The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

When Secret Service officers wore rubber gloves to greet gay officials

Is it “different enough”?

One of the tests for conducting research into the recent past is whether the period under scrutiny is “different enough” from the present.

With the passage of 20 years, 1995 meets the “different enough” test.

It is inconceivable, after all, that the release of a computer operating system today would be accompanied by hoopla of the kind that marked the launch in August 1995 of Windows 95.

Likewise, it is inconceivable that uniformed Secret Service officers these days would pull on blue rubber gloves before searching the bags and briefcases of a delegation of gay and lesbian elected officials invited to a gathering at the White House.

But that was what happened June 13, 1995, when some 40 gay and lesbian elected officials arrived for a reception at the White House. News reports said at least four officers donned rubber gloves — evidently fearing exposure to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The disease of course is not transmitted by casual contact.

The glove-wearing episode stirred reactions of astonishment, outrage, and indignation.WaPo_Gloves incident

“It was insulting,” Mike Nelson, an alderman in Carrboro, N.C., told the Washington Post. Nelson, who was among the officials invited to the reception, said at least four Secret Service officers put on rubber gloves, two of whom were stationed at a conveyor belt for items to be checked, and two others examined bags and briefcases.

Vice President Al Gore, who spoke at the reception, reportedly was appalled by the guards’ conduct and made a point of shaking hands with each of the invited officials, the Post reported.

“That such an event should happen not in some benighted backwater but at the gates of the White House is a shocking reminder of how intolerant this society remains toward its gay citizens,” thundered an editorial in the New York Times.

The Times also declared: “If this was an act of stupidity by low-level guards, then special training and administrative punishments seem in order. But if it was a calculated attempt to insult homosexuals, dismissal from the service is the only fit response.”

(It deserves mention that the Times buried the lead in its news report about the episode, failing to mention the glove-wearing agents until the 11th paragraph.)

A few days later, President Clinton apologized in a letter to the officials, noting “the inappropriate and insensitive treatment” they had received.

To some observers, the glove-wearing incident seemed emblematic of Clinton’s diffident regard for gay rights. James A. Finefrock, editor of the San Francisco Examiner’s editorial pages, noted in a commentary a few days after the episode:

“During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was the greatest champion of gay rights anyone could hope for. Then he became president. First he caved on gays in the military [opting for a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell]. Then his first AIDS czar, Christine Gebbie, was rendered invisible. The president was reluctant to meet with gay leaders …. The administration declined to file a court brief to support gay rights in Colorado.

“Some champion.”

The episode also signaled how beleaguered Clinton’s presidency seemed to be in much of 1995.

As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, that with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, “the tide of power and influence was flowing decidedly … away from Clinton.

“The one-sidedness was so stark that the president was moved to pleading his relevance in Washington. ‘The Constitution gives me relevance; the power of our ideas gives me relevance; the record we have built up over the last two years and the things we’re trying to do give me relevance,’ Clinton declared at a primetime news conference on April 18, 1995. ‘The president is relevant here, especially an activist president.'”

It was, I point out, “hardly a stirring assertion of presidential authority.”


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