I woke up early that morning. 4:30 a.m. I had a long day ahead of me, and I was not in the mood, as Mom used to say, to “pussyfoot around”. Within the hour, I was on the road, slugging Coca-Cola like my Buick Skylark was slugging fossil fuel.
I wasn’t a coffee-drinker in those days. It took me another twenty years to acquire a taste for the roasted bean. And of course, now I’m totally addicted. Fair trade. Organic. French roast. Espresso grind. Chemex. The works.
But I digress.
Driving with the sunrise in my rearview, I climb the plateau, cross it, and down on the other side. Two and a half hours later, I arrive at my destination: the voting booth.
It’s November 3, 1992, and I am determined to vote in this presidential election. The Right-how I hate that title; the implication being The Upright and Virtuous-has not one, but two imbecilic standard bearers this time around: the incumbent and modern-day Polonius George Bush Sr. and the homunculus Ross Perot, a pint-sized pugilist of protean perspicuity. (Jeezus, I love alliteration!)(Sorry.) To prevent either of these two dipsticks from assuming the presidency, it’s more than apparent that I have to do something drastic; I have to vote.
I hadn’t ticked off a ballot in over twelve years, not since Jimmy Carter lost my very first election. I was eighteen and a green idealist then. So was Jimmy. We believed the world could be saved with hope and peace. But America wanted doubt and money so they elected Ronald Reagan. He fueled their fears and pumped up their pride, encouraging them to pad their wallets and their 401Ks, sending the whole country on a screaming ambulance ride, coughing us out in 2008 like so many bloody trauma victims.
But I digress.
In 1992, I learned to believe, again, in hope. More specifically, in a place called Hope-Hope, Arkansas-and its most famous son, William Jefferson Clinton. Tall. Handsome. Charismatic. And sexy as hell; the man smote me. Him and his Southern charm. He promised health care reform and an end to Republican threats to abortion rights. But most importantly, he assured all gay Americans he would overturn the ban on homosexuals in the military.
Clearly, this was The Second Coming. This seemed to be the first step toward that ever-elusive equality so many of us dreamed of, and I knew, I just knew, that my vote would put him over the top.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten to apply for an absentee ballot. I was in rehearsal for Oliver! at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Clarence Brown Theater, and I was 184 miles from my polling place, Charlotte Park Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee. My only recourse was to drive like thunder, so I could be back in East Tennessee in time for my 1 o’clock rehearsal.
I had seven and a half hours.
Pulling into my polling place-the school parking lot-a little after 9, the sun is bright, but the air is chilly. Typical November weather for Middle Tennessee. (Oh, yeah, by the way, Tennessee is divided into three regions: East, Middle, and West. The three “states” of Tennessee. Different politics. Different dialects. Different landmasses. All mistrusting of outsiders and non-Christians. A long, skinny province of jitters and Jesus.)
The lawn is littered with campaign signs stabbing the soil. Tomorrow they’ll all be gone. (Thank the gods.) A short line has formed outside the gymnasium. Elderly folks mostly, looking to exercise their constitutional rights. Probably the only exercise most will get today by the looks of them. Under their inscrutable gaze, I take my place in line and wait.
It doesn’t take long. Either Charlotte Park Elementary’s polling czar is on the ball, or there are few “undecided” voters here today. My money’s on the latter. This was a divisive campaign-aren’t they all?-and after decades of Democratic voting, Middle Tennessee is swingin’ Right.
Not me, boy. I’m voting Blue all the way. Fuck the Republicans. I want my gay brothers and sisters to fight free. Free of closets and free of Lindsey Graham. And frankly, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion about Miss South Carolina. I’m betting her little closet is decorated in chintz and antimacassars.
But I… oh, you know.
I step up to the registration table and proudly show my voter registration card. I’m wishing it was pink or had a pink triangle on it to shock the grizzled face behind the paperwork. But he’ll have to settle for my cheeky smirk. His face a question mark, Granddad points me to a booth, and I step to my duty. Once inside the curtained cubicle, my palms cold and sweaty with excitement, I stare at the presidential possibilities, only interested in one: Slick Willie.
I always hated that nickname. The less-than-vague pornography of it is repugnant and so… not presidential.
But Bill doesn’t care. He’s bigger than grotesque epithets. He’s just wishing I would hurry up and cast my ballot, naming him the 42nd President of the United States.
I take a deep breath and flip the switch. It’s done! Mission accomplished. Blindly, I hurriedly tick off the Democratic state and local candidates, hardly caring who or what they represent. I have done what I came to do, and I am giddy with excitement for the world to come. I elected a president. The two hour-plus drive back to Knoxville and rehearsal is a blur of dazzling sun and euphoria.
The election results hardly faze me. I knew the outcome, having willed it into existence.
Then I crash to earth.
Not only does President Bill Clinton, my President Bill Clinton, agree to the despicable “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, a strategy which led to an increase in the number of men and women discharged for their sexuality, but he signs the odorous Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition purposes in the United States.
