Analysis: 2008 candidates jockey for vital gay votes

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

There was one jaw-dropping moment in last night’s presidential forum on gay issues, and several lean-in-close moments too.

While there were no major shifts in previously stated positions, the forum served at least two useful purposes for LGBT voters.

It pressed six of the eight Democratic candidates in an unprecedented way on gay-related issues, and gave those candidates an opportunity to make their case for why gay voters should prefer them over the others.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson stunned many with his response to a question from rock singer Melissa Etheridge, one of three panellists questioning the candidates, about whether he thinks “homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?”

“It’s a choice,” said Richardson, who has a strong record of support for equal rights for gays but who has been tripped up in recent months over comments that seem to lack a deep understanding of the community.

(In a previous debate, he identified Justice Byron White, the author of the U.S. Supreme Court’s damaging 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, as his ideal justice. He’s also had to apologise repeatedly for using the slur “maricón” during a radio talk show last year).

Before he had a chance to explain his answer, Etheridge broke in to help him out.

“I don’t know if you understand the question,” she said, as the small studio audience began mumbling behind her.

“Do you think a homosexual is born that way or do you think around seventh grade we think, ‘Ooo, I wanna be gay?'”

With her gestures, facial expressions, and laughter, Etheridge was essentially guiding Richardson to the right answer, but still Richardson could not see it.

“You know, I’m not a scientist,” he said, clearly struggling to find his way to some kind of answer.

“Uh, it’s, it’s, it – you know, I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people, as a matter of human decency.

“I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. “You know, I don’t know to categorise people. I don’t like to, like answer definitions like that, you know, are perhaps grounded [in] science or something else that I don’t understand.”

Following the forum, the Richardson campaign posted a statement on its website, “clarifying” his answer:

“Let me be clear — I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice. But I’m not a scientist, and the point I was trying to make is that no matter how it happens, we are all equal and should be treated that way under the law.”

The panel of questioners, which included gay rights organisation Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Capehart, pressed the candidates hard to get straight answers on several issues where the candidates have appeared to deliberately craft some vagueness.

For instance, with the first question out of the chute for Senator from Illinois Barack Obama, Solmonese asked him to explain a controversial response he gave during the CNN/YouTube debate.

At that nationally televised event, Obama said that the issue of gay marriage should be left “up to individual denominations to make a decision” for themselves.

“What place does the church have in government-sanctioned civil marriages?”

As seasoned candidates often do, Obama initially avoided the specific question and spoke instead about things he knew the audience would appreciate, including his belief generally that “the government has to treat all citizens equally.”

“When you’re a black guy named Obama, you know what it’s like to be on the outside,” continued the Senator, adding that he spoke in opposition to the Defence of Marriage Act when running for his U.S. Senate seat, and that he favours “not a weak version of civil unions but a strong version.”

Obama eventually came back to the question and stated, definitively, that, “I don’t think that the church should be making these determinations when it comes to legal rights conferred by the state….When it comes to federal rights , the over 1,100 rights that are right now not being given to same-sex couples, I think that’s unacceptable.

“And as president of the United States, I’m going to fight hard to make sure those rights are available.”

In one of the several moments when the forum’s nationally recognised moderator, columnist Margaret Carlson, jumped in, she tried to extract from Obama some explanation for why he supported civil unions and not marriage for gay couples.

“It seems like religion owns the word marriage -you’re letting religion have marriage and then civilly you get civil unions.

“But you got to be married and I got to be married, but Joe [Solmonese] doesn’t get to be married,” said Carlson.

“And that really does mean that it’s a lesser thing. It looks like a politically feasible thing to do.”

“Well, as I propose it, it wouldn’t be a lesser thing, from my perspective,” said Obama.

“And, look, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I’m interested in is making sure those legal rights are available to people.

“And if we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognised, people have civil rights under the law, then my sense is that’s enormous progress.”

But Obama seemed eager to blow off a question from Capehart, questioning how his willingness to accept civil unions as progress squares with his campaign mantra of “change.”

“Oh, come on now,” said Obama. “We can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes, but there’s a reason why I was here first….I’ve got a track record of working with the LGBT community.

“What I have focused on and what I will continue to focus on is making sure that the rights that are provided by the [government] are ones that are provided to everybody, and that’s a standard I think I can meet. And I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

Former Senator from South Carolina John Edwards was given a chance to break new ground with his positions on gay-related issues, when Etheridge asked him whether public schools should teach young children about the existence of gay families.

“Oh, sure, it should,” said Edwards without hesitation. “Kids who go to public schools need to understand why same-sex couples are the parents of some of the children.

“They need to understand that these are American families just like every American family.”

Referring to the thousands of children in foster care, Edwards said “we need to allow gay and lesbian couples the same rights to adopt children.”

At one point, Edwards seemed poised to stake new ground on same-sex marriages, too.

Referring to the former Senator’s well-worn explanation that he doesn’t support equal rights to marriage for gay couples in large part because of his upbringing in the Southern Baptist Church, Solmonese asked him to explain “what is it within your religion that’s leading you to this position?”

