"The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:"
~William Shakespeare....The Merchant of Venice
At least so saith the poet...
Forgiveness is an incredible force for healing as well as human progress that many often write off as a weakness. Yet, without mercy and its close cousin, forgiveness, we would fight blood feuds without end...and in my opinion the world is filled with enough examples of that. So it is with some internal conflict that I read this week that Bill Clinton is kinda-sorta non-apologizing for signing DOMA into law and urging the Supreme Court to strike it down. I mean, the man signed it into law, so I should be jumping up and down in celebration that he is going public condemning it....right?. Well, given the spate of politicians that have recently come out to support abolishing DOMA and prop 8 who previously supported enacting those laws when they were in power...my feelings about Clinton's actions are mixed and anything but poetic.
I was only barely coming to terms with myself as a gay man when then President Clinton signed DOMA into law. At the time, it passed over me with as little interest as the daily rise and fall of the stock exchange, something that really did not pop up on my radar, nor would have caused a raised eyebrow. It was just another jab at the gay community that I had come to expect as the rule rather than the exception. Little did I know then how momumentally damaging that act would end up being, snor how it would impact my life and the lives of thousands of other LGBT people across the nation. It is only in hindsight now, that I can understand this law that passed right over my head at a time when I was more concerned about making the rent.
It is that same quality of hindsight with which Bill Clinton writes of his reasons for signing DOMA and of his regret:
In 1996, I signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time. In no state in the union was same-sex marriage recognized, much less available as a legal right, but some were moving in that direction. Washington, as a result, was swirling with all manner of possible responses, some quite draconian. As a bipartisan group of former senators stated in their March 1 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, many supporters of the bill known as DOMA believed that its passage “would defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more.” It was under these circumstances that DOMA came to my desk, opposed by only 81 of the 535 members of Congress....
...When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.
There are many people who are still very angry at President Clinton for signing DOMA into law in the first place. Moreover because he was also the man to bring us DADT. Both of these discriminatory laws were billed as stop-gap compromises to ward off the fears that gay people were gaining rights that many felt we were not entitled to. As Clinton himself admits, just the whisper that Hawaii might pass marriage equality was enough to drive conservatives...and democrats alike, into overdrive to find some way to halt such action permanently. The essence of the Presidents stated rational seems to be that he was saving us from a worse fate and that is probably true. But for all the anger that has been directed his way at being the author of DOMA....is this an apology? I don't think so. Regret in hindsight maybe, but not apology. And yet, an apology... an admission that he made a mistake, is exactly how this is being presented to us even though it is no where stated within the body of his article. "Clinton admits DOMA was discriminatory" is the take away message you will find on most news sources carrying the story.
However, a few burning questions keeps bothering me. I understand the timing of this article as we are fast approaching the beginning of oral arguments in the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of both DOMA and Prop 8. However, why an op-ed piece in place of an amicus brief were-in his place as the author of the law, and opposing it, would possibly do more good? And still others have pointed out that Clinton actually campaigned on the fact that he signed DOMA in ads running on Christian radio.
The fact that he couldn't be bother to file a brief, and that he possibly campaigned on the fact that he enacted DOMA when it was politically advantageous to him is making this non-apology look even more non-apologetic. A fact not lost on veteran activist David Mixner:
There is no question that President Clinton saying to the Supreme Court that DOMA should be declared unconstitutional is a major victory in the battle for LGBT full equality. He joins over 300 corporations, 130 major Republicans, over 200 members of Congress and so many more in the long list of Americans, organizations and associations who find DOMA abhorrent. Those who love justice should celebrate this latest addition to our cause.
However, as with DADT, it is important not to rewrite history in order to make him feel better about signing it in the first place. Clinton took the wrong action in 1996 and he did it for purely political reasons. That is the truth of the matter...
...Like DADT, the President's embracing of DOMA was a political move. While he talked about his pain in signing the legislation, his team campaign team immediately created radio ads and started running them throughout the South. In those ads, they proclaimed and celebrated Clinton signing the legislation.
Political motivation being the reason for enacting DOMA to begin with, some are saying that this his recent article was also politically motivated in that it could help take some of the tarnish off the Clinton name should Hillary chose to run in the future(something I support mind you). It seems to me that old Bill is walking the well worn path of people like Ken Mehlman, Meg Whitman, or any other politician that has opposed gay rights when it suited them to do so and now...when it is becoming clear that a majority of Americans support marriage equality...spontaneously see the light. My husband Jay, in a recent video about those who have submitted amicus briefs to the Scotus, went on somewhat of a tirade about politicians who support us long after they could have used their power to help, all in order to not look like bigots in the harsh gaze of the history:
In the video, Jay is expressing some rightly held anger over the sudden reversals of some of these people who now support gay marriage since it cost's them little to do so, at which point I ask, "Well can't we just take that and run with it?" Regardless of the fair-weather-friend nature of these sudden statements of support, it does still help us. Even David Mixner, for all his criticism of Clinton's motivations also stated, "Clintons support should be regarded as a "major victory in the battle for LGBT full equality".
And so this brings me to a question I would like to pose to all of you:
Given that an individual has done palpable damage to the gay community(for whatever reason), and now that they are out of direct power decide to issue statements of support(or come out of the closet for some)....how do we as a community respond to this?
It seems to me to be a balancing act of accepting these events for the boon that they are while also keeping a clear eye on the real reasons for their support. Ken Mehlman help craft George Bush Jr's campaign that focused on scaring the public with the specter of gay marriage...then he came out of the closet and asked to be forgiven for his past deeds under Bush. Meg Whitman came out against marriage equality during her run for Governor of California when public opinion was more evenly divided and opposing it bought her conservative clout...now she doesn't want to be remembered for those actions and has signed onto the amicus brief with the other 100+ names (that are also out of power) urging Scotus to strike down Prop 8.
It is deeply conflicting to know that when they had power, they chose to use it to hurt us...and now they are standing there, hat in hand, and asking for acceptance. At least in Ken Mehlmans case he has since used what politcal connections he has to lobby conservatives to support marriage equality. I don't think anyone can forget what they did....nor why the did it. It is hard to stand up and say, "Yay! Now you support marriage equality and now its all good!" because should the wind of public opinion change again, on which side will they be standing?
And so I am split. I believe in giving people second chances..and sometimes thirds and fourths...if I feel that they are genuine in their change of heart. Lord knows I have made enough mistakes in my life and been so grateful for the people who forgave me. I know how necessary it is. But that's the thing....you get the feeling that many of the people now asking for acceptance from us only want to erase the way that history will remember them...not because anything in them really changed or that they now agree with what they are supporting. Hence my ambivalence over Clinton's op-ed non-apology.
Why now?...after so long of staying silent on the matter? Is it great to have the author of a discriminatory law publicly oppose it?.....sure. Will it help us?....maybe. Will it have any practical effect on the Justices of the Supreme Court?...also, only a maybe. Can I stand up and cheer that he's had a change of heart?....sadly, no.
But now I open it up to you. Where is the line in which we view someone who has hurt us legally and politically as having changed...in which we can then view them as that changed person? Do you even think that Clinton is asking for a pass on his past actions and attempting to change the way history will percieve him..... or simply looking to right a very old wrong? At what point to we ever say...it's all in the past?
Until next time dear readers...