The night Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, the Castro exploded

The night Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, the Castro exploded
LGBT activists set fire to a coffin in San Francisco the night Bill Clinton was elected President. Photo: Michael Bedwell
The first protest I ever participated in was against a Democratic candidate for President. Alabama Gov. George “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” Wallace’s 1964 primary effort exploiting white backlash brought him to Terre Haute, Indiana, and me to my first political action even though I wasn’t yet old enough to vote. So Barack Obama’s 2008 election was especially sweet for me.

I’d like to thank him for several things.

  • For appointing the first out gay US Ambassador, Consul General, and federal judge.
  • For ordering an end to President Eisenhower’s ban on gay federal employees, and being the first President to have more than 150 out gays and lesbians working in his Administration.
  • For protecting gays eligible for federal health insurance, and an unprecedented guide for schools, “Protecting Students from Harassment and Hate Crime.
  • For recognizing gays as a “distinct social group” for political asylum.
  • For nearly tripling AIDS spending over President Bush, creating the first White House Office of National AIDS Policy, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, and first ever White House Conference on HIV and AIDS.
  • For being the first President to endorse ENDA, a federal hate crimes act, and oppose bans on gay adoptions.
  • For being the first President to meet with gay activists in the White House and declare June Pride Month.
  • And for appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court whose votes were so crucial to life-changing rulings in our favor.

Except Barack didn’t do any of that; Bill Clinton did.

The many things he did first and right have been eclipsed by what he got wrong — or, rather, people’s misunderstanding or misremembering the circumstances. The shorthand is that he did not “give us” Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, both passing Congress by huge veto-proof majorities.

Resentment was magnified by the magic gays expected from the first major party candidate to aggressively court them versus what came before, like Frank Kameny’s unanswered letters to President Kennedy and successor Lyndon Johnson.

In Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s 1965 response to Kameny, he clucked: “Neither the Federal Executive Orders on fair employment nor the Civil Rights Act which constitute the authority for this program on non-discrimination are relevant to the problems of homosexuals.”

By 1972’s presidential primaries Humphrey had changed his mind. “I see no reason why homosexual Americans should be excluded from protection under the law.” Support also came from Democratic candidates Ted Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, John Lindsay, and Shirley Chisholm, and even Republican Pete McCloskey.

Because gays had helped George McGovern win the ’72 nomination, two out delegates were the first ever allowed to speak to a Democratic National Convention. But his operatives scheduled them close to dawn when most TV viewers were asleep, engineered a speech (which McGovern later disavowed) opposing the gay rights plank, and guaranteed its defeat.

By 1980 there were more out DNC delegates and the first approved gay rights plank. Primary candidates vied more and more for gay group endorsements and contributions (though Dem Michael Dukakis infamously turned down a promise of $1 million in 1988).

The climax was Bill Clinton’s 1992 speech orchestrated by his out friend and longtime civil rights and antiwar activist, David Mixner. “I have a vision for the future, and you are part of it. You represent a community of our nation’s gifted people that we’ve been willing to squander. But we can’t afford to waste the capacities, the contributions, the hearts and souls and minds of the lesbian and gay community. Gay publications swooned, mainstream media reported it, and videotapes of his speech swept the country.

Republican incumbent George Bush, père, had badly damaged the economy, and was deeply stained as Ronald Reagan’s VP and their infamous AIDS legacy. His own attitude toward gays was perceived at best as indifference. Republican National Convention keynoter Pat Buchanan demonized the Democrats’ “most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history. [This election is] a battle for the soul of America [and] Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”

AIDS deaths in the U.S. alone were approaching 200,000 as HIV+ basketball legend Magic Johnson very publicly resigned from the National Commission on AIDS telling Bush: “AIDS cannot be fought with lip service and photo opportunities.”

Michael Bedwell Collection

A group of guys in wigs and “Lick Bush” t-shirts came to San Francisco’s large Castro Halloween celebration that year with a wooden coffin marked “RIP George Bush.” When Clinton’s victory was declared election night, the newly hopeful filled the intersection of 18th and Castro. In an “Only in San Francisco” moment, from giant stereo speakers on the stage set up on the back of a truck, the air was suddenly saturated with the sound of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz singing “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead,” and the crowd parted to let six men pass through carrying the coffin down the middle of Castro Street.

They set it on the corner and, then, on fire; I can still hear the roar of approval.

Michael Bedwell Collection


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