Gay rights back on Washington agenda

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The Virginia Senate race has finally been declared for the Democrats, meaning the US midterm elections are now over. What does the power shift in Washington mean for the gay and lesbian community in America?

Tony Grew analyses the results and looks forward to the key role that gays and lesbians will play in the 2008 Presidential election.

November 8th 2006 was a bright new day for gay and lesbian Americans. The nightmare of the last 12 years, of Christian Republicans in charge of the federal government, of hostility to gay rights, women and abortion, is finally over.

The Democrats now have control of the Senate, by one vote, and a commanding majority in the House of Representatives. They now control the all the committees and business of the Congress, and will reintroduce the checks and balances on the power of the President so far absent in the six years of Bush.

There will certainly be investigations into the conduct of the war, and we can expect to see many key Bush advisers taking a trip up Capitol Hill to explain themselves.

Perhaps it is best that Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has been asked to go now. He will no doubt be busy enough explaining himself to Congress for the next two years.

His replacement, along with all other Presidential nominees, will be grilled by a Democrat controlled Senate committee. This means no more rightwing judges being appointed to the Supreme or other lower federal courts.

We can also expect to see a Congressional investigation into the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the US Armed Services towards gay and lesbian personnel.

The British press have been telling us that this whole midterm election was about Iraq. I disagree. I see some very encouraging signs that the American people, concerned as they are about rising casualty figures, anxious as they are to see a withdrawn from that American disaster, are also returning to domestic issues.

Since 2001, the Republicans and the President have managed to keep the people’s focus entirely on the “war on terror.” Domestic politics have stagnated. Bush has also been desperate to keep the Religious Right onside, and has fed them titbits such as a new amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage.

There will be no such amendment now. A liberal woman, who represents San Francisco and is a vocal supporter of gay rights, now controls the House of Representatives.

Nancy Pelosi, from January just a heartbeat and a pacemaker away from the Presidency, is a loyal friend of the gay community, and we should be heartened that she will help mould the Democratic Party’s vision for post-Bush America.

‘Gay’ was a wedge issue for the Republicans. It was like a ‘get out of jail free card’ for them. They knew that homosexuality was something they could use to get the Religious Right out to vote.

That is why, just before his 2004 re-election, Bush started talking about his new Constitutional amendment, fully aware it would never be approved, but happy to have a go at gays and speak to his religious voters at the same time.

The legendary Republican ‘machine’ which had got the vote out for conservative candidates in every election since 1994 seemed to falter this time. Although the turnout was higher then expected, the Democrats seem to have developed their own party machine.

70% of Evangelical Christians voted Republican, according to The New York Times. That means 30% didn’t.

56% of women voted for the Democrats, along with 87% of Jewish people, 89% of black people and 69% of Hispanics.

The Latino vote is key to a 2008 Democratic Presidential victory, and many had feared that as strong Catholics they would vote with the Republicans. It seems that the God-based elections of the last few years will be out of fashion by 08.

The Dems have discovered their own wedge issues. Stem cell research is one area where many ordinary Americans disagree with the religious fundamentalists. In states like Missouri, the Senate challenger made stem cell research a central theme of her campaign.

The controversy surrounding campaign adverts by Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J Fox were supporting the Democrats is indicative of the emotions felt about the issue of research.

A state referendum voted in favour of stem cell research, Claire McCaskill was duly elected as Democratic Senator for Missouri, and the Religious Right did not get their way in the state, one which any serious 2008 Presidential contender must win.

The Democrats in Missouri and across the US managed to get out the vote among Americans who want stem cell research, who want a hike in the minimum wage, who understand the challenge of global warming. Suddenly the Republican tactic of wrapping themselves in the flag and quoting from the Bible does not seem to work.

Americans want solutions in Iraq, but they also want solutions to healthcare, unemployment, social security, education and the environment. The Democrats now have a chance to show they can make a difference.

Smear and scandal are the mainstays of American elections. Since 1994, the Republican machine has been the masters of getting down and dirty. This year they were the ones fighting off accusations of sleaze, with homophobic preachers and Congressman being exposed as gay sex addicts.

Gay issues were not really prominent in this election. Corruption and ethics were a major concern for 43% of voters, and included in ethics we assume is the Congressional pages scandal involving Mark Foley. Incidentally, his once-safe Florida seat fell to the Democrats.

Seven more states did vote to ban same sex marriages. Even the idea of a ‘gay marriage’ would have seemed inconceivable in the US ten or fifteen years ago. I think it is a strangely positive sign that religious leaders are so fearful of the concept that they rush to try and ban it across every state and even talk of a Constitutional amendment.

Gay marriage is on the agenda in the US, and it is not going to go away. The margins involved in many of these referendums are slim, meaning that many presumably heterosexual Americans support gay rights. The fact that states want to bar same sex marriages is merely a sign that one day they will be legal, even in America.

It will require a change of President to effect real change in gay rights, but the 2008 race is looking positive. The two main Democrat candidates at the moment both have a strong record on gay rights.

Hillary Clinton needs no introduction. Her victory speech just after her re-election as New York’s US Senator sounded like a clear bid for the top job.

The other front-runner at this early stage is US Senator for Illinois Barack Obama. He would be the first black Presidential candidate.

He is young, very good-looking, articulate and the ladies like him. He also made an impassioned plea for national unity at the 2004 Democratic convention:

“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.

“We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

He has gay friends. Don’t recall George Bush saying anything similar. Another positive outcome from the 2006 elections is that many of the rightwing gay-bashing Republicans who thought they were in with a chance of succeeding Bush, such as Virginia Senator George Allen, or Ohio’s Rick Santorum, suddenly find themselves unemployed.

2008 Presidential election is almost unprecedented in modern American politics. The President is prevented from the Constitution for running a third time. Usually the Vice President has a strong chance of taking the top job, as did Bush Snr in 1992 and Al Gore did in 2000. It is pretty clear to all that Gore did actually win the 2000 election.

But VP Dick Cheney has already ruled himself out in 2008, and everyone believes him when he says he will step down. The races for party nominations and the Presidency itself are wide open, there for whoever can convince the American people they deserve to lead.

There is more good news about 2008 for the gay and lesbian community. Howard Dean, who as Democratic Governor of Vermont signed the first civil partnership legislation in America, has announced moves to encourage gay and lesbian representation at every state level.

As National Democratic Chairman, he wants gay and lesbian activists attending the National Convention, and has challenged his own party to reach out to gay and lesbian activists as part of a 50 state strategy to build the Democratic Party from the roots up. At every stage, be it county, state, region or nationally, gay and lesbians will be active in choosing the next President and getting them elected.

The bright new dawn of November 2006 could lead to a sunny future for gay and lesbian Americans.