Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not openly support gay marriage in 2009, but according to a new set of emails released by the State Department, she was dedicated to expanding gay rights both domestically and abroad from the beginning of her term.
From March to December 2009, Clinton received several emails from her staff on the issue detailing Clinton’s own successes expanding gay rights inside the State Department, as well as her concerns about the treatment of LGBT individuals abroad.
The 2009 emails offer a look at how Clinton and her staff began to make LGBT individuals part of their mission—culminating in her 2011 United Nations speech declaring, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
The changes within the State Department started in May 2009, when Clinton was able to extend benefits to the same-sex partners of diplomats.
“Whoo Hoo!” chief of staff Cheryl Mills wrote to Clinton and her policy adviser Jake Sullivan on May 20, in response to a report that Representative Howard Berman (D-CA) had dropped language from his Foreign Relations Authorization Act extending the benefits to the LGBT community because Berman expected Clinton to change the policy herself.
After Clinton sent a memo extending the benefits, Mills and longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin forwarded their boss the glowing coverage of the policy change, as well as a letter from a State Department employee.
“Thank you so much for your support for the GLT community,” wrote Michael Pate, a State Department employee based in Virginia. “This is the first time in my 24.5 year career that I have seen this type of support. I appreciate all the hard work you have done in the short time as Secretary of State. You have given so much hope to so many. I am so proud of you and your work. May God continue to bless you.”
The newly released emails also show a close monitoring of LGBT activists’ frustration with the Obama administration’s handling of gay marriage, an issue President Obama did not “evolve” on until 2012.
“FYI,” Mills wrote on an email with the subject line “More Gay Donors Drop Out of DNC Fundraiser, Protesting Justice Department Brief.”
The article in the body of the email details the LGBT community’s dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s position gay marriage—in light of a Justice Department brief that defended the Defense of Marriage Act and was denounced by advocates as anti-gay marriage.
On May 4, 2009, Clinton was forwarded an email with the subject line “Iraqi Gays Face Gruesome Torture/ Murder Technique” that detailed the brutal murders of gay men in Iraq.
“So sad and terrible,” Clinton wrote to Mills.
She then suggested that Chris Hill, then-ambassador to Iraq, raise it with the government.
Later that year, Richard Socarides, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, sent Mills an article about a spate of anti-gay laws passed in East Africa.
“There is a lot of appreciation for everything the Dept has done around this so far and I think you could really build on it by putting someone there in charge of international LGBT human rights issues,” he wrote.
Mills forwarded the email, and Hillary Clinton agreed that the idea had merit.
Dan Baer, who now serves as the U.S representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, eventually oversaw the international LGBT portfolio, but The Washington Blade noted that no envoy was officially appointed during Clinton’s years at the State Department. Her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, appointed Randy Berry as the special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons.
Outside the State Department, though, Clinton was not always seen as a leader in the fight for gay rights. In June 2014 interview on NPR, she was asked about her evolution on gay marriage, after she embraced gay marriage in a 2013 video for the Human Rights Campaign. Her answer puzzled many advocates.
“So, for me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states,” Clinton said. “And in many of the conversations that I and my colleagues and supporters had, I fully endorse the efforts by activists who work state by state, and in fact that is what is working."
“I know her heart, but it is terrible framing,” Hilary Rosen, an advocate for LGBT rights and Clinton ally, told The Huffington Post at the time. “Since this is going to the Supreme Court potentially on that question, I was surprised at her ‘old school’ framing of that. Since she has ‘evolved,’ why not just get rid of that old red herring, too?”
Still, to those who worked and advocated at the State Department for LGBT rights, the moves in 2009 set the tone for a very pro-LGBT State Department.
“I know she advanced things for LGBT State Department employees, but her impact was much greater in terms of setting a global policy agenda,” Socarides told The Daily Beast. “We have never had a champion before in this arena.”