THE BLOG
03/08/2013 02:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Bill Clinton and DOMA: The Indelible Stain on a Presidency

A stain on Bill Clinton's presidency that will never be blotted out is his signing of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Today, in an op-ed, Clinton asked the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA, which, he and his defenders like to point out, he signed late at night with no fanfare. It's certainly a great thing for an ex-president to weigh in with a reversal and give his opinion to the Supreme Court. And I commend Clinton for his evolution. But that doesn't remove this damaging act from Clinton's legacy, nor certainly the harm that that one law caused for almost 20 years.

Clinton has at various points engaged in revisionist history in offering the reasons why he signed DOMA after the GOP pushed the law through Congress. The most disingenuous attempt was in 2009 when he, following on claims a year earlier by Hillary Clinton's campaign, stated that Democrats were trying to stop a constitutional amendment from being passed. In fact, gay activists cannot recall any mention of a constitutional amendment until years later.

''That's complete nonsense," Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry told Metro Weekly in 2011. "There was no conversation about something 'worse' until eight years later. There was no talk of a constitutional amendment, and no one even thought it was possible -- and, of course, it turned out it wasn't really possible to happen... That was never an argument made in the '90s.''

The reason Bill Clinton signed DOMA is, quite simply, because he refused to be leader on a civil rights issue, irrationally fearful of the ramifications of vetoing the bill and rationalizing the damage caused by signing it. That refusal to take leadership really goes back to day one of his presidency. That was when he signaled to the GOP, like a frightened person on the street signals fear to a barking dog, that he was deathly afraid of the gay issue and would not be a leader on it.

In the first few days of his presidency in 1993, Clinton blinked. Rather than sign an executive order ending the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, as he'd promised during the campaign -- and just as he signed various directives reversing anti-abortion policy of the Bush years -- Clinton bowed to the GOP and conservative Democrats like Georgia Senator Sam Nunn. We ended up with the loathsome "don't ask, don't tell" law, which in the end was no better than the outright ban.

Would the GOP and anti-gay Democrats have reacted harshly and passed a law banning gay service if Clinton had signed the executive order? Perhaps. But Clinton would have defined himself as a leader on the issue and could have helped to change public opinion. Instead, the gay issue was something he ran away from during the rest of his presidency and which the GOP knew he was vulnerable on and would use over him every time. That was when what Joe Sudbay calls "political homophobia" took hold -- when our supposed friends run from us, irrationally fearful of the political ramifications of embracing gay equality.

What if Clinton had decided to lead on the gay issue rather than bow? We'll never know for sure, but it's ridiculous to think Bill Clinton would have lost reelection over the gay issue, no matter what happened. And it's highly probable that his leadership could have helped change minds. In 1996, when he signed DOMA into law, Clinton was well ahead of Bob Dole in the polls. Anybody who would vote against him because he vetoed DOMA was already voting against him.

LGBT leaders of the time are to blame as well because they allowed Clinton and his administration to cravenly perpetuate political homophobia (which was carried with Rahm Emanuel and others into the first years of the Obama administration, too). LGBT leaders may have spoken against the signing of DOMA at the time, but they rallied around Clinton, continuing to raise money for him and making the case to the community to get out and vote for the man who'd just signed a law against them. There were no ramifications for Clinton of any kind from the gay community.

Contrast that to the Obama years. Though some in the Obama administration, including the president himself, were fearful of the gay issue early on, grass roots LGBT activists made it known that it was unacceptable. Members of groups like Get Equal chained themselves to the White House fence and interrupted Obama's speeches, while big donors withheld money. They made it clear that this was not the way to make his base enthusiastic heading into his re-election campaign.

Obama was pushed to the take the lead, and he did. Sure, public opinion was in a much different place on gay issues in 1993 and 1996 than it is now. But it was also in a different place in 2008, when Obama took office, and even in 2011, when Obama came out for marriage equality. The president's support of gay marriage -- his decision to take a leadership role on the issue -- helped push public opinion dramatically. Rather than hurt him, the issue helped to galvanize his base. BIll Clinton's presidency had enshrined political homophobia in Democratic politics, and it took almost 20 years for it to begin to diminish.The Defense of Marriage Act is part of that legacy.

Subscribe to the Queer Voices email.
Get all of the queer news that matters to you.