The Fragility of Legitimacy: A Queer Critique of Hillary Clinton

by Alessandro Granato

25 October 2016

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

In a widely disseminated interview on US National Public Radio in 2014, presenter Terry Gross confronted Hillary Clinton on her apparent about-turn on the issue of gay marriage. In a markedly evasive response, Clinton argued that her evolving mindset with regard to gay marriage reflected the changing views of many of her generation. Indeed, in the build up to the Supreme Court’s decision to recognise the national right to same-sex marriage in June 2015, differences in opinion drawn along clear generational lines became clear. 

I respect Clinton’s evolving attitude and self-reflection – she is not the only liberal politician who has taken their time to come round to the idea of gay marriage. What seems clear from this exchange is that Clinton did not believe in gay marriage all along, but that something had to convince her of the “rightness of that position”. What exactly that was, she doesn’t mention. Of course, more people coming to understand that marriage between same-sex couples is a matter of respect, and one that ensures the queer community receive the same legal rights as others, is undoubtedly a good thing. Whether or not marriage is important to you, as a matter of principle, the ruling is an indication that the love of two people, regardless of sex, warrants the same social and legal legitimacy as that between a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’.

However, we should maintain a critical outlook on those who appear to have come to champion the needs of the queer community. First of all, Clinton argued that her views on gay marriage changed in line with the evolution in mindset of the average American, who came to support gay marriage only recently. It is here that she slips up: her credentials as an ‘average American’ were for a long time actually starkly at odds with those women, and men, most like her. In fact, Clinton did not fight for same-sex marriage earlier despite up to 90% of women from her social and political demographic supporting same-sex marriage recognition by 2008. This discrepancy challenges what Clinton represents, and invokes suspicion concerning her decision-making.

Moreover, Clinton’s rhetoric serves to emphasise that queer rights are politically expedient: both Democrats and Republicans have come out in support of various LGBT rights issues in order to win the queer vote. Recent WikiLeaks have revealed that Clinton’s own LGBT support is a manufactured ploy for Democrat votes, disturbingly effacing a recorded history of blocking LGBT progress. In Clinton’s own words, as “people continue to change”, those political expediencies become the vehicles for power, and are moulded according to the whim of the zeitgeist. It is for this reason that queers and their allies must remain critical: our rights are subject to the caprices of the powerful, and we must not become complacent when a politician decides it’s the right time to join our side.

I do not need to justify a critique of Hillary Clinton. Nor does my critique of Clinton mean I want Donald Trump to win the upcoming election. My critique of Clinton is my democratic prerogative, and it is in the interest of queer criticism. The Democratic party should represent and respect those democratic prerogatives, and should be the progressive representative for the many millions of queer people and our allies. I use the word ally because we are still threatened, not just by the kind of violence recently perpetrated at the Pulse Queer Nightclub in Orlando, but by the shadow of political expediency and the white-washing neoliberal machine.

Queer power and queer progress is democratic progress, and we cannot allow that progress to be qualified with political vapidity, folded into a united identity against a common enemy. The current political embrace of queer identities is fickle, and could change with the political and social tide. To roll over and breathe a sigh of relief at apparent progress for queer legitimacy is to do so under false pretences.

Such critique is all the more pertinent in the context of Clinton’s White House bid, which appears to have the needs of the queer community at its helm. Ali E. Erol took a moment to consider Clinton’s calls for unity in response to the abhorrent violence carried out at the Pulse Queer nightclub on 16 June this year. In a live speech in Cleveland on the Monday after the attack, Clinton stated: “We have to stand together. Be proud together. There is no better rebuke to the terrorists, to all those who hate.” As such, her neoliberal feminism subsumes queer subjects via a homonationalist discourse of ‘openness’ and ‘diversity’ to create a body politic united against terrorist bodies, ultimately revealing her queer political agenda. Likewise, Trump’s repugnant LGBT pitch has seen a far more obviously polarised protectionism: pitting all queers against all Muslims. Troublingly, as Erol notes, despite Clinton’s queer credentials, advocating for marriage equality equates to a “proper citizenship in exchange for being a part of global warfare.”

Queer legitimacy becomes as periodic as the election process. We can be grateful for Clinton’s LGBT rights platform, but it must work for all queer communities, and not just those privileged in terms of race and class. Moreover, we must not forget that Clinton’s flip-flopping with regard to gay marriage reflects the fragility of LGBT rights, and that the struggle for queer liberation is not won because a politician suddenly decides that queers are worth fighting for. And, crucially, a united community is one that looks inwards to the needs of its many members, not outwards to a fallacious enemy.

In the UK, as in the US, the queer community must not be lulled into a false sense of security by current political championing of LGBT issues. The recent Brexit vote in the UK saw a subsequent 147% increase in hate crimes against LGBT people. Just as our feminist comrades critique Hillary Clinton because they care about feminism and what Clinton is doing in its name, so must queer politics maintain critical acuity in order to understand how our identities are being played with by the powerful, and in order to make sure the tide doesn’t change.

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