WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday delivered the strongest speech in support of gay rights in the 2016 presidential race on Saturday, promising 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.
Since then, 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, gave the keynote address to the group's star-studded dinner, where he called transgender rights "the civil rights issue of our time" and issued the Obama administration's most unequivocal statement of support to date for allowing transgender people to serve openly in the U.S military. As he spoke to the crowd of 3,000, he was interrupted by a loud shout of "You should run."
"There's homophobes still left. Most of them are running for president," Biden said, in a pointed jab at the Republican White House hopefuls.
Clinton, in her appearance, 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Ash Carter has said the Pentagon's current regulations banning transgender individuals from serving in the military are outdated.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, were some of the strongest in the presidential campaign. "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 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. This spring, he told the Washington Blade that he'd make a point to talk about transgender issues during his campaign.
"All I can say is I think I have one of the strongest, if not the strongest record, in the United States Congress on LGBT issues," Sanders said the May interview. "My record speaks for itself, and I will compare it to any candidate who is out there."
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.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
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