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I urge people to come out and to be open and honest about who they are

11 July 2014

Mosaiko.gr met with LGBT rights activist, attorney and former-adviser on gay rights to Bill Clinton, Richard Socarides recently, to discuss same sex marriage, activism and his Greek heritage.

In 1996, a Pew showed 58% of Americans opposed same sex marriage and 30% supported it. That's flipped: a March poll showed 59% of respondents in support and 34% opposed. How did we get here in 18 years?

For sure, a lot has changed since I worked on this issue at the White House for President Clinton. Mostly, it took a lot of hard work by many activists working behind the scenes for many decades, some even before the 1990s. I think one of the most important factors which really helped move things along so fast, especially in the last 10 or 15 years, has been the enormous cultural changes we have seen. For example, the prevalence of LGBT characters in film and on television. That made it easier for more people to come out and be open and honest about who they were. In turn, straight people, including elected leaders, realized that gay people were just like everybody else – their neighbors, teachers, military personnel, their sons and daughters. That made it easier to support us.

The US still seems to have a patchwork system regarding recognition of same sex marriage. I'm an American gay man and I'm confused so help out our readers. If a woman and her fiancée live in Florida, where same sex marriage isn't legal, they can go to Vermont to get married, but the minute they come home they aren't married? You're a lawyer who knows this issue inside and out - is there a precedent for this weirdness?

It's a very unusual situation but I don't think it will last very much longer. I think the US Supreme Court in the next 12 to 24 months is going to hold that there exists a constitutionally based marriage right, no matter where you live. That will mean gay people will be allowed to get married no matter where they live in the US. And the Obama administration has already taken many important steps way to grant the fullest possible recognition to valid same-sex marriage on a full federal level. But still, there are idiosyncrasies, that's unfortunate, but we will just have to live with them for a little while longer.

Why same sex marriage? Why, for instance, did we see so much progress around same sex marriage and equal right to serve in the military than around banning workplace discrimination?

Same-sex marriage and the military ban I think are largely proxy issues. By that I mean, while important in themselves, they are even more important for symbolic reasons. If you support marriage equality -- that means you support full equality for all gay people now. These issues have been extremely useful as organizing tools to educate people on the broader issues of equality. I think employment discrimination has been a tougher issue because of strategic miscues on the movements part in terms of moving the legislation. In the US, workplace anti-discrimination laws have broad popular support and they should pass the Congress, but they have not for both political reasons, and our own ineffective strategy.

David France's How to Survive a Plague documents the work activists from Act Up and Treatment Action Group did to make US government agencies expedite research and approve drug treatments. It's a powerful work about a period that's etched in my mind as a gay kid growing up in the 80s outside NY. Is there a lot of crossover between the activists of that generation and the ones pushing for same sex marriage? How were the methods of activism different?

I definitely think the HIV and AIDS activists of the 80s did very important work that advanced gay-rights and by extension same-sex marriage. They helped get gay people to become more visible and that was a very important thing to do, especially at that moment. There are certainly many similarities. And there are also differences, perhaps mostly relating to the fact that two decades ago HIV/AIDS was often a death sentence and that horrible fact gave an urgency to that activism that today some in the gay-rights movement believe is lacking.

I'm impressed by the way you write about this issue with such clarity, and can be both a proponent and a critic. Is it tough to maintain that balance? Are there times when you feel conflicted as an advocate, as a reporter, and just (for want of a better word) as an individual with a particular point of view?

In my writing, I try to explain how I see things from my personal perspective. I think most people who read my blog posts know who I am and don't expect (nor do they want) me to be "objective" in the traditional-reporter sense. They want to hear my particular point of view and they understand where I'm coming from. But I think they also want analysis, which is fair, and that's the balance I try to find.

What got you interested in this issue? Are you married?

As a gay person I've always been interested in equality and human rights. I was interested in politics from the time I was a teenager. I'm not married.

Do you know how many same sex couples have gotten married in the US?

I don't know exactly how many gay couples have been married in the US but I've heard anecdotally that the gay divorce rate is much lower than the straight divorce rate, which I think we gay people we can be proud of.

Same sex marriage isn't legal in Greece, or even a topic of much discussion. Even civil unions aren't a hot topic, and the glass closet remains the norm. A lot of Greek gays are wary of fighting the Church, which is fiercely opposed to same sex marriage, and they seem to be waiting for a fiat from the EU legalizing same sex marriage across the EU. Any words for the activists here seeking to motivate people to come out and demand change from the ground up?

I realize that in many EU countries it is totally different situation. I think a lot of it has to do with cultural norms, the impact of religion, traditional family relationships, etc. I would just urge people, if they feel safe and comfortable, to come out, and to be open and honest about who they are, and that I think over time will bring about real change. I am also heartened by and excited about what I hear from Pope Francis. And while I think these are very limited and early steps he has taken, I do think that the Church can play an important role in helping us achieve full global equality and I hope that happens. Hopefully some of that can eventually happen in Greece also.

How do you relate to your Greek heritage? Do you speak Greek? Have you visited Greece? From your last name your family appears to have some roots in Asia Minor/Black Sea region - have you been?

I very much identify as a Greek-American and am very proud of my heritage. I've been to Greece a number of times but my spoken language skills in Greek are not very good at all, unfortunately. My father and all of his family are Greek. He was born in Massachusetts, outside of Boston. He was a well-know psychiatrist who believed, unfortunately, that homosexuality was a curable mental illness. My ancestors on my father's side come from Macedonia -- a small town about four hours west of Thessaloniki by car. I believe it's called Bouhourina. My grandfather moved to the US in 1911, I believe because of the conflict with Turkey.

Check out Richard's interview to Out.com entitled 'Coming out to dad', here: http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2013/04/08/richard-socarides-coming-out-dad

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