A half-century after President Harry S. Truman declared his commitment to civil rights before a largely black crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, President Clinton Saturday night promised a similar crusade on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.
In the first speech by a sitting president to a gay rights organization, Clinton consciously echoed Truman’s historic remarks to the NAACP in June 1947, which was the first time a president had addressed a black civil rights organization. Truman that day vowed his support for equality for all Americans. “And when I say all Americans,” Truman said, “I mean all Americans.”
“Well, my friends,” Clinton said Saturday night, “all Americans still means all Americans.”
By equating the gay rights movement with the struggle for racial equality, Clinton risked igniting a backlash among conservatives and among some African American leaders who resent the comparison. The matter was so sensitive that it was the subject of some internal debate at the White House. Some of the president’s senior aides said privately just before Clinton’s arrival that the president had opted to take out the Truman reference to avoid sending the wrong signal, a decision he apparently reversed at the last minute.
Clinton has long embraced much of the gay rights agenda; however, his speech to a $300,000 fund-raiser sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign was seen as historic not so much for the sentiments it expressed but for the simple fact of its delivery.
The president used the opportunity to make a pitch for his embattled nominee for chief civil rights enforcer, Bill Lann Lee, and brushed off disruptions by AIDS activists complaining he had not done enough to fight the disease.
But the longest of numerous standing ovations came as he vowed to continue lobbying for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar workplace bias based on sexual orientation.
“Being gay, the last time I thought about it, seemed to have nothing to do with the ability to read a balance book, set a broken bone or change a spark plug,” Clinton said to wild applause. Firing or refusing to hire people because they are gay is akin to discriminating based on race, religion or gender, he added. “It is wrong and it should be illegal.”
Outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel, scattered protesters made their contrary views known. AIDS activists held signs saying “Expose Clinton.” On another corner was a small cluster of people holding signs saying “God Hates Fags.” And on a third corner was another group of conservatives who oppose homosexuality but rejected what they considered a hateful approach.
“If the American people are shocked by all of the same-sex smooching that is on television, wait until they see an American president kissing up to the wealthiest extremists of the amoral left,” said Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Inside, three AIDS activists interrupted Clinton’s speech. “People with AIDS are dying,” one screamed.
The audience immediately cheered Clinton, who responded, “Wait, wait, wait. I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t been here tonight. People with AIDS are dying. But since I became president, we’re spending 10 times as much” on research.