Despite Facebook’s controversial algorithm — one that means members are most likely to see posts that are ideologically aligned with their opinions — lately there’s been a lot of rancor on the social media site (not to mention Twitter). The left and centre-left are at serious odds over who should lead the Democratic Party into the election fight this year. Given the appalling choice the Republicans face — it’s probably Trump but could be Cruz — it seems a third term for a Democratic president may well be in the cards.
The pitched battles have frontrunner Hillary Clinton being held up as the more experienced candidate, and the one who would break that glass ceiling once and for all and become America’s first woman president. Her rival, Bernie Sanders, suggests the entire system is rigged, denounces Clinton’s corporate fundraising, and states that the time is ripe for revolution. Early on, the candidates got high praise for running an issues-oriented campaign, free of the kind of bile that Trump was spewing over at the GOP circus.
But things have changed, and the left is proving that when it comes to politics, things always end up going negative.
I have noticed a few things in this battle for the Democratic Party leadership. And many are going to hate me for saying this, but I feel quite defensive of Hillary Clinton. I think a lot of the charges against her are ones that date back to her husband’s presidency and the GOP’s war on anything Clinton-related. The other thing I noticed is that it seems a lot of gay men — not all gay men, I realize — have taken to defending and supporting Hillary. I know some who are very critical of her, but consider that many have voiced their contention that she’d be the best person for the job.
That list would include Peter Staley, Tony Kushner, Phill Wilson, Matthew Rettenmund, Larry Kramer and Ernest Hopkins. And while many were aghast when Clinton praised Nancy Reagan at her funeral for “starting a dialogue about AIDS” — basically contradicting everything we know about the Reagans’ response to the epidemic — the fact that Clinton was able to recover so quickly after apologizing speaks to the level of loyalty many gays harbor for her.
It got me to wondering if sexual orientation has anything to do with an affinity with the former First Lady and Secretary of State.
The most obvious reason for gay men to support her would be her policies on AIDS and HIV. She’s been a leader on this issue for some time, she has met with activists from HIV organizations and groups — and virtually all have reported that she is compassionate and extremely well-educated about the epidemic and what needs to be done to end it (something experts believe is now actually a distinct possibility, due to new treatments and prevention therapies).
Staley, the longtime activist featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, suggests part of Hillary’s appeal to gay men might be the very basic “Judy Garland factor.” After all, he points out, “she takes a huge number of hits but is tough, gets back and up fights on.” Matthew Rettenmund, a gay writer and author, who wrote the extensive compilation of all things Madonna, Encyclopedia Madonnica, agrees (and this guy wrote an entire book on Madge, so that makes him, you know, totally gay). “The women gay men tend to admire most are the women who don’t take any shit,” he says. “Witness Hillary’s calm demeanor during hours of relentless, fruitless questioning at the Benghazi hearings—does anyone seriously think that tone and that line of questioning wouldn’t have rattled most men? She is a relatively unflappable, goal-oriented individual who has survived and thrived in an atmosphere ranging from suspicion to contempt—that’s laudable.”
But aside from allusions to gay icons and her steely resolve, I see one major reason why gay men might identify with at least some of what Clinton has experienced in the political arena: the constant and seemingly endless array of double standards she has been held to. She is told she has taken too much money for speaking engagements (male politicians do that all the time); she is criticized for playing loosely with the facts (again, standard practice in politics); she is slammed for once opposing same-sex marriage but now embracing it (so did Obama and Biden and in Canada our former Prime Ministers Chretien and Martin — when men do it, it’s called “evolving”); she is told she doesn’t smile enough (that one is so obvious it doesn’t need explaining — if you don’t get it please just ask any woman and she’ll tell you).
Indeed, Clinton has been held to so many double standards — a way of looking and interpreting people through gender goggles that is so firmly entrenched in our culture that many people aren’t conscious of it. Unless, like many women and gay men, they have felt their sting within the workplace or court of public opinion. I have often looked at Clinton and sensed that contradictory criticism often lobbed at both women and gay men: that we are not tough enough while simultaneously being told we are too angry, bitchy or uptight. I still recall a panel of journalists on NBC’s Sunday morning chat show Meet the Press that aired in 2008. The panel was made up of three men and one woman; when the topic came up of whether the woman candidate was being treated differently due to the fact that she was a woman (especially the fact that Clinton’s wardrobe was repeatedly getting referenced in news stories), all of the men agreed that it wasn’t an issue. The sole woman said she thought it was. Her protests were dismissed by the male panelists who quickly moved on to the next topic.
Rettenmund sees this connection too: “I think gay men relate to the fact that Hillary has long been pilloried for every aspect of her life and work. She is never given a break. I think older gay men relate to this idea of being persecuted from all sides in spite of being as good as—or better than—our oppressors and critics.”
Some of my feminist friends have reversed this argument, correctly pointing out that to vote for Clinton on the sole basis that she’s a woman would be ludicrous. Some have gone as far as to argue it simply shouldn’t be an issue and that we’ve somehow moved on. This would seem to me a Backlash moment. That’s the name of the 1991 book by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi, who convincingly argued that the media had created an illusion that women were in fact succeeding in their bid for equality — while the reality was quite different. The idea that we’re now in a place where women have anything resembling equality with men is ridiculous. Just look at poverty rates, income comparisons and who overwhelmingly dominates the Fortune 500 list. It may be part of the reason older, more experienced feminists, like Gloria Steinem, have spoken to the significance of Clinton’s candidacy. Make no mistake: if Clinton gets elected in November, it’s a huge deal — every bit as a big a deal as when America finally got its first black President with Obama.
Hatred for Clinton often boils down to one simple summary of her character (one that comes from expertise derived from having watched House of Cards carefully): Hillary Rodham Clinton is a deceitful cold heartless bitch who has defended Wall Street and large corporations and loves war and who is only out for herself. Not only is this a stereotype of Lady Macbeth proportions — one pushed by the GOP war machine and Fox News — it’s not really true. Please recall what Clinton tried to do during her husband’s presidency: Hillary Clinton developed a plan and advocated for expanding health care in the US, attempting to make it universal (like it is in every other industrialized democracy). For that, she was attacked and denounced relentlessly. I’m sorry, but someone who works that hard for other people — in particular, those who would benefit most from the expansion of health care (poor people, children, minorities and people struggling with long-term health conditions like HIV) — can’t possibly fit the archetype you’ve created for Hillary. Those two people simply don’t mesh.
I get the strong sense that Clinton understands that my struggle is in part her struggle too. It may be the reason many black and Latino voters are drawn to her as well. Back in the day, activists called it coalition politics (it was one of Harvey Milk’s core philosophies). Academics have since come up with a name for it: intersectionality. Simply put, it’s the notion that all marginalized people are in some way connected through the obstacles they face. Notably, Clinton is the first candidate to have uttered this word while discussing her political ideas.
Clinton, of course, is not perfect. Clearly, she should release the transcripts of the speeches she gave to corporations and I didn’t much care for her AIPAC speech (Sanders deserves huge praise for his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).
But she’s a strong, powerful candidate, far more honest than her critics give her credit for (as respected journalist Jill Abramson argued in The Guardian), a person even staunch leftist activist and politician Tom Hayden has endorsed (and he procreated with Jane Fonda, so he’s got credentials). She’s a tough fighter, a defender of human rights, an experienced senator, someone with a far-reaching knowledge of international affairs and, I would argue, a gay icon.
I think she’ll make a fine President. Being Canadian, I can’t vote for her, but I would urge my American friends to do just that.
Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based writer whose articles have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Vice and The Washington Post. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press), which won a 2008 Lambda Award. He teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University