Remember 2004, when many a Democrat (and many more religious right demagogues) blamed gay marriage for John Kerry’s defeat? Remember San Francisco, where Senator Dianne Feinstein publicly scolded Mayor Gavin Newsom the morning after for arranging those awful queer unions just in time to get Bush re-elected? No? Well, don’t worry. Nobody at the DNC is very much eager to pull out that particular wedding album either. Since those days, California’s Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage (prompting Newsom to claim "vindication"), and one–yes, just one–anti-gay marriage initiative was beat back at the polls (in Arizona in 2006) while several others have passed. Meanwhile, a federal marriage amendment–which Bush backs but McCain opposes–hangs over not the Democrats, but the Republicans–a nuclear option that not even Karl Rove seems particularly keen to use.
If gay rights (or opposition to it) is not quite yet a problem for the GOP, it has certainly shifted–rapidly and decisively–to a non-issue in the Democratic party. Indeed, it’s become a point of pride for the party as a whole: Melissa Etheridge sang primetime at the DNC, Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin hosted a packed luncheon for LGBT delegates (at which Michelle Obama spoke) and speaker after speaker (including Hillary Clinton) has mentioned gays and lesbians at the podium.
That’s not to say the party embraces everything many gay advocates would like ("full marriage equality," for example). But the Democratic platform this year is the most pro-gay it has ever been, calling for a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, employment non-discrimination legislation that includes trans folks, increased money to fight AIDS and opposition to the federal marriage amendment. There was some worry earlier this month by gay activists who noticed that the words "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" appear nowhere in the platform (unlike 2004), but that reflects a move toward using the terms "sexual orientation," "same-sex couple" and "gender identity"–expressions that have some legal teeth. As for marriage, not a single gay delegate I spoke with said it was a make or break issue for them. Most seemed content with the new détente–that the marriage battle is going to be fought out in numerous state referenda and, one day, the Supreme Court–a contentious issue still, but not the so-called determinative national culture war of ’04 and nothing to risk a McCain administration over.
Indeed, gay leaders here seemed uncommonly focused on small-bore policy issues, the "gets" immediately possible under a Democratic president and Congress. Jon Hoadley of Stonewall Democrats pointed to getting domestic partnership rights for federal employees, legislation for which is "ready to go," he told me. Rhea Carey of NGLTF emphasized the Bush administration’s quiet but thorough gutting of LGBT issues from federal grant guidelines, particularly at HHS, CDC and NIH, which a president Obama could reverse by mere executive order.
And then I met Amanda Simpson, a male-to-female transgender Obama delegate from Arizona who (and I don’t think she’d mind me saying) has had about as much work done as Cindy McCain, but looks 100 times better. Simpson was introduced to me as a "rocket scientist," and indeed, she works in the aerospace industry but can’t tell me exactly what she does without clearance. She breakfasts here in Denver with a retired one-star general and his wife, also delegates from Arizona, who according to Simpson think, like many military officers, that DADT is silly and outrageous. The specter of 1993, when Clinton pushed gay inclusion in the military too soon and too unilaterally, seems vanquished for the moment, in part at least by the soldier shortage in the war, an odd alliance of sexual politics and imperial necessity. But also, something has softened in the masculine anxiety of the Democrats and the culture at large. I see gays at the Blue Dog caucus, at faith-based events, at national security meetings of lobbyists. Something too, I suppose, has been lost in what being a political gay once meant.
Indeed, the sharpest moment I’ve encountered in my tour of Democratic homos is the Clinton-Obama divide. For some reason, gays (men in particular) just LOVE Hillary. Cougars may be well represented in the PUMA crowd, but so are twinks, daddies and bears. One delegate, a cute as a button 22 year old from New Mexico, spoke to me conspiratorialy about how none of the Clinton backers in his contingent applauded when Michelle Obama spoke. This seemed, well, bitchy to me. And then, as if on cue, Barney Frank addressed the Clinton die-hards.
"Will everyone else please stop bitching about trivia!" he exclaimed–a rather inopportune verb choice that had some gay PUMAs licking their fur off. Fortunately, Barney talks like he has marbles in his mouth, so his plea came out more like this: "Veel jevvryone else reees rop wristing arout Riviera!"
I thought, for a moment, he was talking about some fabulous drag-queen delegate who had found her name on a map of France. I wouldn’t be surprised, here in Denver, if Riviera really were in attendance. And had voted for Hillary.