One by one, they strode to a microphone in the stately Senate chamber. Peering into the faces of civil rights leaders and a gallery of cameras, they said it was time to pass a federal law covering hate crimes.
"The silence in Congress . . . has been deafening," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts rebuked his colleagues. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt reeled off a list of recent slayings linked to prejudice: those of James Byrd Jr., a black man in Texas, and of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama, both of whom were gay.
"Hatred is the most ignoble emotion in the human heart," intoned Sen. Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon. The spate of violence was a "stain on the nation," said Ron Wyden, his Democratic counterpart. New York Democrat Charles Schumer said that "even the most devout social conservative will tell you that the quote-unquote sin of homosexuality pales compared to the sin of violence." Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said the killings were "too hot to handle on the local level."
But then he added, "This is a tough bill to get my colleagues to support."
Brows immediately furrowed. One belonged to Richard Socarides, a diminutive man standing, arms folded, along one wall of the wood-paneled room. President Clinton's liaison to the gay and lesbian community, he had carefully stage-managed this news conference in March to announce the introduction of the 1999 version of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would increase penalties and expand federal jurisdiction in crimes motivated by bias.
After Shepard was killed last October, Socarides had spent months trying to reassure gay rights activists. The Clinton administration "was doing all it could" to ensure passage of federal anti-bias protections, he had said. The news coverage of the Wyoming murder, he had explained in dozens of phone conversations and meetings, provided the best opportunity for gains in gay rights since 1993, when Clinton backed away from his pledge to lift the military's ban on gay service members.
Since taking the liaison job in May 1996, Socarides had worked feverishly to repair frayed relations between the White House and the gay community. In 1995, uniformed Secret Service officers had greeted gay rights activists arriving for a meeting with rubber gloves. Shortly after Socarides started his job, the president touted his signing of an anti-gay marriage bill in advertisements taped for Christian radio. Gay men and lesbians had voted for the president by overwhelming proportions, but many still remembered the snubs.
Now, Socarides needed to deliver. Surely, he thought, Schumer was right: Even the most vocal gay rights opponents would see the need for legislation protecting homosexuals from violence. Shepard had been pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left for dead; Gaither had been bludgeoned with an ax handle and thrown onto a pyre of burning tires; polls indicated that at least 60 percent of Americans supported the legislation. Yet just when momentum seemed to be building, here was a crucial Republican putting on the brakes.
Socarides felt his back against the wall.
It wasn't the first time, nor is it likely to be the last. From hate crimes to same-sex marriage to AIDS, Richard Socarides is caught between an angry constituency looking for a glimmer of progress at the federal level and a cautious administration repeatedly burned by the right wing on gay issues. Though his portfolio of responsibilities includes the president's initiatives on race and other civil rights issues, he has become the embodiment of the bridge between principle and pragmatism that has come to define gay politics at the end of the century. He is the Washington insider for a political movement that has never had one. By virtue of his job, he is the man in the middle.
In a way, it's a circumstance he was born to: His father, Charles W. Socarides, is the champion of an obscure psychiatric movement known as "reparative therapy," which sees homosexuality as a mental illness that can be treated. In a nutshell, the elder Socarides, a professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, believes that male homosexuality is caused in early childhood development by a smothering mother and an abdicating father, which produces narcissism in the child. He has described his relationship with his first-born son in these terms.
In a career roughly spanning the life of his 44-year-old son, Charles Socarides has written dozens of journal articles and books describing homosexuality as a pathology. In Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far (1995), he also attacked the gay rights movement. "First, it takes deadly aim on the primary unit in society, the family," he wrote. "Second, it is eliminating one of the very obvious, but very key factors in the making of a civilization: the fact that one generation succeeds another generation. Third, the very fact of AIDS is the same-sex movement's terrifying contribution to this terrific century."
In one of the great subplots of Washington politics, one of the country's most visible gay rights advocates is seemingly attempting to undo his father's life's work. It's as if Bob Dornan had fathered Bob Dylan.
Physically, Richard Socarides is a chip off the old man's block: boot-polish black hair, cherubic features, olive complexion. His liberal politics were also handed down from his father, a Democrat who revered Robert F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement (even if, as the nation's tolerance toward homosexuals has grown, Charles has aligned with the right wing in his opposition to homosexuality).
