Friday, September 7, 2007

Hillary Clinton Talks to Paul Schindler, 2000

In an exclusive interview with lgny's editor in chief Paul Schindler on October 4, 2000, subsequently republished by,
Hillary Rodham Clinton made her strongest statement to date about the role the federal government ought to play in recognizing civil unions such as those sanctioned by recent legislation in Vermont. She also broke new ground beyond the policies of her husband's Administration by declaring her support for federal funds earmarked specifically for state and local needle exchange efforts.

In a wide-ranging 25-minute interview held October 4 on the campus of the Brooklyn College Law School in Brooklyn Heights, Rodham Clinton also responded to questions about the distinction she draws between civil union and marriage, her views on the Clinton Administration's failed Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy, hot button inclusiveness issues such as the Boy Scouts and the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, the political realities surrounding gender identity issues, and her political education on gay and lesbian issues.

Since launching her U.S. Senate campaign more than a year ago, Rodham Clinton has several times spoken generally about her support for extending the full benefits of marriage to lesbians and gay men through domestic partnership. Her response on the issue of federal recognition of Vermont civil unions represents her most specific comments about the role the federal government might play in bringing about these changes. The candidate continues to draw a distinction between civil unions and marriage, which she said has "historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time," open only to a man and a woman. Rodham Clinton dismissed any Church/State separation issues that a "religious and moral" perspective on a civil institution might pose.

Rodham Clinton's statement endorsing federal funding of needle exchange programs marked an important break with the President's policy. Throughout his Administration, Clinton sided with drug czar General Barry McCaffrey who successfully fended off health and scientific officials who pointed to the clear benefits of clean needles in preventing HIV transmission. Housing Works, the AIDS advocacy group, in a press release about a recent AIDS white paper released by Rodham Clinton's campaign, criticized the Senate candidate on this issue. In fact, as Rodham Clinton spoke to lgny, activists from Housing Works were protesting at her midtown campaign headquarters resulting in several arrests.

Rodham Clinton told lgny that the campaign had allowed her the chance to meet with advocates for transgender rights, but she discounted the political viability of trying to amend pending legislation before Congress, such as the Employment NonDiscrimination Act, to address issues of gender identity and expression at this time. In fact, she said, "No one who's a leader in the gay and lesbian community has asked me to do that."

Rodham Clinton also spoke at length about what she described as the "difficult decision" she faced on thorny issues of inclusiveness posed by events such as the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, which bans openly gay and lesbian marchers. She said she felt constrained by "relationships" and "ongoing commitments" to the Northern Ireland peace process.

In addressing her decision last year to break with the Clinton Administration's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and her political education on gay issues generally, Rodham Clinton described a "revolutionary journey to understanding that took 30 years." In 1969, Hillary Rodham gave a commencement address at Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she talked about the "challenge… to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible." She now has five weeks to find out whether she will be given that chance, and perhaps then six years to prove whether she has the will to do so.

lgny: Since the Vermont civil union decision last December, you have strongly supported the court decision. You've also said you think it's going to come to pass everywhere in time, and also that you would support such a measure in New York State.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Right.

lgny: Would you support a federal effort to recognize and confer the federal portion of benefits that these state civil union measures are not able to convey?

Clinton: Yes.

lgny: In recent decades a lot of voters have looked to the Democratic Party as a guarantor of a clear distinction between Church and State. In one of the comments you made about the possibility of gay marriage I believe you said there were "historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time." Is that kind of position -- which is similar to that taken by other Democrats otherwise strong supporters of gay rights -- is that kind of distinction one that possibly breaches the Church/State distinction that some voters find so important?

Clinton: I don't think so. I think traditional marriage has been vested with a meaning and an interpretation that has an extraordinary strength within, certainly, our society and I don't see that there's any breaching of that in the sense that people have the choice between religious ceremonies and civil ceremonies, but their ceremonies or their marriages need to be legally registered with a marriage license. I don't see that as any breach.

lgny: But not extending that licensing to gay couples?

Clinton: Well, for civil unions.

lgny: On the Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy, you came out with a very strong statement I think it was early in December of last year. And since that time you have said that you believe that you in part changed the terms of the debate on this issue. In fact, within a week or two, the Vice President separated himself from the policy and even the President said, I believe, "The policy is out of whack." Can you tell me when and how you came to the conclusion that the policy was in need of repair?

Clinton: I think as I watched it being implemented and some of the problems that were obviously arising from the enforcement struck me as untenable. There didn't seem to me to be a way for the military to play that kind of role. Therefore I think that people who wish to serve their country should be permitted to serve their country and that all people should be governed by the same code of military conduct and should be evaluated for their fitness and performance with respect to their duties that they are asked to carry out and their behavior in the military context. I just think that makes tremendous sense. I believe that we should move toward that.

