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Whitewashing Gay History

When the time came for Clinton to sign DOMA, he was sufficiently embarrassed that he did so at midnight. He declared in a statement that the legislation’s enactment should not “provide an excuse for discrimination, violence or intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation.” Two years later, Matthew Shepard would be strung up in Wyoming, and a decade later George W. Bush, in league with Karl Rove, would make a statement almost identical to Clinton’s when he endorsed a constitutional marriage amendment in a similar election-year pander. “As this debate goes forward,” Bush intoned in 2006, “every American deserves to be treated with tolerance and respect and dignity.” Like Clinton, he knew he was enabling the exact opposite. While the family-values ayatollahs who gathered for Bush’s announcement had expected a Rose Garden event, someone in the White House felt guilty enough to offload the dirty deed into the shadows—a furtive ten-minute presidential appearance in a small auditorium in the Executive Office Building.

Neither Bush nor Clinton has ever owned up to what he did, let alone made amends for it. At a Human Rights Campaign forum for presidential candidates in 2007, Melissa Etheridge had the nerve to confront Hillary Clinton for her husband’s record of having thrown gay Americans “under the bus” while in office—a charge that Bill Clinton would dismiss later as “a slight rewriting of history.” It’s Clinton who has done the rewriting, and not slightly, claiming that DOMA was “a reasonable compromise in the environment of the time.” Reasonable for his own political calculation, yes, but hardly for the gay Americans who have paid for it ever since.

Andrew Cuomo has traveled far from the late seventies—as so many of us have—and so has Bill Clinton from the nineties. The former president came out for same-sex marriage in 2009. But words are cheap. Clinton’s lip service might actually mean something if he spent his own current financial and political capital to help undo the second-class citizenship for gay Americans that was codified on his watch. Whatever his good works overseas, it’s past time for the entrepreneur of the Clinton Global Initiative to phone home—and to galvanize the liberal Democrats who followed his lead in ratifying DOMA, many of them still in office.

We are now in another election year, and one in which both leading presidential candidates in the GOP preach the most hard-line anti-gay positions of their respective churches. Nothing is ever certain in politics and, unlikely as it may seem, one of them could win. We could yet end up with President Santorum, who lumps homosexuality with “man on dog” sex and even vows to reinstate Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Or with President Romney, who lately boasted of how hard he fought to prevent Massachusetts from becoming “the Las Vegas of gay marriages”—a claim he made only days after accepting an endorsement from that paragon of “traditional” marriage, Donald Trump, in Las Vegas. Though a cadre of conservative financiers, at least one with a gay son, helped bankroll Cuomo’s successful strong-arming of Republican same-sex-marriage votes in Albany, there doesn’t seem to be a single major Republican donor or leader, or even a mainstream conservative pundit, with the guts to call out these candidates or the party’s congressional leadership on their corrosive anti-gay rhetoric and agenda.

The GOP is on the wrong side of history for sure, with gays no less than Hispanics and every other minority group. Generational and demographic turnover is remaking America even as the right tries to turn back the clock. But over the shorter term, the party’s hard line will continue to inflict real injustice on citizens of all stripes—not just on gay adults (whether they are seeking marriage or not), but on gay kids struggling to find a safe place for themselves in the world and straight children who love their gay parents. So uninhibited is the animus of the Republican base that it thought nothing of booing a gay Army captain serving in Iraq when he presumed to ask a polite question via YouTube during a campaign debate on Fox News. Not one of the nine presidential candidates onstage spoke up to defend the soldier.

That’s why the celebrations in New York last June, while merited, must be seen as provisional. That’s also why Democratic leaders who profess fierce advocacy of gay civil rights must be held to account. Back in a day that was only yesterday, too many of them also fell silent—and when it counted most. While same-sex weddings are indeed a happy ending, they are haunted by the ghosts of many gay men, too many of them forgotten, who died tragically and unnecessarily while too many good people did nothing. Like Andrew Cuomo, those good people could yet make a big difference and, in the bargain, exorcise the multitude of past sins they keep hoping the rest of us will forget.