WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday delivered the strongest statement of support for gay rights in the 2016 presidential race when she promised that ending discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people would be a central pillar of her administration.
“I see the injustices and the dangers that you and your families still face,” she told hundreds of gay activists at the annual meeting of the Human Rights Campaign. “I’m running for president to stand up for the fundamental rights of LGBT Americans.”
She added: “That’s a promise from one HRC to another.”
The statement marked a remarkable evolution for Clinton, who opposed same-sex marriage for more than two decades in public life as first lady, senator and presidential candidate. As recently as this year, Clinton said that while she personally supported gay marriage, the issue was best left for states to decide -a position held by most of the Republican presidential field.
Clinton has placed equal rights at the forefront of her campaign, in part a reflection of the growing political and financial strength of the gay community in Democratic politics.
Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a 2016 run, was to speak at the group’s dinner, while Clinton was booked on “Saturday Night Live.”
In her appearance, Clinton said she has been “fighting alongside you and others for equal rights and I’m just getting warmed up.”
As activists chanted her name, she promised to work to pass legislation that would end discrimination, lower costs for HIV treatment and stop funding child welfare agencies that discriminate against gay parents.
She committed to pushing equal rights in the military, including for transgender people. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said the Pentagon’s current regulations banning transgender individuals from serving in the military are outdated. He has ordered a study aimed at ending one of the last gender- or sexuality-based barriers to military service.
Clinton’s remarks, particularly on the transgender issue, went further than any other candidate in the race. “We need to say with one voice that transgender people are valued,” she said. “They are loved and they are us.”
This summer, her campaign jumped on the Supreme Court’s watershed same-sex marriage decision, changing Clinton’s red campaign logo to a rainbow colored H, releasing a video of gay wedding ceremonies and sending supportive tweets.
Clinton said Saturday that the court’s decision could be overturned, should a Republican win the White House next year and appoint conservative justices.
The Human Rights Campaign made its first presidential endorsement in 1992, backing Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton cast herself as a champion for their cause. In 2008, the group largely stayed out of the primary fight, siding with then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama a day before Clinton dropped out of the race.
Clinton credited the organization with influencing her views.
“I’m really here to say thank you for your hard work and your courage and for insisting that right is right,” she said. “You helped change a lot of minds. Including mine.”
Clinton backed her husband’s Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, and said in a Senate speech in 2004 that marriage between a man and a woman was a “fundamental bedrock principle.” In 2007, she dodged when asked whether she agreed with a statement from the then-Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman that homosexuality was immoral.
But like much of the Democratic Party and the country, her position shifted in recent years. As secretary of state, Clinton said at a 2011 conference in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
She referenced that statement two years later when she released a video saying she backed gay marriage “personally, and as a matter of policy and law.” In April, her campaign released a statement voicing her support for making gay marriage a constitutional right.
But as recently as a year ago, she was still struggling to explain her switch in position.
“You are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons,” she said, in an tense exchange last June with NPR’s Terry Gross. “That’s just flat wrong.”
Her pivot on the issue may give her primary opponents a chance to broadcast their liberal credentials, allowing them to point out that they came to the right side of history years before Clinton.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2016 rival, voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act when he was in the House. His home state was the first to legalize same-sex unions in 2000 and gay marriage through legislative action in 2009-both efforts Sanders backed.
“For far too long our justice system has marginalized the gay community,” Sanders said in a statement after the Supreme Court ruling, “and I am very glad the court caught up to the American people.”
Biden won praise by endorsing gay marriage ahead of the 2012 election and became the highest elected official to support what was then a highly charged political issue. Obama followed soon after.