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Memphis Flyer Clinton Works the Gays

But what did the president do except go through the motions?

By Mubarak S. Dahir

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  On November 8th, Bill Clinton became the first president ever to publicly address a gay and lesbian civil-rights group when he spoke at a fund-raiser for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and lesbian lobby group in Washington, D.C.

His appearance there has been trumpeted as a landmark by gay and lesbian leaders. But while listening to his speech on the radio,I noticed something that posed a real threat to the political progress of gay and lesbian civil rights. From the very beginning of Clinton’s speech, and continuing unmercifully throughout it, he was constantly interrupted. The interruptions were so frequent, they almost made it difficult for him to get through the speech. I found them alarming.

Most of those interruptions were not from hecklers or skeptics questioning Clinton’s many missteps to date with the gay and lesbian community. No, they were nothing but sheer applause and ovations that bordered on blind idol worship.

Thundering applause silenced the president for minutes after he delivered the stock political opener, “I’m delighted to be here.” And that symbolizes my concern about the unchecked euphoria the gay and lesbian community indulged in over the mere fact that Clinton spoke to a bunch of gay and lesbian people assembled together in the same room.

Clinton could have been reading numbers from the phone book, and he still would have received deafening applause from a community so seduced by the presence of a president and the desire to be part of mainstream politics that they seem to have forgotten the difference between delivering a speech and delivering tangible civil-rights progress.

Of course, Clinton, being the superb politician he is, delivered a better-than-average speech that touched on many important themes involving gay and lesbian civil rights. Some of his words even deserved applause.

As do some of his actions to date: It is true that under Clinton, federal money for AIDS has increased; he has appointed some openly gay and lesbian people to office; he was the first president to court the gay and lesbian vote as a candidate back in 1987; and he backs the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,which would be the first piece of federal civil-rights legislation aimed specifically at protecting gay and lesbian Americans.

But Clinton is hardly a purist when it comes to standing up for gay and lesbian civil rights. When he realized how badly he bungled his promise to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, he forever backed away from it; he has routinely ignored the recommendations of his own national advisory council on AIDS; and, most disappointingly, he signed the hateful Defense of Marriage Act against same-sex marriages, and has stated he believes marriage is valid for only for a man and a woman.

My point here is not to demonize the president. When he takes a step in favor of gay and lesbian issues, he should be encouraged and commended, and indeed, his speech to the Human Rights Campaign deserves a nod of approval. But not hysterical, goo-goo-eyed fawning.

This same kind of dangerously naive optimism followed Clinton’s first election to the White House. We should have learned then an important lesson, not only about Bill Clinton’s limitations, but also about how blind support of a politician can, in the long run, hurt rather than help the advancement of gay and lesbian civil rights. Bill Clinton epitomizes the arrogant belief, present particularly among Democrats, that we as gay and lesbian people have no political alternative.

That belief could only have been reinforced on November 8th, when a bunch of supposed gay and lesbian leaders slapped down $250 per couple simply to cheer wildly at Clinton’s most mundane pronouncements.

(Mubarak S. Dahir, a Philadelphian and former Memphian, writes a column on gay concerns.)

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