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Jim Downs

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Hillary Clinton Is Not Helping the Gay Civil Rights Movement

Posted: 12/07/11 01:52 PM ET

Hillary Clinton's address on "gay rights as human rights" in Geneva on December 6, 2011 is going viral. Clinton's appeal to the international community responds to the rising atrocities and violence committed against gay people around the globe. The immediate and lasting effect of her address will have more of an effect on the current election in the United States, than helping people abroad. At home, her speech will actually hurt, not help gay people.

In direct response to Clinton's speech, Rick Perry immediately fired off a statement claiming "Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America's interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money." Leaving aside that Perry misunderstood Clinton's speech, he claims that Clinton's address violates American values and will drain Americans pocketbooks.

Clinton should have known that her speech would have caught more momentum among her Republican detractors than among the international community. If Clinton truly remains committed to gay issues, is an address in Geneva the place to voice such a concern? Throughout her speech, Clinton continued to emphasize that her call for gay human rights was not a Western idea. She rejected the idea that only people in the West were gay or that only wealthy nations had gay populations. In a rhetorical move that evoked a Walt Whitman poem, she conjured up images of gay people all over the world. "Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors." She then went on to state that "Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality."

Actually, being gay is a Western invention. Homosexuality has a long history that begins in the West. Cultures throughout the world may have had people who have over time engaged in same-sex sex but that's different from the historical categorization of "being gay." People only started "being gay" about a century ago. Prior to that, men may have had sex with men, and women may have had sex with women, but that was not being gay -- that was sex and sometimes love. Gay is an identity that came into fashion at the turn of the twentieth century in the West. Today, there is not a single definition for "being gay" even in the United States, let alone throughout the world. In the United States, what it means to be gay in New York City is very different from what it means to be gay in Pierre, South Dakota. Same-sex sex is different from "being gay." Take, for example, in the United States the notion of being on the "down low," refers to men who live "heterosexual lives," but also have sex with men. They don't call themselves "gay," neither do the thousands of men who visit porn and Internet hookup sites, who are looking for sex with "straight jocks."

This is all to say that while Clinton wants to do the right thing and make a noble statement about people being beaten and tortured for their sexual choices, she invariably and unwittingly propagates many contradictions and posits a familiar strand of American cultural imperialism. Is the United States really in a position to make an international call for gay civil rights when the Obama administration, which Clinton represents, has failed to give any federal teeth to the gay marriage campaign? Gay people can marry in New York City, but if their partners are Russian, Canadian, or any other nationality, they do not quality for citizenship rights and are deported. Clinton discusses violence committed against gay people abroad, but what about the staggering rates of suicide among gay teens and the violence committed against them? Further, to call Clinton out on her imprecise use of language and misunderstanding of what it means to "be gay" may be perceived as academic prattle, but the problem is that it actually catches serious traction from Republicans and the right.

Re-enter Rick Perry. Throughout his attack on the Obama administration, he consistently refers to gay people as a "lifestyle." What is in a word? Nothing if you are not in that "lifestyle," but everything if you are. Clinton's clumsy language enables Perry to get even clumsier. It also allows him to open the door and let the religious right and the Tea Party loose on gay people. Clinton is worried about violence against gays abroad, but how does Perry's language provoke the religious right to launch a crusade against "gay" Americans at home? Perry exclaims, "Investing tax dollars to promote a lifestyle many Americas of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong." In the stroke of a sentence, Perry calls on Tea Party advocates with his references to "tax dollars" and he summons the religious right with his reference to "faith." All of which ends up with both groups tying gay people to the whipping posts in a symbolic gesture to broaden the Republican base. Put another, gay people once again reenter the election season as a political football in order to rally the right against the left.

Clinton's speech attempted to raise awareness for gay people abroad, but it summarily fueled a fire on gay people at home.