Father and son have spoken only sporadically since Richard became the Clinton administration's gay rights advocate, but it wasn't always this way. Charles Socarides did not respond to requests for an interview; his son, agreeing to speak freely about his father without restrictions, says the two were once exceptionally close.
Richard's parents divorced in 1960, when he was 6. Richard moved in with his mother, Veronica, just blocks away from his father's home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The separation was rough on young Richard, and he fell behind in school. To remedy the situation, Richard moved back in with his father at the age of 13 and enrolled in a private high school. "Unconsciously, I had decided to stop learning to protest their separation," he says. "I know it may seem strange to say, but I have nothing but good things to say about Charles as a father. He made sure I got the help I needed to get up to speed in my classes."
In high school, he became aware of the contradiction between his sexual orientation and his father's professional life. At the end of ninth grade, Richard fell in love with a popular boy at his school, an experience he found both "exhilarating and terrifying." While his father was away for weekends in the country with girlfriends, Richard and his beau would spend time alone in his father's home. "He was very precocious, more than a little crazy, and he continued to date girls," Richard recalls of his boyfriend. "But I was madly, deeply in love with him. I still am to this day."
Richard hid his romance, and father and son studiously avoided the topic of his sexuality. "I think it was easy for us to compartmentalize," he explains. "Here I was just having a great time in high school. I was in love with this guy, and Charles was over here talking to people about the pathology of homosexuality. I was not going to let my dad's work jeopardize my life."
Richard occasionally was confronted with the implications of his desire. On a sunny June morning in 1970, he and his boyfriend were walking through Central Park when they happened across the first gay pride parade winding its way through Manhattan to Greenwich Village. The event coincided with the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which marked the stirring of the modern gay rights movement. "It was a moment frozen in time," Richard says. "I said something like, `Don't you think it's interesting that we are having this experience with each other and here's this gay march?' He looked at me like, `I don't want to go there.' But I knew I did."
Though Socarides gravitated to politics at a young age, he kept a safe distance from the rough-and-tumble of movement politics. He served as a gofer for John Lindsay's New York mayoral campaign in 1965 and Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential bid.
Partly because Socarides knew that a political career inevitably would lead to conflict with his father, he set his sights instead on a legal career. After graduating from Antioch College in Ohio in 1976 and Hofstra Law School in 1979, he became an associate at the prominent Manhattan firm of Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Lehrer, quickly making partner. By the late 1980s, he was living in the fast lane, driving a shiny black BMW convertible, spending weekends at his boyfriend's beachfront home in the Hamptons and jetting off on Caribbean vacations.
The "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement between him and his father couldn't last forever. In 1986, Richard says, they had the long-avoided confrontation. "I was so nervous I have no idea what either of us said," he recalls. "It lasted just a few seconds, but I got out what I had to get out. I told him I was gay, and that I had a boyfriend." Charles reacted angrily, Richard says, and he left shaken, fearing their relationship had suffered a permanent rupture. Six months later, a letter arrived in the mail. "Charles had written saying, `If being gay is what makes you happy, then it's okay with me. That's all I can ask.' It was a classy thing to do."
Socarides soon took his next step out of the closet, joining the board of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay rights group based in New York. In a Friday-night traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway on the way to the Hamptons, Socarides had an epiphany. "I was all worked up about something that had happened at the office," he says. "I thought there had to be something more to life than long hours and weekend commutes . . . I realized if I wanted to go into public service, it was now or never. The more I got into the life of fancy cars, big money and Hamptons parties, the harder it would be to get out."
Two years later, Richard's sister, Dede, a Los Angeles therapist with whom he was close, became gravely ill with cancer; the same disease had killed their mother 10 years earlier. Dede's illness (and eventual death) made Richard more determined than ever to imbue his life with a sense of purpose. He took a huge pay cut to enter politics.
He signed on as manager of an ill-fated state legislative campaign in the Hamptons in 1990. Then he served briefly as a fund-raiser for Geraldine Ferraro's campaign for the Senate and became New York director of Tom Harkin's presidential bid.
