Hillary Clinton defends marriage equality evolution in testy interview

Photo: Hillary Clinton. Credit: U.S. State Department.

Photo: Hillary Clinton. Credit: U.S. State Department.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grew noticeably irritated during a Thursday interview with NPR when pressed on her evolution on same-sex marriage.

During a seven minute exchange, Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” asked Clinton whether she previously supported marriage equality but did not do so openly for political reasons. After being asked repeatedly and accusing Gross of playing with her words and an important issue, Clinton stated she evolved on the issue of same-sex marriage.

“I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong,” Clinton said.

In March 2013, shortly after leaving her post as secretary of State, Clinton endorsed same-sex marriage in a video published by the Human Rights Campaign. Her announcement came 10 days after Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, penned a column for The Washington Post calling on the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which he signed into law as president in 1996.

“I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you did either,” Clinton said Thursday. “This was an incredible new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay right movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others about the rightness of that position. When I was ready to say what I said, I said it.” 

NPR’s TERRY GROSS: “So what’s it like when you’re in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage, that you actually believe in. Obviously you feel very committed to human rights and you obviously put gay rights as part of human rights but in doing the calculus you decided you couldn’t support it. Correct me if I’m reading it wrong.” 

HILLARY CLINTON: “I think you’re reading it very wrong. I think that, as I said – just as the President has said – just because you’re a politician doesn’t mean you’re not a thinking human being. You gather information, you think through positions, you’re not one hundred percent set, thank goodness, you’re constantly re-evaluating where you stand. That is true for me. We talked earlier about Iraq, for goodness sakes. So for me, marriage has always been a matter left to the states and in many of the conversations I and my colleagues and supporters had, I fully endorse the efforts by activists to work state-by-state. In fact, that is what is working and I think that being in the position that I was in the Senate, fighting employment discrimination which we still have some ways to go, was appropriate at that time. As Secretary of State, I was out of domestic politics and I was certainly doing all I could on the international scene to raise the importance of the human rights of the LGBT community. And then leaving that position, I was able to very quickly announce that I was fully in support of gay marriage and that it is now continuing to proceed state-by-state. I am very hopeful that we will make progress and see even more change and acceptance. One of my big problems right now is that too many people believe they have a direct line to the divine and they never want to change their mind about anything. They’re never open about new information and they like to operate in an evidence-free zone. I think it’s good if people continue to change.”

GROSS: “So you mention that you believe in state by state for gay marriage. But it’s a Supreme Court too. The Supreme Court struck down part of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing gay marriage. That part is now struck down. And DOMA was actually signed by your husband when he was president. In spite of the fact that he signed it, were you glad at this point that the Supreme Court struck some of it down?”

CLINTON: “Of course. And you know, again, lets…we are living at a time when this extraordinary change is occurring and I’m proud of our country, I’m proud of the people who have been on the front lines of advocacy, but in 1993, that was not the case. And there was a very concerted effort in the Congress to make it even more difficult and greater discrimination and what DOMA did is at least allow the States to act. It wasn’t going to yet be recognized by the federal government but at the state level there was the opportunity. And my husband was the first to say, that you know, the political circumstances, the threats that were trying to be alleviated by the passage of DOMA, thankfully, were no longer so preeminent and we could keep moving forward and that’s what we’re doing.”

GROSS: “So, just to clarify, just one more question on this, would you say your view evolved since the 90s or that the American public evolved allowing you to state your real view.”

CLINTON: “I think I’m an American, I think that we have all evolved, and it’s been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations that I’m aware of.”

GROSS: “I understand but a lot of people believed in it already back in the nineties. They supported gay marriage.”

CLINTON: “To be fair Terry, not that many. Were there activists who were ahead of their time, well that was every true in every human rights and civil rights movement but the vast majority of Americans, were just waking up to this issue, and beginning to think about it, and grasp it for the first time, and think about their neighbor down the street who deserved to have the same rights as they did, or their son, or their daughter. It has been an extraordinarily fast, by historic terms social, political and legal transformation and we ought to celebrate that instead of plowing old ground when in fact a lot of people, the vast majority of people, have been moving forward. Maybe slowly, maybe tentatively, maybe not as quickly and extensively as many would have hoped but nevertheless, we are at a point now where equality, including marriage equality, in our country is solidly established although there where be places, Texas just to name one, where that is still going to be an ongoing struggle.”

GROSS: “I’m pretty sure you didn’t answer my question about whether you evolved or was the America public the change –” 

CLINTON: “Because I said I’m an American so of course we all evolved and I think that’s a fair conclusion –”

GROSS: “So you’re saying your opinion on gay marriage changed”

CLINTON: “You know, somebody is always first, Terry. Somebody is always out front and thank goodness they are. But that doesn’t mean that those who join later, in being publically supportive or even privately accepting that there needs to be change, are any less committed. You could not be having the sweep of marriage equality across the country if nobody changed their mind and thank goodness so many of us have.”

GROSS: “So that’s one for you changed your mind?”

CLINTON: You know I really, I have to say, I think you being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.” 

GROSS: “I’m just trying to clarify so I can understand -”

CLINTON: “No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like I think you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue and I am proud of what I’ve done and the progress were making.”

GROSS: “You know I’m just saying, I’m sorry – I just want to clarify what I was saying – no, I was saying that you maybe really believed this all along, but, you know believed in gay marriage all along, but felt for political reasons America wasn’t ready yet and you couldn’t say it. That’s what I was thinking.”

CLINTON: “No. That is not true.” 

GROSS: “Okay.” 

CLINTON: “I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you did either. This was an incredible new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay right movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others about the rightness of that position. When I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”

GROSS: “Okay, thank you for clarifying that.”

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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