Near the end of October, I was dressed in my finest to attend the annual Human Rights Campaign (HRC) National Dinner at the Washington Convention Center. My wife had received two tickets through her employer, a corporate sponsor of HRC. I had had meetings in New York on Friday night and Saturday morning, so Saturday afternoon I was tearing down the New Jersey Turnpike, then through Delaware and Maryland, to get back home to attend the dinner. I was tired but dressed to the nines and happy to have an evening out with my wife.
The featured speaker at this year's HRC National Dinner was President Bill Clinton. It was his first return after speaking at the first HRC National Dinner in 1997. I confess that I like Bill. He is charismatic.
When Clinton took the stage, I settled in, knowing that his speeches tend to sound more like graduate seminars than the pithy pronouncements of sitting politicians. About 10 minutes into his lecture, however, he caught me off guard. Clinton said:
It wasn't entirely predictable that in a country where gay marriage was illegal in 37 states, or maybe more, at the time, that the Supreme Court decision on [the Defense of Marriage Act] would lead to a rash of other decisions which meant that now it's legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
I sat up. People clapped and cheered. I was flummoxed. Did Bill Clinton not realize that a big part of the reason that gay marriage had been illegal in so many states was that he'd signed DOMA into law, emboldening our opponents to pass constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in 31 states? Could he not make the connections between his disastrous decision at a weak moment in his presidency and the consequences that gay and lesbian people endured for almost two decades? It almost sounded like Clinton, the president who'd signed DOMA, and seemingly happily, was suggesting that we had him to thank for the advancement of marriage equality. I almost felt like he was insinuating, "See? Without DOMA these advancements might not have happened!" Had he somehow erased from his memory the fact that his signature on that bill had created an enormous backlash and allowed people to think that, yes, gay and lesbian relationships are less than heterosexual relationships, that heterosexual marriage must be defended? Did he suggest that where we are today is in part a result of his bad behavior? I was enraged.
Then Clinton continued:
Lawyers like Roberta Kaplan and plaintiffs like Edie Windsor -- I think they thought about it. But somebody figured out, "Hey, we ought to take this decision and run with it just as far as we can go."
Bill Clinton has never apologized for signing DOMA. Certainly he has become an important ally of lesbian and gay people, but I can't give him a pass.
I'm still bitter, Bill. While other gay and lesbian people applauded and cheered, I sat in disbelief. I still remember the day you signed DOMA. The anger. The disappointment. The despair. I still remember watching states pass gay-marriage prohibitions quite easily. I cannot forget, and I cannot forgive until there is a proper apology. Even then, I am never going to be prepared to give you credit for the advancements of marriage equality. I want to be better than all of this bitterness, Bill, but I want you to be better too. Man up. Apologize with some sincerity. The stress and pain you caused millions of gay and lesbian people cannot easily be forgiven. You had a chance to lead on this issue. You didn't. Now you need to be in awe of what we did in response to your cowardice. You are not the first politician to be cowardly, nor are you the first politician to suggest that your nefarious actions has a silver lining, but, Bill, I expected more from you. Some of us remember. We are watching. We are waiting.