On Nov. 8, President Clinton spoke at a fund-raising dinner for the Human Rights Campaign. It marked the first time a sitting president has addressed a gay political organization. “We are redefining [America’s] immutable ideals,” said Clinton. But in the cauldron of politics, ideals are never immutable. It’s your mutation vs. theirs. For example:
1 Civil rights vs. “special rights.” Clinton’s main thrust was to equate gay rights with civil rights. He likened his speech to the 1947 NAACP gathering at which Harry Truman became the first president to address a black civil-rights group. HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch likewise said her cause was “civil rights” rather than “gay rights.”
The civil-rights analogy serves three purposes. First, it subsumes an apparently radical idea, gay rights, under a patriotic tradition: the espousal and gradual extension of equal rights. Clinton traced this tradition to Thomas Jefferson and called it “the fundamental story of our country.” Second, it minimizes the burden on gay-rights advocates. “Civil rights” are basic. You can extend them to gays (and to Jews, Nazis, and vegetarians) without condoning their behavior. Third, it allows gay-rights advocates to avoid mentioning homosexuality. Clinton spokesmen Mike McCurry and Rahm Emanuel demonstrated this feat when summarizing the speech for reporters.
Critics say that gays want not “civil” rights or “equal” rights but “special” rights. The S-word has so effectively permeated the gay-rights debate that in their speeches, both Clinton and Birch felt obliged, without prompting, to deny it. This didn’t stop Ralph Reed and other critics from hurling it on television the next morning. Reed elaborated: Gays are demanding “a special category, based on sexual preference, under our civil-rights statutes.” This argument fails logically (our civil-rights laws are entirely about special categories such as race), but it succeeds politically, by giving a fig leaf of neutrality to what is actually a moral aversion to homosexuality.
2 Tolerance vs. approval. Conservatives long ago surrendered to the liberal crusade for “tolerance.” Now they claim to represent tolerance against the left’s demand for “approval” of homosexuality. It’s a strong argument, because gays do want approval. One prominent gay activist called Clinton’s speech a “message of acceptance.” Dan Quayle described Clinton’s message as part of an attempt by gays and liberals “to impose their particular viewpoint on us.” As CNN pundit Mona Charen put it, “We won’t ask about your private life, but don’t flaunt it.” Gays see it the other way around: If they can’t be open about their orientation, said Birch, they’re effectively “banished to the closet.” But that’s a hard argument to sell to an audience that doesn’t know–and doesn’t want to know–what it’s like to be gay.
The Ellen controversy illustrates how easily open homosexuality can be construed as aggression. On Oct. 17, Vice President Gore boasted that when the TV character “Ellen” (played by Ellen DeGeneres) came out as a lesbian, Americans “were forced to look at sexual orientation in a more open light.” Conservatives, led by Quayle, exploded at Gore’s use of the F-word. Clinton learned from the mistake. On Nov. 8, when asked on Meet the Press whether he agreed with Gore, he rephrased the point, saying that the coming-out episode “gave” Americans “a chance to see [homosexuality] in a new light.”
3 Outreach vs. pandering. Clinton wants to make gays’ participation in politics appear normal. His idea of normal politics is cobbling together interest groups. Previewing the speech, McCurry compared it to an Italian-American dinner. Birch welcomed that analogy and asserted that gays should be treated like “the Hispanic vote,” because exit polls indicate that they’re 5 percent of the electorate. This foolish argument helped conservatives dismiss Clinton’s speech as “pandering.” Reed adroitly deployed the S-word, calling Clinton a lackey of the “old Democratic Party of a polyglot of special interests, of gays, of feminists, and of union members.”
Gay-rights supporters compounded the damage by bragging about gay money and political clout. DeGeneres depicted her own coming-out as a financial boon: “I became more famous. So much for those people who said that it would ruin my career.” Birch boasted that gays had made “significant investments, on par with other constituency groups, into campaigns.” HRC advertised that it had contributed $1 million to Democrats in 1996, that gays had chipped in $3.2 million altogether, and that Clinton’s appearance at its dinner would raise $300,000. Clinton pointed out that “since I’ve become president, we’re spending 10 times as much per fatality on people with AIDS as [on] people with breast cancer or prostate cancer.” Conservatives gleefully connected the dots: Rich homosexuals were funding Clinton in exchange for favors at other people’s expense. By the end of the Sunday-morning chat shows, CNN’s Frank Sesno was asking Emanuel, “Is this just another political group, another bunch of donors that you’re appealing to?”