After the 1992 election, Socarides came to Washington to serve as political director for Harkin before accepting an assignment with then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich. By 1996, he was thoroughly ensconced inside the Beltway.
Throughout this period, his relationship with Charles deteriorated, and the suffering it caused did not go unnoticed by those close to him. "I have detected a great sadness in Richard," says Harkin. "Even before I knew about his father, I felt there was a great estrangement in his life."
The strain of his father's rejection, however, taught Socarides valuable lessons that he brought with him to Washington: Progress comes in small increments, and don't waste time on arguments you can't win.
When he took over the liaison job from Clinton confidante Marsha Scott, in May 1996, Socarides knew he was reporting for grim duty.
Before Scott, the White House's idea of outreach on gay issues was to have George Stephanopoulos make a weekly phone call to Rep. Barney Frank. The White House was in disarray. Gays, representing about 4 percent of the electorate, had donated more than $3 million to the Clinton-Gore campaign. After weathering 12 years of consecutive hostile Republican administrations, they were eager for, as Clinton had put it during the campaign, a "place at the table."
Instead of access, they had been rewarded with the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy on gays in military service, which was arguably worse than the complete ban that had preceded it. When Clinton, under intense pressure from the Pentagon and his own party, suggested the compromise, gay rights activists went ballistic. Los Angeles fund-raiser David Mixner, a Friend of Bill, appeared on national television to call the move a "betrayal" and was arrested during a protest on Pennsylvania Avenue. The bad feelings were mutual: The White House, attributing the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress in part to the gays-in-the-military backlash, viewed gay-related issues as poison.
Shortly after Socarides entered the picture, the relationship went from bad to worse. After a Hawaii court issued a ruling sympathetic to legal recognition of same-sex marriages, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting states from recognizing same-sex marriage. The president, boxed in, signed the bill into law in a midnight session. When gay activists learned that the White House had authorized an ad blitz on Christian radio touting the president's support for the bill, Socarides was deluged with angry phone calls.
He quickly assembled a tense conference call between gay activists and administration officials, and the White House withdrew the ads. Eager to retain gay dollars and votes in the 1996 election, the administration agreed to be more attentive.
At a Cabinet meeting about the president's "One America" multicultural initiative, Socarides argued for the inclusion of gay issues by appealing to the president's legacy. The White House declined, but he had caught the president's attention. "I talked about how this was the opportunity to do something for which he would be remembered," he says. "With a Republican Congress, it's been hard to get a lot done. But this was something that would be recorded in the history books, speaking out for the rights of a community of people."
That's an appeal Socarides has made inside the White House repeatedly. Within the gay community, he has preached a message of accommodation, bringing expectations in line with what he sees as the political reality of the day. It's a pragmatic, incremental approach tailored to the times. "The fact is all politics is based on personal connection," says Socarides. "If you don't have people on the inside, it's hard to get anything done. But once you have cultivated a relationship of trust, you can call in favors."
This approach has its logic, and it was has won Socarides respect within the White House. But it has come at a cost. "Richard has absorbed body blows from the gay community," says Mike McCurry, the former White House communications director, who worked closely with Socarides in shaping the White House's strategy on gay issues. "And he's taught us all a lot about what it means to be gay in America today."
Adds former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, who has known Socarides since the Lindsay campaign: "Gay issues are some of the thorniest we had to deal with. He's the rarest of birds: a power broker with principles."
Still, he has had to navigate treacherous waters between his wary employer and the constituency he is paid to court.
Socarides' office in the Old Executive Office Building is cavernous, and filled with mementos of his six years in Washington. There are autographed photos of him with the Clintons, the Gores and Robert Reich. A Herblock cartoon depicts Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott standing next to Matthew Shepard's tombstone over the caption, "Would you explain to me again how a young man like this might have cured himself of his `sin'?" On a television monitor in the middle of the room, CNN flickers continuously.
Honed by early-morning workouts at Results, a U Street gym heavily patronized by gay men, Socarides has the bearing and energy of an irrepressible teenager. The phone, which he seems incapable of ignoring, rings constantly; to answer it, he leaps rather than walks from a couch to his desk, piled high with neat stacks of paper.
