Voices: Dianne Feinstein’s relationship with gay rights was far from simple - but changed America forever

Senator Dianne Feinstein  (AFP via Getty Images)
Senator Dianne Feinstein (AFP via Getty Images)
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Following the election of George W Bush in 2004, California Senator Dianne Feinstein knew who to blame. Or at least that was the takeaway by many gay rights activists.

“I believe it did energize a very conservative vote,” Feinstein said of then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome’s decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier that year. “I think it gave them a position to rally around. I’m not casting a value judgment. I’m just saying I do believe that’s what happened. So, I think that whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon. And people aren’t ready for it.”

As an 18-year-old gay rights activist who had just fought unsuccessfully against an amendment to my home state of Kentucky’s constitution to ban same-sex marriages, I was incensed. It felt like she was casting a value judgment – one that suggested my civil rights could wait.

In hindsight, though, I have come to agree with Feinstein. Looking back two decades, it is easy to forget that 60 percent of Americans opposed equal marriage in 2004. For them, it was too fast, too soon, and Republicans understood this. George W Bush famously used same-sex marriage as a wedge issue. Republicans in 11 states put anti-marriage amendments on the ballot that November, galvanizing socially conservative voters who in turn helped Bush (who himself backed a federal anti-marriage amendment) win a second term.

As a scared gay teenager in Kentucky, I looked to Dianne Feinstein as a source of grandmotherly comfort, a reminder that there were people in the great wide world who did see me, who did respect me, and who did believe me their equal. Perhaps that was why I – young, angry, and disillusioned – felt her words hurt me so deeply. Perhaps that is also why I couldn’t see the wisdom of age contained within them.

Writing today for Politico, Feinstein biographer Jerry Roberts explains that while “Feinstein was among the nation’s first, tiny handful of officeholders to advocate for gay rights” she “recurrently clashed with gay culture and aspirations in the public arena” because of “her square and straightlaced sensibilities.” From her personal and political disagreements with fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk, to her handling of the White Night Riots following Milk’s assassin’s conviction on voluntary manslaughter instead of murder, to her controversial veto of a domestic partnership bill in 1982, her centrist views put her at odds with gay rights activists as often as it put her in league with them.

There were plenty of times when gay rights activists and Feinstein were on the same side, though. Following the White Night Riots she appointed a pro-gay police chief. She led the nation in response to the AIDS crisis, allocating more of the city’s budget to AIDS than President Ronald Reagan did for the entire nation and with the “San Francisco Model” becoming the gold standard for caring for AIDS patients. Later, as a Senator, she opposed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, supported the Matthew Shepard Act, and voted for the Respect For Marriage Act – coming full circle in her efforts to promote gay rights at the federal level.

Feinstein understood small-c conservatives, and knew that gay rights was a long-term project. This is not to say that she was not a staunch ally; Feinstein long supported gay couples and gay rights. She championed the rights of women in California prisons to have lesbian relationships in the 1960s, and she even officiated a lesbian wedding in the 1970s.

Yet she was also prim, proper. She was the personification of the progressive middle-class: inclusive, but prudish. That is not a criticism; I actually believe it was this combination of progressive sensibility and old-fashioned values that was the genius of Dianne Feinstein.

She understood that massive social change would be met with massive backlash. Perhaps we all learned that lesson with the election of Donald Trump, but Feinstein knew it long before. She wanted the change to be lasting, which meant playing the long game. Democracy is about persuading, and while persuading someone of your basic equality can be emotionally taxing and physically draining, it is unfortunately sometimes necessary.

History has vindicated her slow and steady approach to gay rights. Through relentless campaigning but also through careful persuading, the LGBT+ rights movement has made significant gains. Where 60 percent of Americans used to oppose equal marriage, nearly two decades later 71 percent of Americans support it.

To be sure, she was imperfect – something she herself confessed after a gay spoiler candidate forced her into a runoff following the White Night Riots. Roberts quotes her in a debate sponsored by a local gay Democratic club: “I don’t come to you as a perfect person that knows the answers and that doesn’t make mistakes. But I do come to you as someone who has got a heart and a concern and a very deep interest and desire to represent this community.”

Even still, the gay community has hardly known a better friend than Dianne Feinstein.