good for the LGBT community.
“Any public airing of favorable positions on LGBT policy issues ultimately benefits our community. The more such coverage, the better,” Pinello said. “The closet door is flung open just a bit wider each time, which is always a good thing.”
Sabato also said LGBT people stand to benefit from the attention to LGBT rights among Democratic presidential candidates.
“Despite the public’s cynicism about candidate promises, studies have shown that those elected try and usually succeed in following through on their most emphasized pledges,” Sabato said.