Now, I know that there's been a good faith effort on the part of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs and others to try to go back and provide better education and accountability for line officers in the enforcement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and I appreciate that because I think its important not to be harassing people and subjecting people to torment and even potential danger as we've seen in the past. But I just concluded in my own mind that it's time for us to let people serve based on their desire to serve and on the ability to perform their service-related jobs.

lgny: Your statement came at the time when the murder trial in the case of Barry Winchell was winding down.

Clinton: Right.

lgny: Were you concerned at that point that in fact the policy might be encouraging more harassment of gay soldiers?

Clinton: Well I think there's evidence of that, it wasn't just my concern. There is evidence and it's what caused, I think, the President and the Secretary to go back to the drawing board and try to raise the level of awareness and understanding. And certainly his death, the increased discharges of people because of off-base activities and honest declarations of sexual orientation that had nothing to do with their service record ... that was all disturbing to me. And then I learned that the military had permitted a lot of people to serve in Desert Storm and only discharged them after they'd made use of their service, which struck me as unfair and hypocritical. So I think that its going to be very difficult to fix what is essentially a contradictory policy that I believe we should move beyond.

lgny: Going back to 1993 when the compromise was first struck I think there was a lot of disappointment within the Administration that it was the best result that was able to be achieved. Certainly there was a lot of disappointment in the lesbian and gay community about what was called a compromise at the time. Did you learn anything in particular that was interesting at that point about gay rights issues and the way in which the public views them and the way in which they can be moved forward?

Clinton: Well I think we've learned since then that there was a tremendous amount of misinformation and bias and stereotyping that was driving decision making and that much of the reason for that was a lack of personal experience and awareness. There were people in the United States Congress as well as in the larger community who believed that they didn't even know gay people -- with very few exceptions, maybe Barney Frank or somebody like that -- but otherwise they had no basis for experience and it was a tremendous obstacle to overcome on the part of the Administration and the advocates. I think we've seen a lot of change in the last seven years. I give much of the credit to the advocacy community because I think there's been a really effective public education campaign that has raised people's awareness. We're not the same country we were in '93 that we are today. But we still have a lot of work to do.

lgny: You issued a white paper on AIDS and HIV a week and a half ago or so and you gave a speech up at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx about AIDS issues. Housing Works is a vibrant community group that has actually had a lot of success in the courts holding Mayor Giuliani's feet to the fire on the delivery of AIDS services here in New York City. They've also played a pretty vigilant role in terms of commenting on your record and positions and on Congressmember Lazio's. They came out with a statement about your white paper and the key issue that they zeroed in on was IV drug use and I'll read from their statement: "Intravenous drugs are now the biggest category of HIV infections and AIDS cases in our state. To have a big impact in the areas of prevention and care we need new federal funds for needle exchange." Do you have a position on federal funding of needle exchange?

Clinton: I believe that New York, with its recent launching, has taken a big step forward to permit state-funded health clinics, which are often jointly or mutually funded in the federal budget, they're not just stand-alone state money, to use funds for needle exchange. I think it's a big step forward. I think that we should go with the science and the science has been pretty clear on this. If we can prevent IV drug use we ought to do it. Recognizing the political realities, I think it has to be an option. I think that we need to say that if the states and localities are willing to do it, the federal government will support it. But I don't know that we're yet at a political critical mass where we can mandate it. But I think we ought to get everything we can done legislatively to provide what ever federal support we could.

lgny: Would that federal support include specific federal dollars earmarked for needle exchange?

Clinton: Yes, so long as the local community or the state accepted that. You wouldn't mandate it on a local community that for whatever reason wouldn't do it or didnĂ‚¿t want it.

lgny: That's a shift from existing Administration policy.

Clinton: It is.

lgny: Can you tell our readers a little bit about the political education that you had on gay and lesbian issues? You've been a lawyer, you've been a children's activist, a women's activist for many many years. When was it that you began to become informed on gay and lesbian issues and who were some of the people who helped your thinking on that score?

Clinton: Oh gosh. Well one of the people was David Mixner, who has been a friend of mine for a very long time, who I saw last week when I was in L.A. We had been active with David in politics and campaigns before he was, I think, even aware of -- certainly before he was out as being gay. So we kind of lived through David's transition, which was a very important personal experience because we knew his family. His sister is a friend of ours. So we could see what that meant to him. Likewise, there were other personal friends of mine who had the same kind of journey and faced the same kinds of difficulties -- David had a less difficult time in some respects because his sister was really his major family and she was very supportive of him. Other friends of ours faced a much more difficult challenge. I remember a good friend who I went to law school with who had a very hard time. I was close to him. He ended up actually moving to Arkansas and Bill and I spent a lot of time with him. I think you look at these individual experiences of people you care about, who you love -- it's not so dramatic in many instances today as it was 20 years ago -- who are struggling to be who they are and to be acknowledged for who they are as human beings. I think it was one of those revolutionary journeys to understanding that took 30 years.

lgny: But began as early as friends from law school?

Clinton: Yeah, in the '70s. Yeah, the early '70s.

lgny: Your speech at Wellesley in 1969 you talked about making politics the art of the making the impossible possible and clearly there was a strong feminist thrust to the talk you gave. When you were at Wellesley was there open discussion at that time about gay and lesbian issues among the students?

