Hey, DOMA backers—Bill Clinton is not *your* talking point
When actual human gay Rachel Maddow confronted him on Meet The Press, longtime conservative Ralph Reed defended his position on the Defense of Marriage Act by asking, in part, if Bill Clinton was motivated by animus and was intolerant of gays when he signed DOMA into law. Reed also threw in names like VP Joe Biden and Sen. Patrick Leahy, since both voted for DOMA back in the day.
National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown did the same sort of thing on George Stephanopolous' show. Brown said to the onetime Clinton staffer (at 7:00): "[B]ecause [Justice] Kennedy says something that is patently untrue, that your former boss and all of Congress were somehow motivated by animus when they -- when President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and Congress passed it, saying that this -- that this truth, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman is motivated by animus and discrimination, leads to discrimination against those of us who know that there's something unique and special about husbands and wives, mothers and fathers coming together in marriage."
And similar commentary has popped up all over both the mainstream and conservative media space. Others who defend DOMA will throw in the President's name, still attempting to use the former position of this historic Marriage-Supporter-in-Chief as if it's some sort of boon for their side and liability for ours.
In dropping these names to make their discriminatory points, these DOMA fans are making themselves look worse, not better. Here's why.
The marriage conversation in America has been an evolution for all of us. Even for LGBT people, the initial notion was something new. That something new didn't mean it was something scary, mind you. It is however true that for all of us, once we started thinking that marriage equality was a real possibility, this new consideration struck our minds as something different. None of us grew up in a world with equal marriage, and we had to receive and process the information. Understandably so.
Yes, in 1996, then-President Clinton opposed marriage equality and supported DOMA. Yes, a number of now-supporters did as well, both in the elected space and the everyday world. Yes, the current President once spoke out for only "one man and one woman" marriages. And yes, those of us who support marriage equality came out strongly against all of them, doling out our frustrations when we could have instead been offering up wedding toasts. We held all of our elected officials to account, which is a big reason why we created change. We told our stories, connected the dots, made the proper legal cases, and changed outlooks in places of both power and lay life.
Over time, our would-be supporters became actual voices of support. Current members of Congress began stepping up. Former Presidents announced that their positions had changed. Other prominent figures who had once played negative roles stood up and declared that their minds had changed too. The current President and Vice President then stepped up in historic fashion, and now we are at a time where nearly every Democratic member of the U.S. Senate (and two Republicans) are on record as being in full support of marriage equality.
In short, we now are a time when a new kind of DOMA could never even find consideration, much less passage. That itself is a repudiation of the kind of world that Ralph Reed and his religious right colleagues hoped to create. They were under the impression that DOMA was a Phase One operation in a larger fight. Back then, they were surely confident that the federal DOMA would bring momentum to their side, leading to a multi-year operation in which their public support and movement gains grew and grew with every passing year. They really thought they had found an Achilles Heel that would stop us in our tracks.
But that's not what happened. Instead, their attempts to turn discrimination into an American value helped those of us who value LGBT lives and loves to show the American public just how much wanton persecution was being dished out against us. While they were full-on aggressive and tried to ban us in every state and federally, we stepped up and showed the public that we too have lovers and families and rich lives, and we ably stated our case for joining the marriage club. What was once a very lopsided conversation in which the Ralph Reeds of the world hijacked the notion of "values" instead became a dialogue about America, her promises, and her people. This campaign of public engagement led to newfound understanding; the newfound understanding led to unprecedented momentum.
So back to the current wave of DOMA commentary and the attempt to cite Clinton, Obama, or any other Democratic name as a far-right talking point. These attempts are both intellectually dishonest and politically silly. The fact that a President Clinton now recognizes his past act as an unfortunate moment in his presidency is a direct repudiation of the time, energy, and human will that these religious right figures forced us to waste on DOMA and related policy changes. The same goes for the senators who now stand against their past DOMA votes, the commentators who once wasted ink on policies they now oppose, and the current President who used to stop short at civil unions before realizing that separate and unequal wasn't good enough. All of this evolution came about as part of a national conversation, one in which the pro-equality side and the anti-equality side quite vocally made our cases known. The truth is that the pro-equality case has largely won out (and will continue to do so).
Ralph Reed, Brian Brown, and whoever else can ask questions of President Clinton's past motivations if they so choose. What matters, however, is the current thinking.
President Clinton may not classify his 1996 signing of DOMA as an intolerant or bigoted act—but he certainly now recognizes DOMA itself as both intolerance and bigotry (or at least discrimination). Vice President Biden might not say his DOMA vote was a hostile act against gays—but he certainly wouldn't cast it again. President Obama might not be so quick to say his '07–'08 campaign speeches about "traditional marriage" lent tacit approval to measures like Prop 8—but he sure as heck wouldn't open himself to that possibility here in 2013.
These three changed. Our country has changed. If Ralph Reed and Brian Brown want to stand firm on the side of discrimination, that's on them. They cannot, however, drag those who did evolve into their stagnant mud hole.
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