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Bill Clinton expresses appreciation for his award.
On April 20, 2013, the 24th annual GLAAD Media Awards were presented in Los Angeles. The evening's most controversial moment came when the new Agent for Change Award was presented to former President Bill Clinton. Other recipients of awards included the independent film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the NBC comedy series The New Normal, and the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives. In addition, attorney Steve Warren received the Stephen F. Kolzak Award, which honors an openly glbtq member of the entertainment or media community for his or her work toward eliminating homophobia.
The event, which was hosted by actress Drew Barrymore, included many celebrities. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron presented the Kolzak Award to entertainment lawyer Steve Warren, while Harvey Weinstein and Jennifer Lawrence presented the Agent for Change Award to former President Clinton.
The choice of former President Clinton to receive the first Agent for Change Award was a controversial one and the former president seemed aware that not everyone in the audience approved of his being named an "agent for change."
As President, Clinton's relations with the glbtq community were decidedly mixed. Despite the appointment of openly gay and lesbian officials, the issuance of anti-discrimination executive orders, increased funding for AIDS, the increased prominence of gay men and lesbians in the Democratic Party coalition, and his support for gay-positive legislation, he is also remembered for having signed into law two pernicious pieces of legislation. One established the military policy that banned openly gay and lesbian servicemembers, Don't Ask, Don't Tell; the other, the Defense of Marriage Act, barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Defenders of Clinton point out that the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law was intended as an improvement over the previous policy that banned gay people from service altogether and that the law was also supposed to preclude the witch hunts and capricious enforcement that came to characterize it. Still, Don't Ask, Don't Tell caused great damage to gay and lesbian servicemembers and proved very difficult to change.
DOMA is an even more problematic part of Clinton's legacy, since it is clear that he signed it in 1996 for crass political reasons. It is currently under consideration by the Supreme Court of the United States.
In an editorial in the Washington Post on March 8, 2013, the former President repudiated the law and urged the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. While gay advocates welcomed his recognition of the discriminatory nature of the law, many also pushed back against his attempt to revise history, as detailed here.
David Mixner, for example, observed that "Clinton took the wrong action in 1996 and he did it for purely political reasons. That is the truth of the matter." He pointed out that "While [Clinton] talked about his pain in signing the legislation, his campaign team immediately created radio ads and started running them throughout the South. In those ads, they proclaimed and celebrated Clinton signing the legislation."
Given Clinton's failure of leadership, many activists criticized GLAAD's choice of him as the first recipient of the Agent for Change award.
Clinton seemed aware of the criticism as he accepted the award. Indeed, he could hardly have not been aware since at one point, when he was discussing DOMA at about 5:35 in the video below, a heckler yelled out, "You signed it!"
Clinton began by saying that GLAAD and its supporters deserved the award. He also told the audience "you are the true agents of change . . . I believe you will win the DOMA fight, and I think that you will win the constitutional right to marry. If not tomorrow, then the next day or the next day."
He added, "I supported and tried to pass ENDA [Employment NonDiscrimination Act] without success. We still need to pass that. We still need to fight bullying and we need the right kind of immigration reform that doesn't discriminate against anybody."
He also praised his daughter Chelsea and attributed to her "a profound impact in many ways on the way I see the world," including "how we should all treat each other regardless of our sexual orientation or any other artificial difference that divides us."
Uncharacteristically subdued, the former President concluded his speech by acknowledging that he may not deserve the soubriquet "agent of change": "You are the agents of change. I'm getting this award tonight because I was the object of your affections--or not, as the case may be."