What Explains the LGBT Divide Between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton mounted her first presidential bid in 2008, Thomas Duane was in her corner.

Then the only openly gay member of the New York State Senate, the Manhattan Democrat hadn't forgotten the time Clinton, seeking a United States Senate seat in 2000, had appeared at an Albany press conference backing Duane's legislation to combat anti-LGBT hate crimes. Her support made an impression on Duane, who joined Clinton's national LGBT steering committee in 2007.

But Duane's support for Clinton didn't come without reservations. Though she favored non-discrimination protections and civil unions for same-sex couples, Clinton didn't support marriage equality at the time, a source of consternation for Duane. 

"I thought she probably was [privately] for marriage and I thought she should say it. I thought she shouldn't be afraid to say it. I didn't really like that," Duane recounted to Mic.

Of course, Clinton was hardly a Democratic outlier in opposing same-sex marriage eight years ago. Neither of her leading Democratic opponents, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, backed marriage equality; only long-shot hopefuls Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel did. The New York Times reported that in California and New York — the only states that asked voters' sexual orientations — Clinton bested Obama among gay voters by 34 points and 23 points, respectively.

Much has changed since then. While Democrats trod carefully around issues like gay marriage in 2008 — just four years after President George W. Bush wielded gay nuptials as a wedge issue in his successful 2004 re-election campaign — the country has since witnessed a cultural sea change on LGBT equality. Following activist pressure, state-level marriage victories and a cascade effect brought on by President Obama's 2012 endorsement of marriage equality, Clinton and virtually every other national Democratic figure have now evolved to full-throated support for same-sex couples' right to marry. 

Clinton may have arrived where Duane hoped she'd been eight years ago, but this go-around, he's not in her camp. Since retired from the New York State Senate, Duane is now a supporter of Clinton's chief Democratic primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), citing his long track record of support for equality and his progressive stances on a wide range of issues, including health care and income inequality.

An LGBT divide: In backing Sanders, Duane parts company with many LGBT voters, who despite tensions over policies like the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule for gays in the military and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, have formed a longstanding bond with both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

That relationship was underscored this week, when the Human Rights Campaign — led by former Bill Clinton aide Chad Griffin — awarded Hillary Clinton its earliest primary endorsement in the organization's history.

While Clinton's evolution on marriage equality and her call for federal civil rights protections for LGBT people have earned her plaudits among policy advocates and activists within the LGBT community, her rapport with LGBT voters isn't strictly political.

Projecting an image of steely resilience in the face of setbacks and humiliations both personal and political, Clinton has attained gay icon status. She is, to many gay fans, the Cher of American politics.

"Many gay people can see themselves in her. No matter how much people say she's inauthentic or shrill or bitchy, I know if I were to run for office I would face many of the same issues she has encountered," Michael Beyer, a senior at Louisiana State University, told Mic. "And I have to admire her for continuing to enter the ring. I don't know why she would be willing to subject herself to that kind of treatment. It just proves to me how incredibly passionate about this country she is and how deeply she cares about its future."

Even some of Sanders' gay supporters find Clinton's personal image compelling.

"I really like Hillary. She's a comforting figure. I like her being in national politics because she is a fighter. The Republican party has gone full wackadoo and everyone knows it," Adam McMahon, a doctoral student in political science at the City University of New York, told Mic. "The fact that she pushes back against their nonsense is awesome and it would be one of the main reasons why I'd support her as president."

But Noah Baron, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and fervent Sanders supporter, thinks many in the LGBT community have cut Clinton too much slack. Her prior support for policies like DOMA and DADT — both issues on which she'd distanced herself from her husband by the time of her 2008 run — "calls into question her moral judgment," Baron told Mic.

"Time and again," Baron said, "Bernie has taken the right position from the beginning — or at least come around to the right position sooner than Hillary. I trust him to protect and advance LGBT equality more than any other candidate in the race."

Baron attributed HRC's endorsement of Clinton to what he called its "wealthy, white, insider Washington, D.C." demographic. With his longstanding emphasis on economic inequality, Sanders would do far more than Clinton to improve LGBT people's lives, Baron said.

"That is why he has announced his support for legislation prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in credit and lending, among other vital areas," he told Mic

Consistency vs. heft: Talk to Sanders' supporters in the LGBT community, and you're certain to hear them talk up his lengthy pro-equality track record. Though Sanders didn't definitively announce his support for marriage equality until 2009 (still well ahead of figures like Obama and Clinton), he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and has long supported the right of gays to serve openly in the military.

After then-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) denigrated "homos in the military" on the House floor in 1995, Sanders, then Vermont's sole congressman, pushed back forcefully, in a moment that has since gone viral. 

"You have insulted thousands of men and women who have put their lives on the line. I think you owe them an apology," Sanders fired back.

Source: YouTube

Touting Sanders as a candidate "you don't have to worry about," Duane, the former New York state senator, lauded Sanders for taking his pro-LGBT message even to decidedly unfriendly environs. Speaking at the evangelical Liberty University in September, Sanders sought to find common ground with his audience on issues like social justice and poverty but was unapologetic about where he disagreed with most of them: "I believe gay rights and gay marriage."

"He doesn't shrink from his positions based on who he's speaking to," Duane told Mic, in a not-so-subtle dig at Clinton, who's often been depicted as tailoring her message to placate her audience.

Clinton supporters like Beyer, though, find the fixation on Clinton's spotty record frustrating.

"It would be stupid of me to be mad at a progressive for changing their mind and actually progressing on an issue. I view it as the LGBT community's job to continue to push politicians to stand up for our full freedom," Beyer told Mic. "No politician is going to accomplish that unless we force them and placing all of our bets in a 'perfect politician' will easily come back to bite us."

Therein lies one of the central fears about Sanders' candidacy: that a nationally untested, self-proclaimed "socialist" is a risky bet for Democrats looking to safeguard progressive policies. For LGBT voters, Obama's executive actions protecting LGBT people from discrimination and the future of the Supreme Court weigh heavily. 

Though virtually no serious observer expects a reversal of the court's 2015 ruling for marriage equality, a conservative-dominated court might, say, rule in favor of broad religious exemptions for LGBT non-discrimination policies. In recent weeks, Clinton has made the case that she's best equipped to fend off the Republicans, asking Democratic primary voters to be mindful of what's at stake if the White House returns to GOP hands.

"All the progress we have made, and all the progress, we have yet to make is at stake in this election," Human Rights Campaign spokesman Brandon Lorenz told Mic. "The Republicans running for president oppose marriage equality, they're doubling down on bills that put us at risk for more Kim Davis-like discrimination, and they treat transgender people like a punchline." 

A crucial constituency: No matter who prevails in the tightening contest between Clinton and Sanders, either candidate is likely to win a solid majority of LGBT voters. In 2012, the New York Times reported, Obama won 76% of the lesbian, gay and bisexual vote to Republican Mitt Romney's 22%. Such lopsided margins may fade as marriage equality becomes the new normal and GOP resistance withers, but none of the Republican candidates for president support marriage equality, differing primarily in emphasis and tone.

What's more, like any other demographic, LGBT Americans aren't single-voters. And the concerns cited by voters like McMahon point to other hurdles for the GOP.

"I'm a millennial, I have lots of college debt and I'm worried about the social safety net being there when I'm older," McMahon told Mic. "Just because I'm a part of the LGBT community doesn't mean I vote singularly on one issue relevant to my community."

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Luke Brinker

Luke Brinker is Mic's politics editor. He is based in New York and can be reached at luke@mic.com.

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