Last week, I wrote an editorial urging people to celebrate Senator Rob Portman for coming about on the issue of gay marriage. This week, I wonder if Bill Clinton deserves the same consideration. On September 21, 1996, Bill Clinton quietly signed a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law. This law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) makes it legal for states to not recognize gay marriages even if they are validly performed under the laws of a state in which gay marriage is legal. The law also denies federal marriage benefits that are given to straight couples. Now, 17 years later, Bill Clinton came out to say that DOMA is unconstitutional and urge the Supreme Court to overturn it. Although they are both involved in politics, Bill Clinton and Rob Portman are two fairly different people. Portman is a conservative, a Republican senator whose son came out of the closet two years ago and helped him turn around on the issue of gay marriage. Bill Clinton is a liberal, a democrat who has been around gay people and had gay friends since 1968. Clinton is also the first democratic presidential candidate to court a gay vote. Nevertheless, unlike Rob Portman, who stood against the party line in publically announcing his support for gay marriage, Clinton “resolved not to get burned” in an election year. He signed DOMA in the middle of the night without a public ceremony to avoid drawing attention to it. His supporters acknowledge and applaud Clinton’s evolution, citing the courage it takes for a President to admit that something he did while in office was unconstitutional. Others claim that Clinton’s latest anti-DOMA statements are as self-serving and opportunistic as his support of DOMA was in 1996. The reality is that the country was not ready to support gay marriage in 1996. Even in 2013, it is arguable that the majority that supports gay marriage is slim (with only 53% in favor). Bill Clinton signed a law that was representative of the attitude of the country at the time, and that is what a leader of the United States, a representative republic, is elected to do. Clinton now supports gay marriage, echoing the attitude of the rest of the country. On the other hand, our Constitution is built with certain safeguards to avoid the creation of a tyranny of the majority. Our history is full of defining moments in which we have created greater protections for minority groups and opinions. It seems to me that Bill Clinton chose politics over conscience. Twice. Though I believe that Bill Clinton sincerely supports marriage equality in 2013, I doubt he would have spoken out in its favor if public attitudes weren’t as open and accepting as they are. Perhaps it is his job to speak for the public only when there is majority support for what he’s saying, but a politician is not a puppet either. Politicians, presidents especially, are elected to represent the people, but also to lead.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Monday, March 25, 2013
As the Supreme Court gears up to hear oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry tomorrow, I think of adjectives such as historic, courageous, and just to describe the potentially wide-sweeping decision that the Court may render to legalize same-sex marriage across the country. However, I’m not very optimistic about such a decision's chances. I worry that despite all the momentum there has been in advancing same-sex marriage rights, there hasn’t been enough of it for the Court to jump on the bandwagon. The Supreme Court tends to be reactionary, preferring to solidify change toward the end of a social movement instead of being on the front line. It is an institution outside of the democratic process and works hard to avoid usurping power away from voters. Many argue, and I agree, that gay marriage is a Constitutional issue that doesn't belong to the whims of voters, but I doubt the Court will easily see things this way. In the wake of a nationally divisive case like Roe v. Wade, which Justice Ginsberg describes as "mov[ing] too far too fast," the Court may be extremely reluctant to take the same kind of activist action again. Popular referendums in the last election that, for the first time, upheld or legalized same-sex marriage in 4 states after 29 states amended their constitutions to ban it may signal to the Court that this social movement is in its infancy and is best left in the hands of democratic mechanisms. There are many other arguments on both sides of this debate as well, but it’s anyone’s guess which ones the Court will find most persuasive. Despite what the justices often claim, they do not live in vacuums and consider controversial legal issues far in advance of when the issues first officially come before them. The justices then make the law far more often than they “find” it. I hope they find that gay couples are equal to their straight counterparts and make law to support that conclusion, but my instincts tell me they aren’t there yet.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Lay off Rob Portman! He did a huge, great thing by coming out in support of gay marriage—the only sitting Republican senator to do so. Ever.
Maybe he would have never done so if his son wasn’t gay, but why should that matter? Channeling a personal experience into activism is not self-serving. It’s how most of us go about discovering what causes to champion in our daily lives. We often don’t understand something until confronted with it head-on. Consider the number of HIV activists in the gay community. How many of them worked so hard for the cause before they became infected?
I am not arguing that as a senator—and as a human being—Rob Portman shouldn’t soul search and champion causes that aren’t part of his personal experience. As a U.S. senator, he’s tasked with the responsibility of doing the right thing for all citizens, not just the ones he can personally relate to. I hope he understands that and will act accordingly. There is no reason, though, to attack a man who arrived at one right thing because he’s had a personal encounter with it.