Have the Clintons and Gay Activists Made Up?

PHOTO: Hillary and Bill Clinton have become strong supporters of gay marriage.Ron Sachs/Getty Images
Hillary and Bill Clinton have become strong supporters of gay marriage.

For the Clintons, it's been a big month in gay politics.

With the Supreme Court set to take up gay marriage, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered her public support for gay marriage for the first time in a six-minute YouTube video posted by Human Rights Campaign, the most established gay-rights political group in the U.S.

"LGBT Americans are our colleagues, our teachers, our soldiers, our friends, our loved ones," Clinton said. "They are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage."

A week and a half earlier, former president Bill Clinton penned a Washington Post op-ed on March 7 suggesting it's time for the Defense of Marriage Act to go.

"As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution," he wrote. "[E]ven worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned."

Bill Clinton publicly endorsed gay marriage in a 2009 interview with Anderson Cooper, but a rift with some in the gay political community has been slow to heal, as prominent advocates still remember him as the president who banned gay marriage under federal law.

Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart suggested that, in disowning DOMA, Bill Clinton should have apologized for signing it in the first place.

"As welcome as Clinton's words are, there are two that are conspicuously absent: I'm sorry," Capehart wrote. "Sorry for signing the bill. Sorry for crowing about it in radio ads on Christian radio stations during his '96 reelection campaign. Sorry for the harm it has caused same-sex couples and the income inequality it exacerbates."

Prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan responded with ambivalence, welcoming Bill Clinton to gay-rights side of the issue while protesting that Clinton knew the law was discriminatory when he signed it. Elizabeth Birch, who headed Human Rights Campaign when Clinton signed Doma, wrote that she didn't feel grateful for his reversal because the law was always unconstitutional.

But while anger at Bill Clinton has simmered or fizzled, Hillary Clinton does not appear to be suffering the ill effects of her husband's troubled relationship with gay activists.

"As a secretary she took very strong positions and was a strong advocate and spoke all over the world, and I actually think that people see her as her own person," Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart told ABC News, referencing Clinton's work to promote gay rights internationally as Secretary of State.

Hillary Clinton is seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, maybe the Democratic Party's best chance to retain the White House, and during her 2008 run DOMA was an issue for her campaign, if only a small one. Neither Clinton, then-senator Barack Obama, nor John Edwards endorsed gay marriage at the time.

At a candidate forum, singer Melissa Etheridge confronted Mrs. Clinton about DOMA, saying, "We were thrown under the bus" with its signing. Prominent blogger Joe Sudbay recently claimed that, in 2007, a Hillary Clinton campaign staffer "screamed" at him for wanting to ask Clinton about DOMA in an interview.

Richard Socarides, the former adviser to Bill Clinton on gay and lesbian issues, has staunchly defended the former president on gay issues. He maintains Hillary Clinton has carved out her own political identity on gay-rights issues and that Bill Clinton's signing of DOMA is not an issue for gay activists, donors, or voters when it comes to Hillary Clinton's political future.

"I think most fair-minded people understand what happened, and understand the context and are willing to move on," Socarides told ABC News. "I don't think they hold it against him, and I certainly don't think they hold it against her, including the fact that she's a separate person with a terrific record of her own. There are people who will never let it go, and they might support someone else."

Clinton has offered her endorsement relatively late in the game - three and a half years after her husband, nearly a year after President Obama, and three days after Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who announced his opinion has changed after experiences with his gay son.

But according to Cathcart and Socarides, gay-rights supporters understand that Clinton restrained herself from commenting on gay marriage while serving as secretary of State.

"I think people understand that it was not really appropriate for her to comment on domestic political matters as Secretary of State, and moreover I think that she did not want to get out in front of President Obama," Socarides said. "I can tell you that friends and supporters of hers, myself included, had urged her to say something while she was secretary, and she was not prepared to do so because she did not want to wade into this."

"I actually think she'd have a lot of support in the LGBT community" if Clinton runs for president in 2016, Cathcart said.