The Gay Presidential Debate

The Gay Presidential Debate

What do the Democratic presidential candidates talk about when they talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues?


Edwards hit it out of the park. Hillary got smartly on base, to wild–even excessive–cheers. Obama struck out.

Last night LOGO, the subscription cable TV channel dedicated to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) content, broadcast a debate with six Democratic candidates. At the predominantly gay Boston venue Club Cafe, waiting for the debate to start, the small group at my table made a list of issues we wanted to hear discussed–while around us the noise level got louder and louder, until there was an SRO crowd. Our little group was annoyed that Melissa Etheridge was among the questioners, and wondered whether there would be some intelligent questions or whether only the M-word would be spoken. “Please,” one woman groaned, “let them talk about something besides marriage.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’re all in favor of full marriage rights; we live in the one state that offers them, and the club was jammed with many of the advocates who ensured that our legislature voted to uphold those marriage rights. But we know where a viable Democratic candidate has to stand–in favor of full-on civil unions but “not ready” for marriage–and so we wanted to hear whether they’d done any homework about any other issues. We made a short list of the issues we wanted discussed, and added a few others for bonus points.

It was a highly annoying format: Each candidate sat alone for fifteen minutes with the four questioners: Joe Solmonese, who heads the Human Rights Campaign, the largest and most mainstream of the gay rights groups, which co-sponsored the debate; Melissa E., who (in case you didn’t know) is not an actual journalist; moderator Margaret Carlson, longtime liberal columnist, formerly at Time, now at Bloomberg News; and Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post editorial page writer.

Obama was up first, poor man, and was pounded with marriage questions, one after another. He’s already stated his position: He favors full-on civil unions, with all of civil marriage’s rights and responsibilities, but not the word “marriage,” since so many people think the word is religious. (See Evan Wolfson’s eloquent points on that issue.) But here’s the problem: The senator didn’t know how to shift his answers. Any good politician knows how to take a bad question and turn it to better purposes. Not Barack, who got a little testy, repeating his same-old-same-old lines about knowing what it’s like to be excluded and noted that, after all, he had mentioned us in “the most important speech of my life” at the Democratic convention. Well, isn’t that special. (Melissa tossed him a nerf ball about inclusion, which he caught. Yawn.) Doesn’t this man have any lesbian or gay advisers who made sure he’d done his homework? Next!

Next up was John Edwards, who has the rep of being uncomfortable with gay folks. Not last night. He had the easiest possible body language, and even better, no matter what they asked him, he made sure he mentioned yet another important issue. My table kept gasping as he hit every button on our list. He talked about going to the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and talking with kids who were homeless because, after they came out, their parents kicked them out on the street–and how un-American that was. He talked about repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military policy that forces lesbian and gay folks in the military to hide their orientation or get kicked out (women are kicked out more often than men). He brilliantly handled the marriage question, opening it up into impressive component parts. He said that when he first answered he was for civil unions but against civil marriage, he had been wrong to explain his reasoning via his religion; unlike the current Administration, he would never push his religion down the nation’s throats. He explained eloquently, even movingly, that he fully understood why the LGBT community would long for full equality, but that he stood by his civil union position–and, later, said that Presidents don’t really make change, that movements made change, and we should all keep up our work. My table understood this as a big wink and nod: You change the country and I’ll back you on marriage. We were wowed. And–still better–he said he would repeal Section 2 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which drew a hugely impressed gasp from the crowd, not just for his detailed knowledge but because that is absolutely the holy grail of what’s politically possible. It would mean that the federal government would recognize any marriage a state made–so that a male couple or female couple married in Massachusetts would also be married under federal law, and thus able to file taxes jointly, receive each other’s federal pensions or social security benefits, and all the rest. (That’s not possible right now, under DOMA–and would never be possible with civil unions.) He kept on going down our list: passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (since right now, in the vast majority of states, you can be fired for being gay); adding LGBT folks to the hate crimes laws (I differ, here, from my friends, believing that a hate crimes law is really a thought-crimes law and that every assault or murder is a hate crime); enabling a lesbian or gay American who falls in love with a noncitizen to sponsor her or him for residency, which isn’t possible now; and still more. He won some votes.

Next up was the pixie, Dennis Kucinich, whom everyone wants to adopt for his amazing smile and perfect answers but whom no one will waste a vote on. It was impossible even to hear, in that club, the next two, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson, so I can’t report. But the jammed club cheered and went quiet for Hillary.

I’m afraid that, by then, it was nearing 11, past my bedtime, so I won’t be able to give you details on her answers. The main point: As in every other debate, she was the candidate of experience, the candidate of the possible, the knowledgeable candidate. She made clear her familiarity with the levers behind the scenes, and disagreed comfortably when Melissa E. said that she’d felt betrayed by the ways Bill Clinton’s presidency had failed its promises to the LGBT community. (I have to agree, reluctantly, with Hillary; see more here.) Hillary said that the existence of the 1996 DOMA, which her husband had signed and which many of us felt as a stab in the gut at the time, was the only reason that she and the rest of Congress been able to fend off passage of the much-worse and more recent Republican-backed Federal Marriage Amendment–which would make it illegal for states to allow same-sex marriage, or possibly even civil unions, depending on the version that passed. The Club Cafe crowd murmured with recognition that, yes, unfortunately she was right. She talked about her sponsorship of ENDA; about how DADT had in theory been an improvement over the previous policy and is now outdated, mentioning by name the generals who’ve disavowed it; about hate crimes and a few other key issues. This particular crowd was gaga over her, for the most part, with Hillary stickers quite visible, and she didn’t lose anyone. I’m not sure she won over anyone, either, if you hesitated about her for any of the usual reasons–simple dislike, for instance, or a revulsion at the idea of revisiting the 1990s Clinton wars.

Joe Biden had said no, and Chris Dodd backed out at the last minute–what’s up with that? As for Republicans, only Romney even had the courtesy to say no to the invitation. The rest of them didn’t even reply.

And yet a few of us in that room last night remembered when such an event would be unthinkable. It was amazing to hear presidential candidates taking seriously the political concerns of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered folks. Not that these are the most important issues of the day–but to be on the agenda at all is something full of hope.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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