THE BLOG
02/12/2016 11:59 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2017

Stop Straight-Splaining Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to LGBT Voters

ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a radio host and commentator, and as a gay man, I'm used to conservatives calling in or writing me to straight-splain the world to me. I apparently shouldn't be defending Muslims against bigotry nor support allowing Syrian refugees into the country, for example, because ISIS throws gays off of buildings. "How could you defend people who want to see you dead?" It's not always as simplistic, wildly inaccurate and ridiculous, but it is always just as condescending.

And now it's happening with progressives and liberals, among Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters. Yesterday Charles Blow wrote a column in the Times headlined, "Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters," and it made me think about how the same arrogance is coming from straight supporters of both candidates to LGBT voters.

Sanders, I'm told by some heterosexual supporters, is the only true champion in the race in the area of civil rights for LGBT people because he was one of a small handful of members of Congress to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 -- a law signed by Hillary Clinton's husband and which she supported until recent years.

But Clinton, others say, is the only true champion of LGBT rights in the race because she, as secretary of state, gave an historic, powerful speech before the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva in 2011, equating gay rights with human rights, and she is talking lot in debates and elsewhere about LGBT rights.

But here's a three-point reality check:

1) Both candidates, right now, support full equality, including adding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the 1964 Civil Rights Act via The Equality Act, which was introduced in Congress last year and would be a massive lift to get passed in this Republican-controlled Congress (or any foreseeable Congress), let alone even get a vote.

2) Both candidates weren't always in favor of marriage equality.

3) Both candidates have obscured their pasts.

I find it arrogant when straight people tell me Clinton only a few years ago said marriage was "between a man and a woman," when, in fact, President Obama, most Democrats and most Americans -- including many of these same straight people telling me this -- had the same position at that time. It took enormous pressure by activists on Obama to get him to shift, and to shift public opinion.

Evidence that Obama actually supported marriage equality in the '90s, only to publicly flip as he sought national office, only to flip ("evolve") again, was confirmed last year by his former political strategist David Axelrod -- which makes Obama even shadier on the issue than Hillary Clinton. If consistency and longevity of a position are the only measure by which we should have judged him (and any politician), however, then we should have dumped Obama a long time ago, rather than use him to our advantage and see him eventually lead on the issue. Running for re-election in 2012 as a president who supported marriage equality, pressured by activists after having made promises on equality, he helped in ballot measures in four states in which LGBT activists won on the issue.

Bernie Sanders, as I've written, has had a stellar record for a long time, largely because of his vote against DOMA. But in fact he didn't support marriage equality at the time, though he now claims that he did. In a presidential debate last October he said, "I thought then and I think now that people have the right to love those folks that they want to love and get married regardless of their sexual orientation." But that's not what he said at the time, instead presenting his vote as one for states' rights and not gay equality. His wife Jane, then his chief of staff, said in '96: "We're not legislating values. We have to follow the Constitution. And anything that weakens the Constitution should be (addressed) by a constitutional amendment, not by a law passed by Congress."

In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples must have the same benefits as heterosexual couples and left it to the legislature to decide if they should have marriage or some other scheme. Other state politicians, including Sanders' successor as mayor of Burlington, supported marriage. But Sanders stayed silent.

"Obtaining Congressman Bernie Sanders' position on the gay marriage issue was like pulling teeth ... from a rhinoceros," wrote Peter Frye at the time, a local political reporter whose work Sanders had lauded. "It's an election year, yet despite the lack of a serious challenger, The Bern's gut-level paranoia is acting up."

Sanders supported the eventual outcome, Vermont's inadequate civil unions law, but not marriage. Even in 2006, after he voted against George W. Bush's attempt to ban marriage in the Constitution, when asked if he supported legalizing marriage for gays in Vermont, Sanders said, "Not right now, not after what we went through."

By 2009 Sanders supported marriage equality. Clinton didn't do so until 2013, a few months after she left the state department and a year after Obama came to support it. She struggled in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross in 2014 about her evolution on the issue, and didn't say marriage equality was a constitutional right until April of 2015, just in time for the Supreme Court's Obergefell ruling and a presidential run.

Sanders called for adding LGBT people to the Civil Rights Act months before Clinton last year. Clinton was criticized last spring, including by LGBT donors who were concerned, because she wasn't discussing LGBT issues. Later in the year she was called out for revising history, claiming that she and her husband Bill supported DOMA in 1996 -- he finally reversed and came out against DOMA just before the Supreme Court struck it down in 2014-- because they were trying to forestall a constitutional amendment. But activists refuted that, saying there was no threat of a constitutional amendment promoted by Republicans at that time.

By that point Clinton had put out a detailed plan for full equality, and gave a powerful speech at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner, slamming Kim Davis and Mike Huckabee and talking in detail about the challenges facing LGBT people ahead.

But still, it's notable that just a few weeks before that speech she was revising history and the rationale for her and her husband's support of DOMA -- just like Bernie Sanders at around the same time revised the history of his vote against DOMA by claiming he'd been in favor of marriage equality at that time when he wasn't.

In other words, they're both politicians.

But, like Obama did during his '08 campaign, they've now made many promises, and that's the most important thing: what they're saying now. It's unfortunate that the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Clinton now -- breaking with their recent past in waiting for the primaries to be over, and with both of them being good on LGBT rights -- so that these two candidates could continue to compete and promise more for the LGBT vote, since there is an enormous amount of work to be done that neither has addressed. And beyond mentions by the candidates, LGBT rights haven't been focused on at all in the debates.

But that said, activists must, as they did with Obama, keep the next president to his or her promises. Since getting the Equality Act passed is unlikely any time soon no matter who is president, and since Obama has already done quite a bit via executive action -- like signing an order banning discrimination against LGBT people among federal contractors -- the most powerful thing the next president can do, at least from the get go, is use the bully pulpit.

As many states are moving full-force with a backlash, as conservatives use "religious freedom" to legislate hate, we need a president who will be vocal, taking on governors and legislators, and one who will be badgering Congress on federal protections, no matter how futile it seems, and taking the case to the American people.

Which candidate is more likely to do that as president? (And obviously, LGBT voters will, like any other voters, weigh these candidates on a variety of other issues they care about, too.) There may be some signals, based on how they run their campaigns, and I'll weigh in on that in the future. Meanwhile, rather than lecturing LGBT voters about either candidate's past, it is LGBT voters themselves who need to be asking that question about the future.