Richard Socarides may have entered the public's consciousness when he was a White House adviser under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1999 in a variety of senior positions, including special assistant to the president and senior adviser for public liaison.
However, the openly gay Socarides has moved on, working as an attorney and political commentator. He is also president of Equality Matters, a Washington, D.C.-based organized whose website describes as a "new media and communications initiative in support of gay equality." Recently, while in Chicago, Socarides talked with Windy City Times about a wide range of subjects, including Equality Matters, AIDS and his own fatherthe late Charles Socarides, a psychiatrist who criticized the American Psychiatric Association's decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Windy City Times: Why are you visiting Chicago?
Richard Socarides: I'm in Chicago to meet with some possible supporters of our new initiative, Equality Matters. We are just three months old. We are an initiative of the progressive media-monitoring organization Media Matters. Our goals are related to the goals of Media Matters and include monitoring anti-gay rhetoric in the media and in political discourse. Our website is a communications hub for commentary on LGBT-related issues, especially with a progressive-leaning bent. We also want to help shape the mainstream media narrative/coverage of LGBT issues and, thus, bring about more progressive outcomes on the issues that affect our community.
WCT: OK. I saw you on a video for ABC News Top Line in December in which you said you knew ofbut did not namea possible GOP presidential candidate who supported marriage equality.
RS: I remember giving that interview. The person I was thinking about was John Bolton, who is the former U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush and who considers himself a Libertarian. I think he does support individual states' rights to decide what their marriage laws should bebut now we have Fred Karger, who is the openly gay primary presidential candidate who's going to be a very interesting factor.
One of the things we are hoping to do in the fall is actually track some of the doings in the Republican caucus in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire. We think we're going to see a lot of anti-gay rhetoric coming out of that process, and we want to make sure that people are held accountable for their words. I've spent some time in Iowa working for [ Democratic U.S. Sen. ] Tom Harkin in the '90s. Historically, stuff that gets said in those living rooms in Iowa stay in those living rooms, so we're trying to keep everyone honest.
WCT: Back in '08, did you have problems with [ President ] Obama concerning gay issues?
RS: Not in '08, not during the campaign. In the primaries, I supported Hillary Clintonsomeone I knew personally and had worked withbut when she dropped out of the race I became an enthusiastic supporter of Obama. I did some volunteer work and gave some money, so I was very excited when he was elected. But I was disappointed from the outset at how long it took him to get up to speed on some of these issues. I thought, right out of the box, that his designation of Rev. Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural and his decision not to appoint an LGBT White House liaison ( as I had been ) were disappointing and were ominous signs that he was not going to move as quickly on some of these issues as I and many others wanted him to.
So it's fair to say that, in 2009 and the first part of 2010, you could accurately describe me as someone who was pushing him in every way I could think to move faster and act more boldly. However, at the end of last year and certainly in the first quarter of this year, he's proven himself, beyond any question, to be the strong supporter we knew he was.
A lot of people worked hard to get "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repealed but it was under the president's leadership that it happened; it obviously could not have happened without him, and his people worked very hard for it. Even more important was the decision that [ Attorney General ] Eric Holder took, after consulting the president, to discontinue the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act; I think that was a very gutsy move by the president, and it will shape a lot of positive outcomes for us, as a community.
At this precise moment and timefour months into 2011I think he's certainly proven himself to be a terrific leader on these issues. I think there's a lot more he can accomplish that has not been done. Then I expect to work hard for his re-election and, hopefully, he'll go on to a second term where he acts even more boldly.
WCT: Let's go back, to your time with President Clinton. When you first heard of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell ( DADT ) ," what was your reaction?
RS: Well, I worked for President Clinton's campaign in 1992 and then I didn't actually join the administration until the late spring/early summer of 1993, so I was still on Sen. Harkin's staff when [ DADT ] was going through. But I think Ilike others in Washington who had enthusiastically supported President Clinton, who had campaigned to allow gays and lesbians to servewere horrified and totally against it.
