By Richard Socarides
"I have a vision and you are a part of it. I believe tomorrow will be better than today... We are all a part of the same community..." Bill Clinton, West Hollywood, CA, May 18, 1992.
Six years after candidate Bill Clinton spoke those now famous words about us and went on to become the first president in history to include gay and lesbian Americans in the life of the nation, it's more important than ever for all of us to stay focused and keep working on the vital issues we care about. Our community cannot afford to stop participating in the political process, especially now that our participation has resulted in substantial progress.
As the Administration's point person on gay and lesbian issues, I know better than anyone that there have been some disappointments in the last six years. With our needs so real and our expectations so high, there were bound to be some let-downs. We desperately wanted to believe that this man who embraced us as a community could grant us full and equal rights with the stroke of a pen. But we learned all too painfully -- over and over -- that homophobia has deeper roots than any pen alone can unearth.
In the process we have grown to understand what it really takes to change a nation -- and what it takes to change a society full of misconceptions. But change has begun. The dialogue the President started with the nation in 1992 and which he has continued throughout his presidency (notably in his White House meetings with gay and lesbian leaders and his historic speech last year at the Human Rights Campaign dinner) needs to continue if we are ever to enjoy the full rights of citizenship.
Building on that dialogue, there have been substantial and very real accomplishments in the last six years. President Clinton issued executive orders banning sexual orientation discrimination in the civilian federal workforce and protecting gays from being denied security clearances. This makes the federal government the largest employer in the world (1.8 million civilian employees) with a non-discrimination policy covering sexual orientation. This past summer the Clinton Administration successfully waged a coalition campaign in the House of Representatives to defeat the right wing's attempt to overturn these historic rules of basic fairness.
Our President is the first ever in history to appoint an openly gay person to a job in his administration (yes, ever). And by appointing people who have experience and reputations in our communities (Virginia Apuzzo, Roberta Achtenberg, Fred Hochberg, Jim Hormel, Karen Tramontano, Dr. Scott Hitt, Bob Hattoy and, most recently, Gail Shibley, to name a few), the President has selected advocates who have the will and the power to fight for us. (The President has also appointed countless straight allies like former gay and lesbian liaison Marsha Scott, AIDS Czar Sandy Thurman, White House Communications Director Ann Lewis and former Presidential Press Secretary Mike McCurry).
President Clinton is the first American president to support, sponsor and work for federal civil rights protection for gays and lesbians. During his first term, he endorsed the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect us from discrimination in the workplace (hiring, firing, promotion, etc.).
Last year during the historic White House Conference on Hate Crimes, which prominently featured California Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila Kuelh and dozens of other gay rights advocates, the President announced his sponsorship of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This legislation would for the first time extend the reach of federal criminal law to cover hate crimes motivated by a bias against people because of their perceived sexual orientation. No one could have predicted that the tragic events in Wyoming this fall would make the need for this legislation so clear to so many.
Unfortunately, both ENDA and the Hate Crimes bill are being held captive by the right wing Republican Congress (along with Jim Hormel's nomination to be Ambassador to Luxembourg). President Clinton and Vice President Gore have recently underscored their commitment to continue to fight vigorously for these bills until they become law.
Even as our accomplishments have grown, the attacks and hate filled voices of intolerance have also multiplied. It is important to contrast Clinton Administration policies of inclusion and fairness with the extremism on the right. This extremism has encouraged the recent unprecedented attacks on the very idea of fair treatment -- attacks which sought to punish and scapegoat us just because of who we are. It was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott whose infamous comments compared us to kleptomaniacs and alcoholics. And it was the Republicans in the House of Representatives who this summer passed legislation which would, if allowed to become law, prohibit same-sex joint adoptions and which would deny federal housing money to localities with domestic partnership laws.
We have made remarkable progress, indeed, even history, under this Administration. But we still have a lot of work to do. The recent wave of prejudice and bigotry has only strengthened the President's resolve to fight injustice. He stands with us. At the White House we will remain focused on the important work the President has asked us to do for gay and lesbian Americans. But these efforts require the support and active participation of all of us.
Richard Socarides is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor for Public Liaison at the White House. An earlier and abbreviated version of this piece appears in the October 27, 1998 issue of The Advocate.