Gay Rights: Obama and Clinton’s Checkered Past

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This Super Tuesday is a historic day for equal rights—a black man and a woman are the front-runners for the democratic presidential nomination. But the ghosts of prejudice and politics as usual still haunt today’s elections. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown has revealed that four years ago, when San Francisco was receiving worldwide attention for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Barack Obama didn’t want anything to do with the city’s endorsement of equal rights or the man responsible for it. Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I gave a fundraiser, at [Obama’s] request…He said he would really not like to have his picture taken with Gavin [Newsom].” Back then it would have been political suicide to be associated with Mayor Newsom’s controversial move.

During the 2008 campaign, however, Newsom hasn’t been carrying as much baggage. Hillary Clinton reveled in the mayor’s endorsement and last night Bill even shared a stage with him. So does this mean Clinton is a greater advocate for equal rights, or would she have done the same thing that Obama did four years ago? It’s probably the latter. Clinton supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, yet during this campaign season her stance on gay rights is markedly more progressive and nearly identical to Obama’s. They both think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be revisited and say they’ll vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Both opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006. Both support civil unions, while maintaining that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman.

It goes to show that candidates’ positions on civil rights issues may evolve in a few short years, but it’s more likely to be for politically expedient reasons than moral ones. Since San Francisco became the gay marriage capital in 2004, the country’s center has inched toward the left on gay issues. More Americans recognize that the government should afford homosexual couples the same benefits and rights as heterosexual couples, but the notion of same-sex marriage remains unpopular. In 2008, as in years past, Obama and Clinton are simply mirroring public opinion.

—Celia Perry

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