ELECTION-YEAR DEMAGOGY around the issue of homosexuality is nothing new in American politics: Ever since a legendary Southern politician named Pitchfork Ben Tillman defeated an opponent by labeling him a "thespian," dumping on same-sexers has been a staple of conservatives in both parties. Bill Clinton, however, has the distinction of being the first sitting president to endorse a specific piece of gay-bashing legislation as a campaign tactic.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a Republican bill that sailed through final Congressional passage last week with the president's blessing, was spawned by the strategic musings of Republican ideologue Bill Bennett, who urged his party to attack same-sex unions as a way of underscoring the alleged "decadent liberal permissiveness" of the Democrats.
Clinton's endorsement of DOMA undercut the opposition to it within his own party; two-thirds of House and Senate Democrats followed their president and voted for it. Of all the senators facing reelection this year, the only anti-DOMA vote came from John Kerry of Massachusetts, a state that has repeatedly reelected two openly gay Congressmen and where Republican Gov. Bill Weld, who has appointed open gays to important state posts, is aggressively competing for the gay vote in his campaign against Kerry. Even Paul Wellstone, who knows better, shamelessly voted for DOMA.
The notion that the failing institution of heterosexual marriage is collapsing because of same-sex unions is simply loony. No state currently allows gays to legally marry, although there is a fair chance that a case now making its way through the Hawaii courts may make it the first state to do so sometime in the next two years. DOMA is a preemptive strike attempting to abrogate the constitutional requirement that states give "full faith and credit" to laws of other states in the event that Hawaii begins sanctioning gay marriages.
It is the AIDS crisis that has propelled the issue of marriage among same-sexers. Lesbian and gay partners are denied a host of rights their hetero counterparts take for granted: hospital visitation, inheritance of a shared home and other survivor benefits, and spousal health insurance coverage--these are the questions, as much as joint tax returns or child custody, that drive gay demands for civil recognition of our partnerships.
As John Kerry said on the Senate floor, "If this were truly a Defense of Marriage Act, it would expand... treatment on demand for alcohol or drug abuse, guarantee daycare, and expand protection against abused children." By endorsing DOMA, Clinton has made it more difficult for liberals to paint the GOP as extremists (just as he did by supporting the welfare abolition bill).
Clinton has long enjoyed an entirely undeserved reputation as gay-friendly, largely as a result of his mismanagement of the gays-in-the-military issue--even though the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy has resulted in an increase in military anti-gay witchhunts, as documented by Nightline last week. Clinton, four years ago promised to make AIDS "a national crusade," but his AIDS czar is ineffectual and generally a non-entity (in pointed contrast to his high-profile appointment of a general to head the lavishly funded war on drugs) and he has failed to implement the recommendations of his own presidential commission on AIDS, not to mention those of similar commissions appointed by Reagan and Bush.
Still, the image of Bob Dole having his good arm hoisted aloft by Pat Robertson at last weekend's Christian Coalition convention is enough to frighten most gay voters into the Clinton camp, although the actual difference in governance on issues that matter to same-sexers will be one of degree and not of kind. Even those tempted to thumb their noses at the major party duopoly by voting for Ralph Nader have no choice on these issues, for Nader too has refused to condemn DOMA, proclaiming that he is "not interested in gonadal politics."
It's a typical president election for same-sexers, who, once again, are all dressed up with no place to go.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.