Why Hillary Clinton Must Back a LGBT Full Civil Rights Law for Her Own Sake

06/05/2015 12:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, wants to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gay and transgender people, assuring a federal law that would ban discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and all spheres of American life, with no broad religious exemption. In 1996, he was one of only 67 House members to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which President Bill Clinton signed into law.

Sanders' fellow Democratic presidential contender and former Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley, was at the vanguard of gubernatorial leadership on marriage equality, one of the few governors to spearhead and sign a marriage equality bill into law in 2012, and then fervently campaign in a statewide referendum to ratify it.

Lincoln Chafee, the former U.S. senator and Rhode Island governor, who has now announced a run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, supported marriage equality as far back as 2004 -- when he was a Republican! -- and similarly pushed and signed a marriage bill into law in his state in 2013. Chafee also said this week that the Pentagon's ban on open transgender military service should be lifted.

And what are we hearing from Hillary Clinton nowadays? Well, she finally said in her own words that marriage for gays and lesbians is a constitutional right -- just two months back -- having previously left that to a campaign spokesperson, while just last year she was still saying it was a state issue, in line with what many Republican candidates say now. And she issued a vague LGBT Pride Month proclamation that said that the work toward equality "is far from finished" without offering any specifics -- like amending the Civil Rights Act, or fully lifting the ban on trans service or creating a whole new civil rights law for LGBT people that does both and more.

It's true that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, gave an important, groundbreaking speech in Geneva in 2011, pronouncing that LGBT rights are human rights, taking on brutal anti-LGBT regimes abroad. But that was then, and while we all deeply care about our brothers and sisters overseas, there is so much that needs to be done in the U.S. for LGBT people that an American presidential candidate could promise right now.

And at a time when Clinton's Democratic rivals are exploiting a dip in her approval numbers, Clinton should be going on the offensive as the candidate fighting for full equality during a civil rights movement of our time. That would not only energize progressives in the party, it would speak to younger voters, including independents, who she'll surely need. And it's in stark contrast to just about every GOP candidate, most of whom have supported discriminatory "religious freedom" laws and surely do not back anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT people.

It's baffling that Clinton hasn't done this, considering the full force with which she's taken on the issue of immigration, promising to sign executive orders more far-reaching than even the controversial ones President Obama has signed, and the way she took on the voting rights issue yesterday, calling for 20 days of early voting nationwide.

It's likely true that Clinton's slowness on LGBT rights in the past was because, as secretary of state, she couldn't get ahead of the president, who had to be pushed himself on the issue. But even long after President Obama decided not to defend DOMA in court and came out for marriage equality, and after she left the administration, Clinton was still late to the game on marriage.

More than that, Hillary Clinton, rightly or wrongly, carries the baggage of her husband, Bill, who signed both "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and DOMA into law. She has to be twice as good on LGBT rights as everyone else just to counter that past, as unfair as that may seem. Instead, she has been defensive of Bill Clinton on the issue rather than distancing herself. While Hillary, like Bill, came to oppose DOMA and called on the Supreme Court to overturn it, for example, she, like Bill, has defended the signing of the bill into law in 1996, spinning out a narrative about how it was believed DOMA would satisfy the anti-gay crowd and blunt a possible constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

As I've pointed out before, this is false, as there was no talk of a constitutional amendment that early on. Certainly I don't expect Hillary Clinton to say, as I have, that DOMA was a stain on Bill Clinton's presidency. But surely she can be more forceful in being out front on LGBT rights now. And, again, that's doubly true if she wants to stand out from her opponents.

It's likely that Clinton's campaign is taking advice from Beltway gay operatives. That's a mistake because many were wrong the last time around, betting on her only to see LGBT energy and support shift to Obama, because he spoke more forcefully on the issues. She needs a different course this time. She could begin by giving a speech putting her full support behind a comprehensive federal LGBT civil rights bill, like the one that Sen. Merkley (D-Ore.) is set to introduce that would ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, including in the 29 states that have no statewide protections without broad religious exemptions. She could explain how she's going to fight for it in a Republican-dominated Congress that will surely beat such a bill back for years to come. Or she can call for amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Sen. Sanders has, and a go a few steps better, calling for lifting the ban on transgender service, pushing for passage of anti-bullying legislation and getting a law passed that ends "ex-gay" therapy.

Most of all, Clinton has got to get away from empty platitudes. Things have moved at light speed, and we're way beyond the time when having a gay couple or two in your campaign video is enough, or where a vague Pride proclamation with no teeth suffices. We should be hearing concrete details from Hillary Clinton on how she is going to be a forceful champion of LGBT rights, both for the sake of equality and for the sake her own campaign.

Michelangelo Signorile's new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

CORRECTION: This post previously stated Bernie Sanders was in the U.S. Senate in 1996, when he was in fact in the U.S. House.