Why Hillary Clinton’s Surprise ‘Humans of New York’ Appearance Rings Hollow

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In a June 2014 interview with Hillary Clinton, Terry Gross asked a fairly straightforward question: Did Clinton always support same-sex marriage, but refrained from doing so publicly because of the potential blowback? Or did she change her mind and adjust her policy position accordingly?

It’s a great question, and not just because it demonstrates that the patron saint of Soothing Public Radio Voice isn’t afraid to get confrontational. No issue highlights the gap between centrist Clinton and the young, progressive base she’ll have to mobilize as the likely Democratic presidential nominee like gay marriage — and more specifically, a track record that doesn’t include unequivocal support for it. Clinton had to know she’d need a sound bite explaining her views eventually, and yet the answer she offered Gross could have been fished out of a Veep writers’ room wastebasket: “I think I’m an American.”

The entire seven-minute interview, in which Clinton manages to say she changed her mind without ever actually saying exactly that, is worth a listen, especially in light of her latest campaign tactic to make headlines. On July 3rd, photographer Brandon Stanton published an image of a young boy on his popular Facebook page Humans of New York, captioned with a quote from the subject: “I’m homosexual and I’m afraid about what my future will be and that people won’t like me.” The portrait falls squarely into Stanton’s heartstring-tugging, highly meme-able oeuvre.

Clinton, or perhaps the communications staffer behind her Verified Facebook Presence, took the opportunity to jump into the comments and voice her support: “Prediction from a grown-up: Your future is going to be amazing. You will surprise yourself with what you’re capable of and the incredible things you go on to do. Find the people who love and believe in you – there will be lots of them. –H.” (Yes, the “H” indicates Hillary wrote it herself, but I’d put the chances of that comment going live without at least four sets of eyeballs on it at “LOL, you must be new here.”)

The post seems to have served its purpose, garnering approving coverage from the likes of BuzzFeed, CNN, and even, in full “July 4th is a slow news day, so bear with us” mode, the New York Times. Granted, Clinton’s been pretty full-throated in her support for same-sex marriage during this particular election cycle; take the high-quality footage of LGBT couples the campaign had ready to go for last month’s Supreme Court announcement. The video, entitled “Equal,” comes with an exhortation to “Stand with Hillary Clinton in the fight for all LGBT Americans to be able to live, learn, work, and marry free from discrimination” and a link to sign up for Clinton’s campaign mailing list.

But while Clinton has been explicitly in favor of same-sex marriage since March of 2013, all it takes is a simple Google search to unearth statements like, “I believe marriage is…a sacred bond between a man and a woman… And that its primary principle role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children for the society into which they are to become adults.” To be fair, that’s Clinton as a senator arguing against a constitutional amendment defining marriage, but doing so by reassuring Republicans that “traditional” marriage is safe from assault by prominent liberals like her — and using concern for children, one of homophobia’s older and nastier incarnations, to boot.

Which is why the transition from implying that gay marriage would hurt children to consoling a child hurt by precisely that kind of statement leaves such a sour taste in my mouth. (Obviously, I have no direct knowledge of Stanton’s subject or his experiences with homophobia; I am arguing, however, that public figures vilifying homosexuality definitely contributes to the sense that “people won’t like” someone who’s openly gay.) Clinton has clearly evolved on LGBT rights over the years, but as her Gross interview shows, she’s skipped from one end of her redemption arc to the other while ignoring the messy, contradictory middle.

It’s a self-evidently good thing to have a major presidential candidate who supports marriage equality and LGBT rights in general. More importantly, it’s a self-evidently good thing to live in a country where public opinion makes that support a near-mandatory position (for a Democrat, at least) rather than a controversial one. In some ways, Hillary’s changing views are a symbol of how far American cultural norms have come in such a short time. Seeing Clinton embrace that change, rather than eliding it from her public image, could be a powerful thing.

But as the primaries loom ever larger, it’s doubtful a mea culpa will ever come. Maybe it’s enough to know that there are real political incentives in place to ensure that Clinton, should she be elected, wouldn’t repeat her husband’s mistakes (see: Defense of Marriage Act, The). Maybe, however, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable with a candidate reaping the PR benefits of joining a cause several years too late.