Word Power

03.12.16 3:07 AM ET

Hillary Clinton Suddenly Has a Big Gay Problem

Hillary Clinton’s apology for “misspeaking” about the Reagans’ support for people with AIDS may mean her LGBT supporters forgive her. Maybe not. Either way, she needs a primer in LGBT history.

For a while on Friday, it looked like the latest lunatic pronouncement of Caitlyn Jenner—someone who claims the homophobic Ted Cruz and the GOP are LGBT supporters—was yet another manifestation of her wrong-headedness.

Hillary Clinton, Jenner will opine in Sunday’s episode of I Am Cait, is a “fucking liar.”  

If you had your head buried in your hands over Jenner’s slur on Clinton, Clinton soon proved herself to be, well—a liar, or at least spectacularly misinformed, claiming and elaborating in an MSNBC interview on why the Reagans (particularly Nancy, whose funeral she was attending) were sterling HIV and AIDS advocates. 

“It maybe hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s,” Mrs. Clinton said in a measured and thoughtful tone.

“Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation when before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it.

“That, too, is something I really appreciated with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’”

Social media naturally, and rightly, went into meltdown: this was a spectacular misreading of history, and from the presidential candidate who sells herself so hard as an LGBT advocate.

Ronald Reagan didn’t give a speech on AIDS until 1987, when over 20,000 Americans had died of AIDS.

The amount of homophobia and fear, stoked by the Religious Right and closely entwined with the Reagan presidency, exacerbated anxieties and ignorance, and the suffering of those affected.

As Buzzfeed has reported, the Reagans turned down the pleas of help from their friend Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS in 1985. In White House press conferences, questions about AIDS were met by dismissive laughter and homophobic jokes.

One can only imagine the open, slack mouths when Clinton left the MSNBC interview on the part of her LGBT staff; and if no-one said anything, when she saw her Twitter timeline she was left in no doubt as to the condemnation that ensued after this hugely ignorant, incorrect take on history.

Clinton apologized, saying she had “misspoken,” but this Tweet seemed grudging at best. It was terse, and wasn’t signed with the personal “H.”

It also seemed spectacularly disingenuous, saying that the Reagans had been proponents of Alzheimer’s and stem cell research, but not AIDS—as if the first two mitigated both the Reagans’ inaction and Clinton’s apparent ignorance of the third. Is her “I am sorry” enough?

While it was proper and savvy of Clinton to apologize—and some rushed to laud her for correcting her “factual error”—the misstep again cast at least a questioning light on her LGBT record and beliefs.

It brings to mind Clinton’s defensiveness when questioned about her journey to believing in marriage equality, as vocalized in this 2014 NPR interview.

Perhaps, with the fast apology and the capacity for Clinton’s LGBT supporters to forgive, long-term damage to Clinton over her Reagan remarks will be minimal. After all, if weighing on the policy and polemical scales, she is still more actively LGBT-supportive than Bernie Sanders.

There is still the speech, one of the best LGBT equality speeches by a politician, that she gave in 2011 on International Human Rights Day.  

But the baffling, and disturbing thing that remains watching Clinton’s MSNBC interview is that she did not “misspeak.”

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She spoke as thoughtfully and carefully as someone who knew, and believed, in what they were saying.

Hillary Clinton, supposed LGBT power-buddy, honestly thought in that moment that the Reagans had been HIV and AIDS advocates in the 1980s. The question is, why on earth did she think that, when—as someone who was around then—she would have known the opposite, the polar opposite, was true.

When you “misspeak” you say something flippant, or out of turn. But you don’t “misspeak” when you truly believe one thing to be true—only to quickly disclaim it when you are told it isn’t.

When you get something as massively wrong as labeling the chief proponents of ignorance and homophobia as the opposite—as advocates and supporters—then one must ask what your depth and understanding of LGBT lives and experiences is.

Of course, in response and perhaps fairly, comes the inevitable, “Well, she’s better than Trump/Cruz/Rubio…” from Clinton fans.

That is unarguably true, but LGBT voters deserve more—as full tax-payers, as citizens—then to vote for the candidate who says the right thing, who is simply better than the others.

We must question the knowledge and commitment of even our most favored candidate, especially after they say something as bone-headed as Clinton did Friday.

Also, generationally for older LGBT voters, Clinton should know, and acknowledge, how much pain and simple anger her words will have elicited.

Those alive in the 1980s lost family, friends, and loved ones, long before the era of drug treatments and PrEP, in awful ways—in hospitals whose staff were scared to care for their AIDS patients, and in a time of foul bigotry and misinformation.

This was a time when partners could be excluded from being with their loved ones as they died, because back then there were no LGBT partnership rights, and marriage equality wasn’t even a pipedream—it was just another joke. People with AIDS died horribly, and as they died horribly, the government did nothing. The Reagans did nothing.

If Hillary Clinton wants to pay tribute to those who started a “national conversation” about HIV, she should start by paying tribute to the brave advocacy of groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, who confronted head-on the prejudice of official bodies and the Catholic Church.

If Clinton doesn’t know it—and the LGBT poobahs who advise her might like to sit down and educate her about this—the foundation of HIV activism, like LGBT activism, came from being pushed to the edge and saying “No more.”

At the core of our marches and demonstrations, at the core of Pride, today sold as a ‘celebration,’ is pain and anger. It is a deep pain and a proud, rumbling, never-forget anger, and if Clinton wants to win the LGBT vote properly and resoundingly, she’ll learn about it and understand it. Maybe, just as a primer, somebody could take Clinton to see (or watch the HBO movie of) The Normal Heart, or Angels in America, or How To Survive a Plague, or Longtime Companion. Get her to read Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On.

Suddenly, hopefully for one day only, Hillary Clinton's ignorance doesn't look so different from Caitlyn Jenner's. If Friday's “misspeaking” teaches Clinton anything, it should that be that she must earn LGBT trust to fully earn LGBT votes.