My knight in shining armor had turned into a tarnished cad. A scoundrel. A nogoodnik. Damn his 24-carat smile.
And then there was the whole Monica Lewinski debacle.
Now me, I didn’t mind a philandering president. The way I see it, his potency is our prize. It worked for FDR and Jack Kennedy. Why not for Bill? But then he had to lie about it. Motherfucker! We all knew he did it. He even knew we knew he did it. But some White House asswipe advisor-I know it was Stephanopoulos!-told him to lie, and he did.
Once again, I was through with politics. You just couldn’t trust anyone. I grew up in the Nixon-Watergate years. Trust me, I trusted no one.
However, Bill apologized. Ye gods, that must have hurt. But he did it, and I, like most of America, accepted it. (We love apologies, don’t we? An icon stumbles; we’re on him like a runt at a pecking party. But the moment, he says he’s sorry, it’s all flowers and chocolates and come-home-all-is-forgiven music. Funny, that.)
But DADT and DOMA, in my mind, hung over the man like a sword on a thread. He’d betrayed me. He’d betrayed all gays and lesbians. The man was a crook, a snake oil salesman. “Slick Willie” suddenly seemed an appropriate moniker. Soldiers were discharged. People’s lives were turned upside down. Despite his sparkly blue eyes, I was not going to forgive Bill for this.
And then came the repeal, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Sure, it was nearly twenty years later, but good ol’ Bill, despite the decades, apologized on CBS, saying, ” When Colin Powell sold me on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ here’s what he said it would be: Gay service members would never get in trouble for going to gay bars, marching in gay rights parades as long as they weren’t in uniform. That’s a very different don’t ask, don’t tell than we got.”
Okay, not exactly an apology. More like a deflection. Onto Colin Powell, no less. But at least he admitted it was a mistake. Kinda.
So I’m not fully back in graces with Bill. That is, until a couple of weeks ago when the Washington Post printed this op-ed from Ol’ Blue Eyes hisself:
“In 1996, I signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time. In no state in the union was same-sex marriage recognized, much less available as a legal right… many supporters of the bill known as DOMA believed that its passage “would defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more.” It was under these circumstances that DOMA came to my desk…”
Bill’s right. It was “a very different time”. The chances of a marriage equality bill were nil. America still reeled from ten years of AIDs and the widespread extermination of generations of gorgeous, brilliant, fabulous friends and lovers. No one could conceive of gays and lesbians getting legally married. Not even us.
But it’s also true that there were serious stirrings to permanently destroy any chance of it coming into fruition, a constitutional amendment would have killed it from ever happening. And do you know how hard it is to repeal an amendment? So hard it’s only been done once before, and it took another amendment to do it. So in other words, by signing DOMA, Clinton stopped such an action dead in its tracks, postponing any nullifying legislation until the country had matured enough to recognize gays and lesbians as first class citizens.
Whether he was conscious of it or not, Bill was buying us time! Dude!
He goes on to say:
“When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.”
And there it is. That’s as close to an admission of guilt as Willie is ever gonna get. And by the gods, I’ll take it. Especially now that I realize that his previous stance was simply a political stall, a stonewall, if you will, to allow the country to catch up with itself.
Many of my gay brothers and sisters are not easily swayed. They demand a specific apology as opposed to a broad-stroked justification for political capitulation. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? It is politics. All of it. Ugly. Dirty. And awful. And people got hurt, lost their military careers and were held back… and there’s no doubt the Bush Years and its inbred message of fear and loathing forced freedom back into the closet for more than a decade.
But it’s nearly over. Seriously. The battle is nearly over, and we are still here! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Can’t you see it? Forgive and forget, I say. Breathe deep, and let it go. We are so much bigger than Bill and his weasly maneuvering for reelection. We’ve all said and done things, stupid things, hurtful things that bruised and battered, and in those moments, we hoped beyond hope that someone would seek the divine path and forgive us our failings. Besides, if he did apologize publicly? If Bill Clinton got down on his knees and pleaded for pardon, would it change anything? Would it reverse the clock and make right all that was wrong? No, of course not. We have fought the good fight, my brothers and sisters, and by the looks of it, we will win! And with Barack Obama’s optimistic agenda of equality in diversity in full-effect, the majority of Americans are ready and willing to knock DOMA to the curb and finally, give us our birthright.
Yes! Hallelujah! Praise Baby Jesus!
On March 27, the Supreme Court of the United States is scheduled to review the Defense of Marriage Act along side California’s Proposition 8, an appeal that could change the landscape of America forever. As we draw nearer to that date, I am mindful of my efforts twenty-one years ago, when I exerted myself, my car, and my constitutional right to vote-as did so many others-and drove for seven and a half hours round trip so that one William Jefferson Clinton could be in a position to cockblock the Right’s hateful, moralistic agenda-consciously or unconsciously-to prevent me or you or anyone of us from ever marrying under the law.
I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but… Thanks, Bill Clinton, for signing DOMA and saving us from a bleak future without hope of Hope.
Now get your ass out there and campaign for Hillary. We need her bad.
Thus ends my catechism.