On this spring day, he has been expanding his portfolio: In addition to his liaison duties, he was named chief operating officer of the 50th anniversary NATO Summit in April. He has just returned from trips to New York City and Philadelphia to attend fund-raising dinners for gay rights groups. Back in Washington, there have been a cocktail party for AIDS Action, a lobbying group, and a speech on hate crimes legislation at Gallaudet University. He has just briefed a Newsweek reporter on gay issues over lunch.
Yet with Republican leaders keeping a tight rein on gay rights legislation, these are not exactly heady days for gay politics. Most of Socarides' work centers on White House communications -- on organizing events, drafting statements, lobbying for mentions in speeches -- with the idea that educating the public on gay concerns will someday lead to legislative gains.
After a two-year lobbying campaign by Socarides, the president declared that "violence because of . . . sexual orientation is wrong" in the 1999 State of the Union address. A White House press release later used the word "innocent" to describe the recent victims of gay-bashing. ("And I didn't even need to tell them," Socarides says with a smile.) Two weeks later, at another hate crimes event featuring law enforcement officials and religious leaders, Clinton, with Socarides looking on, compared hate crimes in America to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
However, the only gay rights bill that hasn't flat-lined is the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and that is showing few signs of life. The House leadership has vowed not to let the Employment Non-Discrimination Act out of committee. Despite the Pentagon's own statistics indicating that honorable discharges under "don't ask, don't tell" have skyrocketed since the policy was implemented in 1993, there is little resolve to revisit the policy.
When James Hormel, the gay philanthropist and meat company heir, was nominated in October 1997 as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, three conservative senators placed a hold on the nomination; the administration finally pried it loose this year, with a recess appointment during Congress's Memorial Day break. Socarides helped craft White House spokesman Joe Lockhart's statement: "It came down to a couple of senators who thought [Hormel] shouldn't be ambassador because he's gay. The president thinks that's wrong and discriminatory." Still, the move sparked protests from Lott and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who threatened to block all civilian presidential nominations.
So far, the gay community seems to have accepted Socarides' incremental strategy with only a murmur of complaint. Until Clinton's election, the movement was more accustomed to street demonstrations than back-room deals. Compromise meant not getting arrested during some angry protest. During the Bush years, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force had even tried to shout down the president.
David Mixner says both the gay rights movement and the White House have matured. "The incremental approach is more comfortable for the president, and we have gained from it as well because he can get more done," he says. "But it's our job to make it clear that we have not given anyone permission to balance their political convenience with our civil rights. If you asked African Americans if JFK was doing enough to end discrimination, they would have said no as well. But we have learned to articulate that position without becoming anti-Clinton, which simply feeds into the right wing."
It's often been said that Bill Clinton's worst enemies are his best friends. Nowhere is that more clear than when it comes to gay politics. While he has been burned on the issue at times by anti-gay forces, Clinton, with little investment of political capital, looks tolerant and compassionate in light of their stridency. In a series of small favors last year, Clinton issued an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal work force and helped defeat an August attempt by GOP House members to overturn it. White House lobbying also turned back appropriations riders that would have banned gay adoptions in the District of Columbia and barred San Francisco from using federal funds to implement its domestic partnership ordinance. Socarides is facing another barrage of anti-gay riders again this year.
"There's no question the right wing of the Republican Party has been enormously helpful to our efforts," Socarides concedes. "They have become more homophobic at precisely the same time the president has hit his stride on gay politics. They may have won some of these battles, but we came out smelling like roses."
He has won over the president, the White House and, largely, the community he set out to serve. He is resigned to the idea that he won't win over his father. ("It's the political equivalent of Ralph Reed becoming a progressive. It may simply be too much to ask a man to change his life's work.") There may be a metaphor there for the standing of gays and lesbians generally, but Socarides is focused more on the future -- his future, the incremental future. "You're lucky if on the last day of your job, there are three things you have done that mattered," he says. "You're not going to change the world overnight."
Chris Bull is editor of Witness to Revolution: The Advocate Reports on Gay and Lesbian Politics, 1967-1999 (Alyson Publications).