On Thursday night, Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sponsored a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson all participated. Columnist Margaret Carlson moderated the proceeding, joined by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, HRC’s Joe Solmonese and lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. Unlike the recent contretemps at the YearlyKos convention, this affair was decidedly more civil. It had to be. The candidates showed up, one by one, to chit-chat with Carlson and friends in a rather antiseptic, faux-talk show studio. The audience was small, peppered with B-list gay celebs and mostly quiet. The candidates never crossed paths, and so, there was never any real debate.
Nonetheless, there were some interesting moments: Bill Richardson’s supposed gaffe in response to the nature vs. nuture question (are you born gay or do you choose to be gay?), Etheridge’s attack on Hillary Clinton’s record and the general, totally gay enthusiasm of Gravel and Kucinich. I sat down to watch and discuss the forum with queer critics Lisa Duggan, Tavia Nyong’o and Alisa Solomon.
Richard Kim: So what did you folks think? The Human Rights Campaign has been promoting this event as an "historic" forum, the first of its kind. Did it feel historic to you?
Alisa Solomon: I have mixed feelings about the forum. My attitude going in was kind of cynical, yet I found myself moved at some points. But not only is it not historic, because it happened before, but it’s actually worse than the last one. [HRC hosted a similar event in 2003 on CSPAN, moderated by Sam Donaldson.] This forum was on a queer cable network. It’s not even on a mainstream network. It didn’t involve mainstream interviewers. It’s much more ghettoized. With all of these forums and debates, it’s great that supposedly there’s an opportunity to ask the candidates to go into depth on specific issues, whether it’s labor or African American issues or gay issues. But there’s something really balkanizing about it too. It’s the worst kind of niche marketing. Are candidates going to discuss LGBT issues only before a queer audience, labor issues only before an audience of union members, and so on? And are union members the only people who are supposed to care about labor issues, and so on?
Tavia Nyong’o: The forum was what I expected it to be–circling back and forth on the question of marriage equality with some minor excursions to other issues like healthcare or employment. But part of what I found moving about the event was the raw political need emanating from interviewer Melissa Etheridge. Counterbalancing the insistence on marriage was this more general hunger for public recognition. It was almost a subtext of the whole forum. Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge indicated that they’ve had these conversations about gay issues in private, that they have this ongoing relationship with Hillary, with the Clintons, with some of the other candidates, and it was like they wanted these inside conversation acknowledged publicly.