President Clinton delivered a rousing endorsement of equal rights for gays and lesbians to an enthusiastic gathering of civil rights activists at L.A. Live’s JW Marriot on Saturday night, capping a political turnabout he credited to his daughter, Chelsea.
“She has had a profound impact on the way I see the world,” Clinton told the crowd during his acceptance speech for the Advocate for Change Award at the 24th annual dinner of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “It’s sort of humbling when you get to be my age when your child knows more than you do about everything.
“Chelsea and her gay friends have modeled to me how we should all treat each other regardless of our sexual orientation or any other artificial difference that divides us. Many of them come and join us every Thanksgiving for a meal,” he continued. “I have grown very attached to them. And over the years, I was forced to confront the fact that people who oppose equal rights for gays in the marriage sphere are basically acting out of concern for their own identity, not out of respect for anyone else.”
Clinton is one of those national Democratic figures — including President Obama — whose views on marriage equality have evolved substantially, along with those of the public, over the past few years. Younger Americans of every ethnicity, religion and region now approve marriage equality by substantial majorities, calling it a civil rights issue, pollsters say.
As president, Clinton had a mixed record when it came to equal rights for gays and lesbians. On the one hand, he appointed more than 150 gays and lesbians to various government posts, among them Jim Hormel — heir to the Spam fortune — who as U.S. representative to Luxembourg was the country’s first openly gay ambassador. He also substantially increased federal funding of research into HIV/AIDS.
On the other hand, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples united under state laws. Clinton subsequently has called his approval of that law one of his biggest mistakes as president.
“I want to keep working on this until not only is DOMA no longer the law of the land, but until all people — no matter where they live — can marry the people they love,” Clinton told the GLAAD crowd. As he spoke about DOMA, a heckler shouted, “You signed it!”
Clinton demurred, adding: “You are the agents of change. I got this award tonight because I was the object of your affection — or not, as the case may be. My daughter led me to support the marriage-equality law in New York when we were debating it and to oppose North Carolina’s denial of marriage equality and to do all these other things. So I want to thank her, too. Thank you, GLAAD. Thank you, Chelsea.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the act’s constitutionality, along with that of California’s Proposition 8, by the end of June. Clinton has urged the justices to strike the law down.
“Whenever we turn away from treating someone with the dignity and honor and the respect that we would like accorded to ourselves, we have to face the fact it’s about us,” Clinton said.
At the end of his speech, Chelsea joined her father onstage, and they embraced. Harvey Weinstein and Jennifer Lawrence were on hand to present the award to the president. Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron presented the Stephen F. Kolzak Award to entertainment lawyer Steve Warren.