On Thursday at 9PM (ET), Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign are sponsoring a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack, Hillary, John, Dennis and Bill will all be there. So will some guy named Mike who was so poor loves gays so much that he originally wasn't invited. Margaret Carlson, Jonathan Capehart, Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge will pose questions. The whole queer klatch will be televised on Logo and streamed live at this website.
[Here at The Nation, we've lined up queer critics Lisa Duggan, Alisa Solomon and Tavia Nyong'o to watch the event from a safe, Melissa Etheridge-free location and comment. Their remarks will be posted after the forum.]
HRC (that stands for Human Rights Campaign in gaycronym, not Hillary Rodham Clinton) has been promoting the debate as an "historic" event, the "first time...the major presidential candidates will address a live GLBT television audience." As Chris Crain points out on his blog, this is a lie. In fact, HRC hosted exactly such an event in 2003, but this is presidential electioneering, so there goes accuracy.
Despite my qualms about HRC (again, that's the gay HRC, not the Wellesley graduate) and my general low expectations for the forum (marriage and gays in the military will likely dominate), I agreed to write up a short piece for Logo's website on what I think the most important issue in this election is for gay people. (Just to preempt sniping, I wasn't paid, and I was free to say what I wanted.) For those who've followed my take on same-sex marriage before, this will be nothing new, but it's cross-posted below.
From Visible Vote '08:
For years now, I've followed the plight of same-sex couples denied the right to marry. Many of their stories are heartrending. A lesbian couple was forced to sell their home in order to pay huge health care bills because one of them was in an accident and wasn't covered by her partner's health insurance. After his lover died, a gay man was evicted from his apartment because he wasn't on the lease, and even if he was, he couldn't pay for the place on his own. Elderly gays and lesbians have kept working long past the age of retirement, or even taken second jobs, because social security benefits and pensions aren't transferable and often don't cover basic necessities--food, housing, utilities, medication--in the first place.
The more of these stories I hear, the more they sound like the stories coming out of the "other America"--married, heterosexual America.
Take Donna and Larry Smith, featured in Michael Moore's documentary Sicko. Married for over 30 years, the Smiths worked hard and raised six children in South Dakota. They had each other, and they had health insurance, but that wasn't enough when cancer and artery disease struck. Facing massive debt from expensive medical treatments, they filed for bankruptcy, sold their home and were forced to move into a cramped storage room in their daughter's house.
Or take my grandmother. When my grandfather, her husband, died, she was entitled to his social security benefits. But still, as a single widow, her total household income shrank dramatically. For the last few years of her life, social security was the only check she got, and it wasn't enough at that. Her experience is common; women live longer than men and so often age alone. Almost a third of all unmarried elderly women rely on social security as their sole source of income, and if it weren't for social security, 54 percent of all elderly women would be living in poverty.
Whether from gay or straight, married or unmarried Americans, stories like these are powerful reminders of the human costs of growing economic inequality in this country. For the last 30 years, the incomes of the wealthiest Americans have skyrocketed while incomes for the bottom 50 percent have remained essentially static. According to 2005 IRS data, the top tenth of 1 percent of Americans (300,000) made almost as much as the bottom half (150 million). The income gap hasn't been this bad in our country since 1928.
All of this news is kind of a downer, and nowhere near as cheery as thinking about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards or any of the other candidates presiding over festive gay weddings or civil unions. But the hard-boiled economic reality is that as long as the class gap continues to grow in America, the rights of marriage will be of little consolation to the millions of gays and lesbians who find themselves unemployed, sick, downsized, outsourced, homeless or just plain down on their luck. After all, marriage didn't protect happily betrothed folks like my grandparents or Donna and Larry Smith from feeling the economic squeeze.
This is why, for me, the increasingly stark gap between the super rich and everyone else is the most important issue in the next election. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has talked about the "two Americas" in his 2004 campaign and now again in this election. Other candidates have piled onto the populist bandwagon, and most propose meager economic reforms (a slight increase in minimum wage, closing tax loopholes, college loan reforms). But in my opinion, none have announced a real economic agenda that would halt the widening gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us, much less begin to reverse the trend. It will be important to see which of them come closest.
I've argued in The Nation that gays and lesbians should think beyond the issue of same-sex marriage as a legal right and get at many of the underlying economic issues (healthcare, housing, job security) that make married and unmarried people alike vulnerable in the first place. According to recent census data, the majority of Americans now live in unmarried households. Some live this way because they are legally banned from marriage, but most people, including many gays and lesbians, do so by choice. Beyond marriage then, what are the economic policies that will help all households (including single people) live better, less deprived, less financially anxious lives?