“Well, I have to tell you, I shouldn’t have said that,” said Edwards, “because, first of all, I believe to my core in equality.”

Saying that he had listened to the discussion with Senator Obama about civil unions seeming like second-class to marriage, Edwards continued:

“It makes perfect sense to me that gay and lesbian couples would say, ‘Civil unions – great. Eleven hundred federal benefits – great….’But it stops short of real equality.”

But then Edwards stopped short and returned to his generally muddled stump position, namely that he will not impose his religious beliefs on the American people but will fight for equality.

Solmonese pressed again, asking that, if his resistance to equal rights to marriage for gay couples is not based on his religious beliefs (though that is not exactly what Edwards said), then “what is at the core of [your] resistance?”

Edwards then became uncharacteristically blunt: “My position on same-sex marriage has not changed. We’re past the time for political double-speak about this.

“I do believe strongly in civil unions and the substantive rights that go with that, I believe we desperately need to get rid of DOMA…. Today, I believe in all these other things but I do not believe in same-sex marriage.”

The Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996, under President Bill Clinton, which banned any recognition of same-sex relationships for federal purposes and which allowed any state to deny recognition of a same-sex relationship legalised in another state.

Solmonese pressed Senator for New York Hillary Clinton to explain her opposition to same-sex marriage, too. Her immediate witty response -“I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions” – made clear she knew the question was coming.

And then, she answered the question: “You know, it’s a personal position,” said Clinton, saying she had talked about it to Solmonese and to “a number of my friends across the country.”

Clinton said she thinks Americans believe in “full equality” but that “the debate we’re having” is about how to get to that point for gay Americans.

She said that, while she supports “full equality” through civil unions, she believes states should be allowed to “maintain their jurisdiction over marriage.”

She committed to “proceed with equalising federal benefits” and to repeal of Section 3 of DOMA which states that, for federal purposes, “marriage” can mean only marriage between a man and a woman.

Solmonese took her to task, albeit with kid gloves, with her reliance on the “state’s rights” argument.

“In the civil rights struggle, this argument that it was a state’s rights issue was something that was typically used against people working against us as sort of a red herring. Can you see where this argument…would resonate the same way in our community?”

“Absolutely,” said Clinton, saying she thinks the gay community is doing “exactly what you need to do and should do.”

“But this has not been a long-term struggle yet,” said Clinton. While she didn’t explain that statement, she went on to say that the existence of DOMA was actually a helpful device in fending off the proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

“That is something that has provided a great protection against what was clearly the Republican strategy…to just cynically use marriage as a political tool.”

Clinton defended her husband against Etheridge’s claim that gays, under President Clinton, were “thrown under the bus” and “pushed aside.”

“If I was sitting where you’re sitting, I’m sure I would feel exactly the same way,” said Clinton. “You want things to move as quickly as possible….But as president, I think I have an opportunity both to reverse the concerted [right-wing] assault on people….That will end. That is over.”

In her closing remarks, Clinton said that her relationship with the gay community is informed by her friendships with individual gays and is “very personal for me.”

“We are not going to agree on everything,” said Clinton, “but I will be a President who will fight for you, will work to end discrimination in the employment area, end “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” finally get hate crimes through, do a lot of what we need to do on HIV/AIDS and so much more and I really hope that we can be partners in trying to make our country a little bit better and a little more progressive for all of us.”

The only two candidates who have come out in support of full equal rights for gays in marriage and other arenas, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Senator for Alaska Mike Gravel, enjoyed a virtual love fest during their 20 minute slots at the forum.

“They told me not to fawn over you,” said Etheridge to Kucinich, “but it’s kind of hard not to.”

Kucinich used his time in the spotlight to talk about the struggle for equal rights for gays as an issue of “human love” and of the principle of equality upon which the country was founded.

He said he had been inspired also by the “solitary journeys of courage” of individual gays and that he would be “willing to speak out when others will be silent” on issues of fairness and equality.

Gravel lamented that the gay community seems to be supporting the three top polling Democrats “when people like myself and Dennis, we move ball down court a little bit, and that benefits the gay community.”

But while preliminary indicators do seem to suggest that gay voters are likely to steer their support to one of the top polling Democrats, the two largest national gay political groups issued statements following the forum, suggesting they were disappointed with their responses.

“While we heard very strong commitments to civil unions and equality in federal rights and benefits, their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear,” said HRC President Solmonese.

“The next President must be committed to not only doing what’s achievable, but also what’s right.”

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman said the responses heard at Thursday night’s forum were “the same thing” offered by the major Democratic candidates at a similar forum in 2004 (which was taped and broadcast at a later date on CSPAN).

Two Democratic candidates, Senators Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, bowed out of the forum, saying they had “scheduling conflicts.”

The forum was a joint effort of HRC and MTV Network’s LOGO channel for gay viewers.

The two-hour event was broadcast live on LOGO, which boasts viewers in 28 million homes, and included a somewhat harried attempt at post-forum analysis by several studio audience members.

What will matter more, however, is how LGBT people around the country react as they mull over the candidates’responses in the coming days and weeks.