America's first gay president

President Clinton mixes with drag queens and Matthew Shepard's mom at a big New York gay pride bash.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

President Clinton's appearance Thursday at the Empire State Pride Agenda annual dinner had the atmosphere of any other New York benefit that attracts well-heeled supporters. Only two factors suggested it might be different: a pair of tall, generously coiffed drag queens and a suspicious preponderance of handsome, expensively dressed men.

More than 1,800 lesbians, gay men and more than a few heterosexual supporters poured into the Sheraton New York Hotel to hear the first U.S. president ever to address a gay and lesbian group in New York state.

Guests paid at least $350 for the privilege of hearing Clinton speak to them. The dinner and live auction took in a reported $1 million, the largest sum ever raised in a single event (not related to AIDS) by a lesbian and gay group in the United States. And they were richly rewarded with a speech that catered more to his audience than the one he gave at a better-publicized event honoring Clinton in Los Angeles last week.

In his speech, Clinton rattled off a laundry list of laudable achievements his administration has made on behalf of the gay and lesbian community. During his two terms, Clinton has tapped more than 200 gays and lesbians for federally appointed positions -- including James Hormel, who became the country's first openly gay ambassador. He inked an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the federal work force and mandated that federal security clearances no longer be denied based on sexual orientation. The Clinton administration also increased AIDS drug assistance from $52 million to $461, and funding for Ryan White CARE programs has increased by 290 percent.

He also addressed one of his biggest policy failures: "That awful battle that I waged and didn't win over the military service issue," which ultimately resulted in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy that has dramatically increased the number of gays and lesbians discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation. But there was nary a mention of Clinton's support for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting same-sex marriages.

The president thanked an exuberant audience for its support of his administration and his family. He spoke of his concern about the social division and inequality that fueled his presidential campaign in 1992. He spoke about how he had been determined to reverse the troubling tendency of campaigns to "carve up the electorate and make one group resent another, and hope your group was a larger group of resenters than the other group." He warned against giving into the dark forces of human nature that cause destruction in communities -- highlighting some of the year's darker chapters, including the Matthew Shepard murder and the recent shootings at a Los Angeles Jewish community center.

He then moved from the national psyche to a broader list of his administration's overall achievements -- low unemployment and welfare rolls, lowest crime rates in 26 years, lowest poverty rates in 20 years, the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years, 19.3 million new jobs.

At one point, he made a coy reference to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's probable candidacy for the New York Senate seat. "I think you ought to invite a woman to speak next year. And if you want, I have a suggestion," he offered, to which the audience responded with wild applause.

Despite Clinton's rocky road with the gay community, he has clearly boosted his image at recent events. Pride Agenda executive director Matt Foreman thinks that the president's speech was especially significant.

"This was the first time the president publicly acknowledged the unjust immigration laws that allow the deportation every year of hundreds of gay men and lesbians who aren't themselves U.S. citizens but who are the partners of U.S. citizens. I was pleased to hear him admit that these policies are wrong and should be changed."

The president was preceded at the podium by Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer who beamed with gratitude as he thanked the New York gays and lesbians who helped him beat incumbent Alfonse D'Amato in a close senatorial race last November. Schumer pledged to continue his fight for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS Act, both of which he wrote and now sponsors.

Schumer has every reason to be thankful. The Pride Agenda has historically limited its campaign contributions and endorsements to local and state races and stayed away from endorsing candidates at the federal level. Several months before last year's senatorial election, however, the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and lesbian political advocacy group in Washington, stunned New Yorkers by endorsing D'Amato. Although D'Amato had recently made overtures to the gay and lesbian community by supporting AIDS funding and gays in the military, most lesbians and gays in New York and nationwide found his overall record on gay and lesbian issues in the Senate to be dismal.

Foreman doesn't mince words when recalling D'Amato's reign. "Senator 'Pot-hole' never delivered anything for our community. He was in the unique position to influence the state Legislature, and he did nothing. We were appalled that HRC could endorse someone who had received a near perfect rating from the Christian Coalition. Furthermore, we're a pro-choice organization, and D'Amato is unwaveringly anti-choice," he fumes. "We had an obligation to fight his reelection, so we endorsed and then campaigned hard for Schumer."

Clinton was clearly pleased with the Pride Agenda's support of Schumer. He, and especially the first lady, campaigned enthusiastically for Schumer at many fund-raisers throughout the state.

Toward the end of his speech, the president acknowledged the presence of Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student who a year ago was savagely beaten and tied to a fence. Five days later he died from his injuries. The men who were charged with his murder admitted they had lured him out of a gay bar and attacked him only because he was gay. As Judy Shepard stood and received a standing ovation, the president appeared close to tears by her presence and sorrow.

After he ended his speech, the audience roared its approval and he plunged into the crowd, shaking hands, laughing, dispersing that legendary charm to responsive admirers. As he worked his way toward the exit, Victor Cornelius, an HIV-positive documentary filmmaker from Germantown, N.Y., reached out and took his hand and said, "Mr. President, you saved my life."

By Sara Douglas Hart

Sara Douglas Hart is associate editor at Architecture Magazine in New York.

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Bill Clinton Chuck Schumer D-n.y. Hillary Rodham Clinton