They called [ DADT ] a compromise. President Clinton had run on a platform of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. After he was sworn in, he said that was the plan he was going to implement: He was going to direct the joint chiefs of staff to implement a plan that would allow for open service. But it was their reaction to that, as well as the reactions of Democratic and Republican members of Congress, [ that turned things. ]
People will remember that Sam Nunn, the Democratic senator from Georgia who was head of the Armed Services Committee, held hearings in opposition to the policy on a naval submarine. He asked people sleeping on those bunks what they thought of sleeping with gay people; everyone raised their hand and said they wouldn't do it. That was the end of open service [ back then ] .
President Clinton was then faced with a decision. Was there some compromise he could get through that would be better than the current policy, even though he couldn't get everything he wanted? So a deal was struck between the Pentagon, members of Congress and the White House that there would be something called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue." The idea behind it was so long as you were not open about your sexual orientation in your professional life, you could be gay in your private life. However, while that may have been the spirit of the compromise, the law allowed a lot of discretion and latitude towards the military. Something that President Clinton thought might make things better for gays in the military ended up making things worse.
We knew the policy wasn't working; SLDN [ Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ] had formed and put out reports that more people [ were being discharged ] , not less.
I think one of the great lessons of thatnow that we have a little hindsightis that President Clinton, in retrospect, would have been better off standing on principle and not agreeing to a compromise. He should have said, "Congress can pass whatever law they want. If they want to pass it over my veto, that's fine but I'm not signing it." There can be grave consequences to compromising on principleand [ Clinton ] regretted what he did.
WCT: Have you run for office?
WCT: Would you?
RS: I have considered running for office in the past but there are many sacrifices people have to make in terms of the loss of anonymity. Everything about you becomes publicnot that I have anything to hide. [ Laughs ] The way the system is set up, where you're in perpetual fundraising mode, is very difficult. I'm a great admirer of people who run for office. I haven't ruled it out but I just started this new position that I'm very excited about, so running for office is not in my near-term future.
WCT: I'm curious: Would you consider writing a memoir? There are a lot of them out there right now.
RS: I've considered writing a memoir, so, yes. A lot of people have suggested that I write one. I've actually written some of it but it's not anywhere close to being finished.
It's interesting. I've been fortunate to have this career [ involving ] politics and public policy. I also grew up with a father [ Charles Socarides ] who was one of the leaders of the so-called reparative therapy. So the fact that my father was someone who thought people should be cured of their homosexuality through psychotherapy and had a son who would become active in the gay-rights movement is of interest to people.
WCT: Did you ever make peace with your father?
RS: You know, he never changed his views so it was impossible to make peace with him completely. But we tried, towards the end of his life, to structure our relationship so that we could agree to avoid the subject. Unfortunately, we did not have a close relationship when he died; we had been much closer when I was younger. This issue made it very difficult to do.
WCT: Windy City Times is running an AIDS @ 30 series this year. Do you remember the first time you heard the word "AIDS?"
RS: [ Pauses ] I have some very early memories. I was fortunate in that I did not have a lot of friends who died early on. I do remember the first friend who died; it was probably in the late '80s1986 or 1987. That was a real moment for me that crystallized a lot. I remember that very vividly.
Obviously, a lot of important work has been done. I'm not an expert on the subject nor is that really a focus of our organization, but it's been such an important issue for so long. A lot of progress has been made, but a lot of progress has yet to happen. I thought it was interesting that Elizabeth Taylor's death provided such a framework for looking back.
WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?
RS: It's an extremely exciting time in gay rights right now. There's a lot of momentum coming out of [ DADT ] repeal and the president's decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. It's a time where we can continue to make a lot of progress even though the Republicans control the House of Representatives; I think there are a number of things the president can do by executive order.
I think the most important thing is an executive order providing that the federal government will not do any business with any contractor that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. I would also think it would be extremely important for the president to affirmatively include people serving in the armed services under the protection of antidiscrimination provisions that exist for civilian federal employees.
Then I think that a number of the [ lawsuits ] that are traveling through the federal court system right now hold enormous promise, both around the marriage issue and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. I'm hopeful that within four or five years we'll see enormously significant decisions out of the federal judiciary that will help advance our efforts.
Equality Matters is focused on shaping the media narrative in Washington [ D.C. ] around those issues so that we get the most progressive outcomes in those areas. Our website has media updates and a podcast so we hope people will check us out.
Equality Matters is at www.EqualityMatters.org .