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Each candidate had a rough spot in the HRC forum
Bill Richardson wasn’t the only candidate to injure himself with gay voters in last week’s presidential forum. He was just the most dramatic.
Richardson provided the August 9 telecast’s one drop-jaw moment when he answered rock singer Melissa Etheridge’s question about whether he thinks homosexuality is a choice or biological with, “It’s a choice.”
The New Mexico governor posted a statement on its website afterward, “clarifying” his answer: “Let me be clear--I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice.”
The other candidates also had some rough spots, although there were no major shifts in previously-stated positions.
Barack Obama came across as a tad dismissive to some, uncomfortable to many. Hillary Clinton hid behind a doctrine of “states rights” to defend the right of individual states to discriminate against gay couples. And John Edwards’ journey to accept gay marriage appeared to have reached a significant stopping point well short of equality.
As reaction played out to the historic live broadcast of the presidential forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and MTV Network’s Logo channel, the mainstream media saw an unprecedented desire from Democratic candidates to woo gay voters and a unanimous desire by Republicans to evade them.
“All voiced strong support for equal rights and government benefits for gay Americans,” said the New York Times of the six Democrats who participated in the forum. (Only Joe Biden and Chris Dodd did not attend, citing “scheduling conflicts”--though Biden had nothing on his “public schedule” and Dodd was at a diner for lunch and a county gathering in New Hampshire that evening.)
It was “Underscoring the importance of gays and lesbians in Democratic politics,” said the Los Angeles Times. ABC News said the Democrats “pandered” to LGBT voters; the Washington Times said they promised an “expansion of rights;” and a Wall Street Journal headline said, “Forum Reflects Gay Clout.”
LGBT voters saw the most supportive field of Democrats ever and--with the entire Republican field refusing to participate--the least likelihood that the ballot will pose any conundrum during the general election.
The only two candidates who have come out in support of full equal rights for gays in marriage and other arenas –Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Senator Mike Gravel—enjoyed a virtual love fest during their 20 minutes each at the forum.
“They told me not to fawn over you,” said panelist Melissa 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. 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.”
Given that it is unlikely that most Democrats will participate in another gay-specific forum before the February 5 “Super-Duper Tuesday” primaries, the forum could also have been the most important and far-reaching opportunity for the Democratic candidates to distinguish themselves to LGBT voters.
And there are distinctions. For instance, although all three top-polling Democrats oppose equal rights to marriage for gay couples, they each have a different reason--or none--for doing so. The LGBT community was left combing through the fine print to determine whether there was a difference:
Barack Obama: The senator from Illinois characterized his disagreement with the gay community over same-sex marriage as a matter of “semantics.” He said that, as president, he would “fight hard” to ensure that gay couples have the “legal rights that have consequences on an everyday basis,” but he could not promise to fight for more than that.
He flatly disagreed with the proposition that civil union is “lesser” than marriage and he subtly suggested the gay community’s concern that it is “separate but equal” at best and not equal at worst was not a concern that warranted extensive probing of his worthiness as a presidential candidate.
“Someone should have pointed out that semantics must be important to him, and to all the other people who want to withhold the word ‘marriage’ from same-sex couples--otherwise why are they withholding it?” wrote one bisexual woman who saw the forum and shared her reaction in one of many blogs about it.
People who are focused on semantics probably also noticed that Obama referred to “the cause all of you are involved in.” That choice of words could suggest that it is a cause he is not involved in or that it is a cause quite different than any he is involved in.
“The issues that gays and lesbians face today are different from the issues that were faced by African Americans under Jim Crow,” said Obama, referring to the state laws that once rendered blacks separate but equal in many states. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels. If people’s status are not equal, that has to be fixed.”
This too, was an answer that could be interpreted in any number of ways, depending on one’s fondness for the candidate.
Hillary Clinton: The senator from New York sent some reporters scrambling for the text of the Defense of Marriage Act when she reiterated her willingness to repeal Section 3 of the law.
Section 3 states that, for federal purposes, “marriage” can mean only marriage between a man and a woman, thus it essentially denies gay partners and spouses more than 1,100 federal benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual spouses. Section 1 is merely the title of the law, and Section 2 says that states don’t have to recognize same-sex “relationships between persons of the same sex.”
Lawrence Tribe, a nationally recognized law professor and civil rights attorney who has argued historic cases on behalf of the gay community, singled this position out as a “symbolic insult” to gays.
In a post-forum interview with ABC News which he initiated at the request of the Obama campaign, Tribe acknowledged that Section 2 is essentially redundant to an already existing provision of the Constitution which allows states to ignore the laws of another state if they are against the home state’s public policy. But he argued that Clinton, by not calling for repeal of Section 2, is supporting “a symbolic and ineffectual slam” against gay couples by the federal government.
Some viewers had a more substantive issue with Clinton’s position of wanting to leave the issue of gay marriage “to the states.”
“Her ‘leave it to the states’ approach to marriage seems out of touch with the realities of LGBT lives,” wrote Boston area lesbian blogger Dana Rudolph. “We move. We travel.”
John Edwards: In an interview shortly after he announced his candidacy last December, former senator John Edwards said he didn’t support equal rights for gay couples through marriage because “I grew up in small town in the rural south, I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It’s part of who I am. I can’t make it disappear . . . I’m just not there yet.”
That answer suggested two things: that his opposition was based at least in part on his religious upbringing and that he was on a journey toward accepting equal rights for gays and might some day reach that point.
During the August 9 forum, Edwards said he “shouldn’t have said” that his opposition to gay marriage was based on his religious upbringing. He acknowledged that he understands the gay community feels civil unions “stop short of real equality,” he said he believes DOMA should be repealed, and he said he believes “to [his] core in equality,” but, without further explanation, he said his opposition to same-sex marriage has not changed.
“I do not support same-sex marriage,” said Edwards.
Keith Boykin, a long-time gay and Democratic activist, said Edwards “left a gaping hole” in his response. “If it’s not your faith that prevents you from accepting marriage equality,” wrote Boykin, in his blog about the forum, “then what is it? He never gave a direct answer.”
Bill Richardson: The governor was the focus of most media coverage of the forum for his remark that sexual orientation “is a choice,” not a matter of biology.
The remark came just minutes after he had apologized again for his use of an anti-gay slur on the Don Imus radio talk show last year, saying he had been “caught off-guard” by the host’s goading him to prove he could speak Spanish.
On the Michelangelo Signorile’s show on Sirius Radio the day after the forum, Richardson blamed his response on fatigue and said he “didn’t understand the question.” Because of his strong record of support, many gays said they felt sorry for the governor, but some tried to make sense of why the question was asked in the first place.
Some said the question was irrelevant because, regardless of whether he thinks homosexuality is biological or a choice--or even if he has never considered the question--he has been a strong supporter of equal rights for gays. Others pointed out that the idea that homosexuality is a choice is one promoted by right-wing conservatives who argue against legal protections on the basis of characteristics which can be chosen (with the notable exception of religious affiliation).
Rep. Barney Frank issued a statement, saying, “I regret Gov. Richardson’s misstatement--as I sometimes regret one or two of my own--but his error in the pressure of a debate should not detract from his very strong record in defense of equality for all Americans, including those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”
In the end, Richardson’s stumble drew even more media attention to the gay political forum and it was media attention, ultimately, that gave the event its historic significance. HRC had held a similar forum during the 2004 presidential campaign and, although a videotape of the event was broadcast by C-SPAN, it received so little notice that many reporters and gay voters believed the August 9 event was the first ever gay presidential forum.