The gay community represents one of the most loyal and ardent voting blocks for the Democratic Party, and despite this election cycle’s unpredictable and unprecedented nature, polling suggests that 2016 will be no different. With a Republican platform that poses a serious threat to the recent successes of the gay rights movement and a Republican standard-bearer who embodies a type of masculinity antithetical to the gay community’s running commitment to questioning and reexamining that virility, it is no surprise that Democrats are likely to capture a substantial portion of the LGBT vote in this election.
However, this won’t just be the result of opposition to the Republican Party – it will also be due to Hillary Clinton’s presence at the top of the ticket. The Democratic nominee has undeniably been absent from the cutting edge of gay rights over the past two decades and waited until 2013 to signal her support for marriage equality. But despite that fact, she holds a special place in the hearts and minds of her gay following that might at first glance seem hard to explain. Her dominance among gay voters against the likes of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and now Donald Trump can hardly be explained by her past policy positions and personal feelings towards the gay community. Instead, her ability to whether a constant onslaught of attacks from Republicans and many in her own party has endeared her to a particular sector of the gay male community to which she owes a notable part of her success and support.
In 2015, audio recordings from longtime Clinton ally Taylor Branch surfaced, and they revealed Bill Clinton’s candid assessment that Hillary was not comfortable “around gay people.” The tape was recorded during Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid in New York, and Bill worried that the state’s socially liberal climate might push her out of her comfort zone on gay rights. Throughout the 2000s Hillary gave visibly palpable defenses over the sanctity of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and her 2008 Presidential platform reflected just that. It was not until 2013 that Hillary publicly came out in favor of marriage equality, and even then she had difficulty explaining her evolution on the issue.
Nevertheless, many of Hillary’s most ardent and outspoken supporters are those in the LGBT community, particularly gay men. This makes for a substantial disconnect between her past positions and the adoration she is granted within the community. As Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, tried to explain, “The LGBT community is, in some respects, very forgiving. We’ve seen our own family and friends evolve around us so it’s not out of context to see a politician evolve as well.” While this statement is not untrue, it would be an oversimplification to assume that there exists such an affinity for Mrs. Clinton among the gay community solely because she has “come around.” Plenty of other politicians have similarly done so but do not enjoy the same level of support from the gay community that she does. There is something else to Hillary’s unique position.
In California and New York, the only two states where voters were asked their sexual orientation in exit polls, gay voters significantly favored Clinton to Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries; this was the case again in Clinton’s primary against Bernie Sanders in 2016. Aside from her voters, the visibility of gay men around Hillary Clinton is most obvious in her top campaign staff and her top donors. Her current campaign manager, Robby Mook, is an openly gay Columbia grad. Chad Griffin, president of the largest LGBT organization the Human Rights Campaign, was one of Hillary’s earliest and most vocal supporters.
Prime examples of her gay donor base are Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his husband, former congressional candidate and Brown University alum Sean Eldridge, who recently threw a fundraiser in their swanky Soho loft. Just this past summer, Hillary went on a fundraising blitz through noted gay hotspot Provincetown, Massachusetts. In picking apart Hillary’s appeal to this demographic, it might seem like a logical conclusion to tie her largely white and upper-middle class gay fan base to her ‘diva’ status. This association, however, is not only a bit of a cliché (and a somewhat offensive one at that) – it’s also a huge oversimplification. Clinton is a powerful woman with iconic episodes of tragedy and scandal, but her appeal goes beyond that.
Hillary’s ascendancy in political life can hardly be explained by luck. Instead, Hillary’s craftiness and unrelenting grit are what will more than likely land her in the White House for the second time. Last week at the annual Al Smith dinner, which is customarily attended by Presidential candidates, Donald Trump reportedly turned to Mrs. Clinton midway through the dinner and said, “You are one tough and talented woman.” Her toughness is undeniable. Former White House adviser to Bill Clinton and gay rights advocate Richard Socarides says that people “see her as a survivor and someone who despite her many, many gifts and blessings, survived some personal and political setbacks and persevered in the face of them.” From attacks on her voice, her appearance, her femininity, and her ability to have emotions, she has weathered them all. That, he said, “is very appealing to gay Americans because it’s a shared experience.” For a younger generation of gay men Hillary’s tenacity and resilience was on full display in the 2008 Democratic primary, in which she received more of the popular vote than President Obama. Hillary was able to come back after a stinging defeat, serve as Secretary of State, and assemble a strategy and team that current polling indicates will make her the next President. Her resilience in the face of a concerted effort to oust her from political life, an effort largely calibrated by straight conservative men, metaphorically runs parallel to the experience of many gay men.
Despite her strained past with the LGBT community, Hillary and her campaign have made genuine efforts in ameliorating her complicated past. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton made gay rights a top priority, and in a 2011 speech in Geneva she boldly asserted to diplomats of some of the most anti-gay countries in the world that, “Gay rights are human rights.” Democratic donor and Clinton ally David Mixner said this about Mrs. Clinton’s evolution on gay rights: “it might not be as quick as others, but once she’s there, she’s committed.” Additionally, her campaign recognizes her past positions on gay rights. Rather than offering laborious defensives of these positions, which she is guilty of on other issues, her campaign pokes fun at her past reluctance with appearances like the one she did last year on SNL in which Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton quipped that she could have embraced gay marriage sooner.
The campaign also has embraced Hillary’s status as a pop culture icon by playing up the cultural connection of her infamous hair and pantsuits. Hillary’s fun and contemporary social media presence, which she plays little role in herself, has endeared her to a younger audience perhaps more than any promise of tuition free college might have done. Despite all criticisms of being a part of the old Washington establishment, Hillary has rebranded herself in the eyes of many in the LGBT community — especially among younger gay men — while still retaining her trademark tenacity. Furthermore, in spite of Donald Trump’s more moderate approach to gay rights than those of past Republicans in presidential elections, Trump’s fragile masculinity, general cheapness, and employment of anti-gay rights politician Mike Pence have erased any small opening to court LGBT voters.
In many ways, Hillary has played the part of a mother struggling to figure out where she stands on gay rights, who, with the help of a decade of unparalleled social progress, ultimately comes around to embrace and accept them. Gay men would not play such a predominant role in her campaign otherwise. She has the fighter mentality needed to survive in a world still dominated by an old world order that fails to appreciate strong, unapologetic women like Clinton and the gay men who constitute much of her base of support. The intersection of the feminist issues she has inherently trumpeted as a woman in a male-dominated field and those of the gay rights movement can help explain Hillary’s popularity in the gay community, despite her wavering past stances. If Hillary wins the election next month, it will be in no small part due to the support she has garnered from that very community.