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Hillary Clinton's unanswered questions on marriage equality

There's never been a better time for Democratic presidential hopefuls to champion LGBT equality. Yet Hillary Clinton has left some questions unanswered.
Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo by Mel Evans/AP)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses around 3,000 summer camp and out of school time professionals at the American Camp Association and Tri State CAMP conference on March 19, 2015, in Atlantic City, N.J.

Two years have passed since former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially -- and, many argued, belatedly -- came out in support of same-sex marriage. But as the 2016 election draws near, some LGBT advocates still have questions they’d like to see the presumptive Democratic nominee answer.

What prompted her self-proclaimed “evolution” -- a term borrowed from her old boss, President Barack Obama -- on the marriage front, and when exactly did it happen? Does she regret the period when a wave of anti-gay legislation became law while she was first lady? And most importantly, does she now believe that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to wed under the 14th Amendment?

The nation’s highest court is set to hear arguments on that last question next month. But Clinton, despite her reputation as a steadfast ally to the LGBT community -- particularly with regard to her work abroad -- has never addressed it head on.

These questions are important in that they indicate what, as president, Clinton would do for LGBT Americans, which judges and administration officials she might pick, and how vigorously she would fight the remaining battles in the equality movement. They could also serve as an important campaign tool by pulling the debate into uncomfortable territory for GOP presidential hopefuls, many of whom would rather avoid talking about same-sex marriage, while also revving up an important block of the Democratic base.

“Any Democratic presidential candidate almost inevitably is going to have to rely tremendously on the LGBT community, both in terms of money… and because gay people disproportionately are very skilled, sophisticated political activists, managers, and professionals,” Ethan Geto, a longtime gay rights activist and political consultant, told msnbc. Geto has also worked with Clinton on past campaigns and knows her well.

“On a net balance, it’s a political plus for her to talk about LGBT issues,” Geto said. “And now I’m going to get in touch with her and tell her that.”

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As election season gets underway, much of the attention surrounding same-sex nuptials has centered on Republican presidential contenders, who have the daunting task of trying to appeal to the party’s conservative base without alienating the pro-marriage equality portion of the general electorate. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example, spoke to Atlanta donors Thursday of the need for religious freedom protections as well as respect for same-sex couples in long-term committed relationships -- marking his latest attempt at threading the needle on marriage rights ahead of an anticipated White House run.

But among the pack of Democratic hopefuls, led by Clinton, there seems to be a similar level of reticence associated with talking about marriage equality, without the same risks involved.

“We haven’t heard much from any of the Democratic candidates. We haven’t heard much from Mrs. Clinton at all,” Marc Solomon, national campaign director for the Freedom to Marry, told msnbc. “But I have every confidence that when we do, she will be in the place that is really the overwhelmingly Democratic position… that is for a constitutional guarantee for the freedom to marry.”

Clinton’s spokesperson, Nick Merrill, did not respond to a request for comment about the former secretary’s position on the constitutionality of same-sex nuptials. In one of the most recent times that Clinton spoke publicly on the matter, she struck a defensive posture with interviewer Terry Gross on National Public Radio and repeatedly referred to marriage as a “state” issue -- a position more commonly heard nowadays among Republicans. At the time of the interview last June, a majority of states did not allow gay and lesbian couples to legally wed.

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“I know gay Democrats who were incensed that she rather notoriously stated last year that she sees this as best decided on a state by state basis,” Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, told msnbc. As the head of GOP group that supports gays and lesbians, Angelo conceded that he’s “as partisan as they come.”

Nevertheless, he continued, Clinton’s belief that marriage laws should be left up to the states “doesn’t square with the Democratic Party platform, let alone with the thinking of the preponderance of gay rights activists, regardless of party affiliation.”

Most of the activists interviewed for this piece were quick to point out that even though Clinton hasn’t staked out a position on whether the 14th Amendment protects the marriage rights of same-sex couples, she has amassed a number of achievements for LGBT equality. In 2002 and 2003, then-Sen. Clinton was an original cosponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) a measure that if passed would have barred discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

As secretary of state, Clinton prioritized the elimination of violence and discrimination against LGBT people, famously declaring in a 2011 speech in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights.” And unlike any of her potential Republican rivals, who -- like her -- tend to talk about marriage as a states rights issue, Clinton says she personally supports same-sex nuptials.

For some LGBT advocates, and in all likelihood plenty of voters, that record provides more than enough evidence of her commitment to equality.

“I know her well personally, I’ve spent a lot of time with her, and from my point of view, you couldn’t have a more gay-friendly president,” said Geto. “If she were elected, she would be a very vigorous supporter of marriage equality and civil rights in general for LGBT people.”

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Others, however, think it’s time for Clinton to take a stronger stand on LGBT equality, and same-sex marriage in particular.

“I think there’s an obligation for Democratic presidential candidates to talk about it if they’re going to hold themselves up as these champions for equality,” said Angelo. “If they don’t, that’s cowardice.”

Even if she continues her silent streak, Clinton still has the potential to be a transformative force for the LGBT community. Already, she is a stronger champion for equality than Obama was when he was campaigning for the 2008 election, and he went on to become the most LGBT-friendly president in history. (Obama said he believed marriage was between a man and a woman as a presidential candidate, as did Clinton when she competed with him for the Democratic nomination that year.)

But with support for marriage equality continuing to rise in the polls, and an emerging field of primary challengers -- like Martin O’Malley -- who also boast strong achievements for equality, it’s worth wondering why Clinton seems to be shying away from her support for LGBT rights, rather than doubling down on it.

Geto believes her silence is a political maneuver to avoid being cast as the “crazy feminist” who cares more about social issues than economic and foreign policy. “I understand the politics,” he said. “Am I happy about it? No. Would I rather see her be upfront and stronger on these kinds of social issues? Yes. But I wear two hats: political analyst and gay rights activist.”

Angelo has a less generous theory -- that Clinton doesn’t want to be pegged as a flip flopper. “If she now states that she believes in a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, she’s going to have to answer follow-ups as to why her position has changed,” he said.

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Regardless of why Clinton’s kept largely quiet on marriage equality, however, most activists believe she won’t stay that way for long. In a month’s time, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear challenges to four states’ same-sex marriage bans. And by June, legal experts anticipate the justices will set a nationwide standard of marriage equality. That case should provide the perfect opportunity for Clinton to come out as a strong leader on the constitutionally protected marriage rights of gay and lesbian couples.

“Support for the freedom to marry has become a prerequisite for serious Democratic candidates seeking national office, and something that Democrats generally are very proud of,” said Solomon of Freedom to Marry. “Hopefully in a few months we’ll be at a place where the court has solved the issue nationwide and the candidates can talk about it in the past tense.”