Clinton: Not that I recall. There may have been. But I was so obsessed by the Vietnam War and Bobby Kennedy being killed and Martin Luther King being killed, that it wasn't really part of the general discussion. But this is back in the late '60s.

lgny: So this is really something that came around for you as a discussion in your early adulthood?

Clinton: Yes, that's right.

lgny: One of the challenges that the gay community faces today as we try to get a hate crimes bill passed, and the employment nondiscrimination act, is a challenge from other members of our community, transgender people and people with gender variations, pushing to try to make some of the language in these proposals more inclusive, so we're not strictly talking about a gay person or a lesbian, but a range of people. In your campaign you've had a lot of contact with gay leaders throughout the state. Have you the opportunity to get feedback from members of the transgender community?

Clinton: Yes, we have. Not as much or as frequently but some. I have a few transgendered contributors of some significance. So yes, we have gotten feedback.

lgny: Do you think the goal of broadening the language for ENDA or broadening language in the hate crimes protection act to include gender expression and gender identity, do you think that's a practical goal at this point politically?

Clinton: I think we need to try to move ENDA forward. I think ENDA is such an important legislative goal. I think it's within reach and I think it's a vehicle for widening the circle of rights and freedoms and responsibilities and I would really focus on trying to get that passed.

lgny: In other words, no effort at this point at amending?

Clinton: I don't see at this point that that would be in the best interest of moving the agenda forward.

lgny: What I understand your answer to be is that laudable as that goal might be it might slow the political process down.

Clinton: Well I think that's probably accurate. It may not be the answer people want to hear, but I think it's accurate. We should do everything we can to get ENDA to pass. Legislation is often imperfect at best, and not as inclusive as it needs to be, but you have to build on your victories. Right now we don't have ENDA. I think about the fact that we don't have the hate crimes legislation.

lgny: One of the things that the transgender community points to is that, for example, on hate crimes in New York State, the entire coalition for hate crimes held out to have gays and lesbians included in it. We would have had a hate crimes bill in New York long ago if it had only been for religion and so forth. But everyone hung tough on that. But what the transgender community is saying now is "Wouldn't that approach be appropriate for them as well?" In other words, don't do it piecemeal, include everybody and then move forward.

Clinton: Well no one who's a leader in the gay and lesbian community has asked me to do that. I think there's an understood recognition of the political reality. So for me it's a priority to try to get ENDA passed, which is what I will work on.

lgny: There have been a number of issues that have come up in recent months about inclusion, gay people's inclusion in things, the most recent of course being the Supreme Court ruling on the scouting issue. One of your campaign spokespeople told me that you were opposed to the Supreme Court decision that came down in the scouting case. Once those decisions come down, there are a whole range of other issues that come up -- public school support for the scouts, the President serving as honorary chairperson of the Boy Scouts of America, and earlier this year, you faced a similar but different issue in terms of the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. How do we navigate those kinds of inclusion issues?

Clinton: It's very tough. I'm not going to sit here and tell that there's an easy answer on this issue. You know on Saint Patrick's Day, I marched in two parades, one that was the first all-inclusive parade in Queens that I hope will become an annual tradition But I also have a great deal of history with the Irish community from the work I've done in Northern Ireland and the commitment I've made to peace in Northern Ireland. I felt that I should try to do both, in so far as possible I should try to influence the parade -- and I don't know what my decisions will be in the future -- but for this year being the first time I ever faced it I thought I should make it clear that those who organize the parade should be inclusive, that they should follow the lead of their colleagues in Dublin and be willing to include anyone who is committed to Irish history and traditions and Irish-American relations. But that I would march as a show of respect for particularly the work I had done. So these are not easy issues, they're difficult issues sometimes.

In the Boy Scouts case, freedom of association is a very important fundamental and bedrock principle in our constitution and our way of life. The Supreme Court basically said the Boy Scouts are free to discriminate. That may be the case constitutionally, but I would call on them not to discriminate. I would certainly urge them to think of ways that they could fulfill their mission without being exclusionary. So the're difficult decisions.

lgny: Were you concerned at the time of St Patrick's that some other prominent Democrats in the past, Senator Schumer among them, had made the decision to opt out of that parade. Were you concerned that in some respects you might be breaking ranks on that issue?

Clinton: I was concerned, you know. But I've had a personal involvement in Ireland that Senator Schumer has not had. I've been to Belfast three times. I raised money for a project that I call Vital Voices to involve women in the efforts to end the Troubles there. I've been an active participant with the Prime Minister of Ireland in promoting relations and the like, so for me it was a much more difficult decision, because I have a history, I have these relationships and I have ongoing commitments. But I certainly respect the decisions of any one else to decide differently and as I say I don't know what my decision will be in the future. I keep hoping that the Ancient Order of Hibernians, that they will, you know, see that this will be a better way to honor the full diversity of the Irish experience.

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