Eleven years before gay celebrities like Ellen Degeneres came out to declare their support for Hillary Clinton's presidential run, and before the former US secretary of state reprised the role of Val the Bartender alongside bisexual starlet Miley Cyrus on Saturday Night Live, the then-senator unequivocally pronounced on the floor of the Senate that marriage was a "sacred bond between a man and a woman."
That 2004 statement — made during a roundabout argument against a proposed federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and filmed and reposted to YouTube dozens of times — would ultimately come back to haunt the current Democratic presidential frontrunner. It came up in LGBT chat rooms, article-comments sections, and social media posts, especially in the aftermath of major announcements such as her first stated declaration of support for gay marriage in 2013.
This week, those words were again brought up after America's largest LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign or HRC, announced that 32 of its "community leaders" had voted to back the candidate. Many of the unfavorable comments were posted by supporters of her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, spurred on by the Vermont senator's own political campaign, which said HRC's endorsement "cannot possibly be based on the facts and the record."
"It's understandable and consistent with the establishment organizations voting for the establishment candidate," spokesman Michael Briggs told the Washington Blade. "So who knows what prompted the Human Rights Campaign to do what it does — I have trouble myself figuring why they do some of the things they do over the years — but I think the gay men and lesbians all over the country will know who has been their champion for a long, long time and will consider that as they make up their mind on support for his campaign."
Others defended HRC's position. Ryan Davis, a 33-year-old business development manager in New York, said the endorsement was "deserved," pointing out that even President Barack Obama, whom he called "the most successful president in history for LGBT Americans," had also changed his mind on gay marriage. Clinton's support of the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling last June and her backing of the federal Equality Act against LGBT discrimination a month later has since proved an "evolution" from her 2004 views, he said.
"I don't think people should be tainted forever because they held a position that wasn't the right position at the time," said Davis, 33, who worked closely with HRC during its 2011 campaign to legalize gay marriage in New York. "For the bulk of her career Hillary has been a supporter of LGBT issues and I think she evolved like many people did on the marriage equality issue. People like my parents and my parents' friends have also changed their minds."
But others, including longtime members of HRC, which has 1.5 million members across the nation, felt the decision to endorse Clinton on their behalf was a presumptuous and unnecessary measure that ruptured bonds in the LGBT community.
"HRC was always something that we had gone to as a support group — it's a place you go to feel welcome, and in this moment it felt like maybe we weren't consulted, we weren't brought into this decision. There was no poll, there was no option, it was just decided for us," said Forrest Tollen, an Oregon-based voice-over artist. "I think a lot of people in the community are really done with things just being decided for them."
In order to "provide a forum for discussion," Tollen set up a petition against HRC's endorsement, which has received more than 8,500 signatures. Commenters on the petition noted that Sanders had scored the HRC's highest possible rating and questioned HRC's preemptive support of Clinton. Although the 22-year-old is among a growing number of young Sanders supporters, he claims the petition calls on the advocacy group "to revoke the endorsement, not to change it."
"I would have preferred they not endorse anyone until the Democratic [presidential] candidate had been selected," Tollen said. "It's very hurtful to the gay community and the Democratic party as a whole to be infighting like this."
HRC said Friday that it had a past record of endorsing candidates before a nominee was chosen, including in 2000 when it endorsed Al Gore over his rival for the nomination Bill Bradley. It also defended its decision to endorse Clinton, whose last congressional scorecard from the gay rights organization ranged between 88 and 95 percent, saying "the scorecard doesn't take into account any of Clinton's accomplishments and support outside the Senate, including her role advancing global LGBT rights as Secretary of State, and her robust plan for LGBT equality as a candidate for president."
"The differences between [Sanders and Clinton's] scores are minimal," HRC spokesman Brandon Lorenz wrote in an email. "They both have strong congressional records."
A separate petition proposing a similar retraction of HRC's support has also popped up on change.org. The entreaty, started by 22-year-old Emily Truesdell, who identifies as bisexual and gender fluid, is based on her belief that Sanders is "the candidate that is truly on our side."
"Bernie Sanders has historically, through his entire career, even when it wasn't particularly beneficial to him, supported the LGBT community, even when it could have been detrimental to his career," said Truesdell, a history major at the University of North Carolina.
That's not technically true. Neither Sanders nor Clinton has a completely consistent voting record or stated position on LGBT issues. While Sanders was among a few dozen lawmakers who opposed the Defense Against Marriage Act (DOMA), which was ultimately signed into law under Clinton's husband's administration, he did so based on an argument to preserve states' rights, rather than a premise of equality. In 2006, Sanders also opposed gay marriage in his elected state of Vermont, stating instead his preference for civil unions. At the time he called same-sex marriage too "divisive."
Likewise, Clinton's early support for DOMA, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman, has also tainted her recent efforts to backpedal away from that law, which was repealed by the Supreme Court ruling last year. Clinton only formally announced her support for same-sex marriage in a video with HRC in 2013, two years before she declared her second run for the White House. Notably, during Clinton's first presidential campaign in 2007, every major Democratic and Republican candidate also stood against gay marriage.
The discord between the campaigns and their supporters over HRC's recent endorsement for Clinton has shown, if nothing else, the difficulty in voicing en masse the concerns of a vastly diverse community comprised of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender men and women, queer, gender nonconforming, and other individuals.
Merric, a 24-year-old transgender man from Massachusetts who did not want to give his last name for professional reasons, said that politicians rarely represent values and ideals that are shared by the entire community, and that issues for transgender people, or the "ever-silent 'T' in "LGBT,'" are usually the first to be forgotten or ignored.
"Gender is not a sexual orientation, and often you think of gay marriage, gay rights, and the right to adopt, which are all very important issues," he said. "But there are fewer states that have any sort of policy against transgender discrimination. That's a whole new ballgame for some people."
Merric added that he supported HRC's endorsement of Clinton because the candidate had called for federal laws to protect the safety of the transgender community and to end the ban on open trans military service members.
But on these issues, the two candidates have both been outspoken. Sanders has also previously stated his support to end discrimination against transgender people, issuing a tweet last September focusing on housing, and stating on his website that he would sign any "bill that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people."
In many states, it is legal to deny someone housing for being transgender. That is wrong and must end.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders)September 28, 2015
Regardless of split allegiances, the LGBT community will prove to be a considerable voting bloc in 2016 — one that skews overwhelmingly Democratic. In the last presidential election in 2012, exit polls showed that 5 percent of the electorate identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Of those surveyed, 77 percent voted for Obama, while 23 percent voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The poll did not list respondents who were transgender. As HRC wrote in its statement endorsing Clinton, at least 55 percent of Americans have also indicated they would be less willing to vote for a presidential candidate if they were anti-gay marriage.
"Today, in key states like Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, the population of LGBT adults is greater than the average margin of victory in the last three presidential elections," the organization wrote. "Progress has been driven in great part by the growing number of Americans — now nine out of ten people — with an LGBT person in their lives."
Davis says the power and bent of the LGBT vote will not change any time soon, but that as society evolves at large, so too will voting patterns.
"I have a theory that after the big issues like marriage equality and discrimination are tackled, we're going to see more of the higher-income LGBT people considering Republican once these issues are off the table," he said. "But for now, the LGBT community is going to be a pretty reliable Democratic voting bloc. Certainly none of the Republican candidates this election would be acceptable for a gay person to vote for."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter:@lianzifields