4 Protection vs. pity. Clinton and Birch talked about how gays have suffered from AIDS, teen suicide, and hate crimes. But this line of argument is also dangerous. If gays are unhappy, said Bill Bennett in a debate with Birch on ABC’s ThisWeek, the “compassionate” response is to help them abandon homosexuality. This is fast becoming the respectable anti-gay position. Anti-gay extremists picketed the HRC dinner with signs saying “God Hates Fags,” but a second group of protesters won better press coverage by carrying signs saying “Ellen Can Change.”
5 Employment vs. marriage. Clinton urged Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban job discrimination against gays. Chat shows replayed his best sound bite: “Being gay [has] nothing to do with the ability to read a balance book, fix a broken bone, or change a spark plug.” Even Quayle and Bennett had to agree. But neither Clinton nor Birch mentioned gay marriage. Why? They’ve used the same pollster and seen the same polls: Americans favor equal treatment of gays in the workplace but oppose gay marriage, probably because the latter involves sex. Last year, Clinton signed legislation prohibiting federal recognition of gay marriages, then bragged about it in campaign ads. (Republicans named it the “Defense of Marriage Act,” framing gays as the aggressors.) Would Clinton sign it again? Yes, said Emanuel after the HRC speech.
Conservatives have attacked ENDA in several ways–by claiming, for example, that it entails job quotas (i.e., special rights) for gays. But defending the right to discriminate against gays is no longer a sure winner for them. They’re better off changing the subject to marriage, where they hold a clear advantage. On ThisWeek, Birch focused on civil rights and job discrimination, only to be derailed by George Will’s first question: “Does basic, equal, civil rights include the right to marry?” Birch, unlike Clinton, had to give a principled answer–“uh, yes”–at which point Will and Bennett dragged her through the sordid exercise of distinguishing gay marriage from polygamy and incest. Birch pointed out that conservatives defend serial and childless heterosexual marriages, but the whole topic was a loser for her. Questions, not answers, win debates.
6 Identity vs. behavior. Everyone now agrees with Martin Luther King Jr. that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. The gay-rights debate turns on whether homosexuality is more like the former or the latter. This is why gays substituted the phrase “sexual orientation” for “sexual preference.”
Now conservatives are fighting back. Their usual tactic is to pepper the debate with references to sexual vices such as adultery and bestiality. But Clinton’s war on nonsexual sins gives them a new angle. Citing the campaign against tobacco, Bennett argued that being a gay man is worse than being a smoker because homosexuality “takes 30 years off your life.”
To suppress the image of homosexuality as a vice, Clinton and Birch attribute civic virtues to gays. “If they obey the law, show up for work every day or show up for school, if they’re good citizens, they ought to be treated with respect,” said Clinton. Responding to Will’s criticism of gay couples who seek to marry, Birch insisted, “They are tax-paying! They are tax-paying!”
7 Nature vs. nurture. This underlies the identity vs. behavior debate. On the Sunday chat shows after Clinton’s speech, conservatives argued that homosexuality involves a “choice,” while liberals maintained that it’s “genetically based” and “hard-wired.” The hot-button issue behind this academic dispute is kids. If children are amenable to gay persuasion, conservatives can argue that they should be “protected” by excluding gays not just from jobs that involve children (e.g., teaching), but also from any legal rights that confer respectability. The extreme argument, dredged up by Bennett, is that gays conspire to recruit kids. The more respectable argument, leveled by Will, is that kids are susceptible to atmospheric social cues.
The conventional view of last week’s frame game is that Clinton’s words didn’t matter because his mere presence advanced gay rights as a mainstream cause. No doubt it did. But words always matter, and last week’s exchange proved that opponents of gay rights aren’t running out of good ones any time soon.