Why do so many gays, and so many British Labour types (particularly so many gay Labourites), enthusiastically support the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton? Let me add a strong caveat. I understand – though I don’t accept – a hard-headed, pragmatic argument for endorsing the former secretary of state. Donald Trump is, after all, a threat to the American republic, and (turn away now if you have a sensitive disposition), if he becomes president, a menace to global security.
I could present polls which consistently show Bernie Sanders does better than Clinton when matched up against Republican candidates: you could wearily retort that the figures will change after an inevitable Republican onslaught against a self-described socialist. Clearly, it would be an inspiring and overdue historical landmark for the US to elect its first female president. There is also an understandable revulsion at the sexism and misogyny – and not just from the right – that has been directed at Clinton.
But it’s the enthusiasm, sometimes bordering on the sort of devotion Justin Bieber receives, that I’ve never understood. The Blairite wing of the Labour Party has always attracted a large contingent of gay men, specifically, some of whom idolise Tony Blair like besotted teenagers. Yet that’s more understandable: say what you will about Blair (and I have), but from the equalisation of the age of consent to civil partnerships, there is no denying New Labour’s commendable record on LGBT rights. Clinton is the mystery. She receives endorsements from leading LGBT organisations and activists; here in Britain, LGBT Labour members garnish their Twitter feeds with declarations of being #readyforhillary. But where is the record to justify such zealous cheerleading?
Hillary Clinton’s almost farcically offensive intervention on HIV last week is a case in point. Lauding both Ronald and Nancy Reagan for beginning a “national conversation” about HIV/Aids, claiming that before the Reagans “nobody would talk about it” and “nobody wanted to do anything about it” was a very public insult to the memories of the tens of thousands of Americans who died from the illness, partly because of President Reagan’s inaction. LGBT Americans and their allies struggled to start a “national conversation” about HIV/Aids that Reagan did not want to have. Not only did Nancy Reagan callously fail to help her friend Rock Hudson as he died from the effects of the virus, but the president’s press secretary even joked repeatedly, in public, about an illness killing thousands of American citizens.
The uproar over Clinton’s comments forced her to backtrack and claim that she “misspoke”, a bizarre formulation she also employed in 2008 when she dishonestly claimed to have been forced to run for cover in Bosnia after coming under sniper fire. But really: how on Earth could she have “misspoken” such an obviously absurd claim? You don’t even need to know that much about American politics – let alone be a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, with decades of political experience touting yourself as an LGBT champion – to know about the Reagans’ contemptible role in the HIV/Aids epidemic.
Clinton was a high-profile opponent of equal marriage, only embracing the cause in 2013. Am I claiming Bernie Sanders was way ahead of his time? No: although he backed civil unions for many years, he didn’t come round to equal marriage until 2009. And there is a big difference between 2009 and 2013. By 2013, public opinion had swung decisively in favour of equal marriage. In 2009 a poll found that 57 per cent of Americans opposed equal marriage; by 2013, a poll showed 53 per cent now backed it. Sanders was in a minority of politicians who were ahead of public opinion; Clinton merely caught up with popular opinion and adjusted her position accordingly.
Indeed, Clinton defended her husband’s signing of the Defence of Marriage Act 1996, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman – and “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military as a defensive measure, rightly leading others to accuse her of historical revisionism. Perhaps she just misspoke again. When in 2002 she was booed after responding negatively on whether New York State should recognise equal marriage, she grinned like a Cheshire cat.
Then there’s Hillary’s hawkish foreign policy. The aftermath of the Iraq War, which she backed, has been calamitous for LGBT Iraqis. Similarly, after the 2009 military coup in Honduras (backed by Clinton) LGBT activists in that country were targeted by right-wing militias.
And yet it was Clinton who won the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, the biggest LGBT organisation in the US. Of course, the LGBT rights movement is not homogeneous and never has been. There are those who, for instance, will argue for equality before the law but back economic policies that lead to slashing of support for LGBT services. And then there are those of us who believe that the battles for LGBT rights and economic justice are inseparable.
It is galling to see Clinton transformed, undeservedly, into some sort of LGBT icon. When I asked LGBT Labourites whom they would choose, if they could magically ensure either Sanders or Clinton becomes president, some made a passionate case for Clinton, despite a worse record on LGBT rights and although she’s to the right of not only Sanders, but even the British Conservatives on some issues. If people sincerely believe Clinton is their only chance of keeping Trump out the White House, I respect that view, even if I disagree with it. But let’s not pretend her record on LGBT rights is anything other than a mixture of opportunism, belatedness and outright dishonesty.
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue