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.
Lisa Duggan: I felt cynical about it too. It wasn’t historic, and not only was it ghettoized in terms of its circulation and broadcast, but the definitions of "gay community" and "gay issues" have become so narrow. Marriage equality has become the absolute litmus test. It’s like seeing the women’s movement reduced to abortion rights. It’s like marriage is the only question and the other questions were raised on the side.
RK: Well, how do you think the candidates did on the question of marriage? There seemed to be two camps–Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who support full marriage equality now, and the rest of the candidates [Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson], who want some form of civil union and perhaps marriage equality later on.
AS: I absolutely agree with Lisa that gay marriage has become a litmus test issue. But, even though it’s not the major issue for me, and even though I don’t share the view that marriage is the way to secure health and other benefits, when I heard the candidates dancing away from it, it pissed me off. You want them to stand morally for equal rights and then make the progressive analysis that would call for a different relationship between marriage and the state in general.
RK: What would that sound like?
LD: Well, there was no question about marriage in this forum. The only question was about gay inclusion in it. It was up or down on gay inclusion. Full inclusion now or some incremental progress to full inclusion later, but the desirability of one size fits all marriage, over and above any reworking of options, was completely unquestioned. It was only about who we let in or out. Only Obama suggested some readjustment in the landscape of possibility. The really amazing thing about his answer was the idea that civil unions should include full federal benefits, and that marriage should be considered a purely religious practice. He advocated separation of church and state; religion should be over there and federal civil unions should be over here…
AS: But only for gays and lesbians. There was no follow up question that said–Do you think that’s how it should be for straight people too?
LD: Obama almost went there. He more or less said that marriage is a religious institution and that civil unions should have full federal rights. It had more of a progressive edge.
AS: Well, Edwards tried to go there when he said he wouldn’t impose his faith on the nation.
LD: But his answer to the marriage question was the worst in some ways, totally self-contradictory. Clinton’s answer was similar in content, but it was much more polished and practiced. She had clearly thought about how to respond and how her answer would be reported in the press. But Edwards seemed nervous, unthinking. It’s like no one coached him at all. I was really sorry to see that because in some ways his positions, especially on poverty, are more progressive than the other candidates. His whole speech about homeless gay youth…
AS: That was pathetic! It’s 2007, and it’s like the first time he’s ever heard of gay kids getting kicked out of their homes. Though I do give him credit for bringing it up –along with adoption and anti-discrimination in employment and other issues that the questioners weren’t bothering to raise.
RK: What did you think about the way Obama addressed the analogy between marriage equality and the civil rights movement?
TN: I appreciated that he pointed out how gays are being scapegoated as a threat to the black family. Family values rhetoric resonates strongly in black political settings, and I’m thrilled Obama is willing to take it head on in venues like the Howard University debate, and not just in front of a gay audience. I also think he’s figured out where the comparison between gay rights and civil rights falls apart and becomes unproductive. The whole tagline of "separate but equal" that the questioners kept bringing up, they kept talking about it as it if were just a tagline instead of a whole institutional structure of segregation.
LD: When the questioners asked Obama to compare marriage equality and civil rights, he first balked at the question, then he said we’re not talking about Jim Crow here. We’re talking about inequality, but we’re not talking about Jim Crow, so he did reference the structural difference. But it’s like people aren’t familiar with the basic history of the civil rights movement, that there’s a debate and discussion over the failure of purely formal civil rights to produce substantive equality. It’s like the questioners were totally unaware of that discussion.
TN: In some ways nobody seemed to have watched the Howard debate because that was the context of the whole debate–the fact that formal quality doesn’t match up to substantive equality. That’s why we still need the black debate now, to address all the issues of racial inequality that are still around. That wasn’t the language of the Howard debate, but that was the context.
AS: What did you think about Obama saying that if he had been counseling the civil rights movement at the time his parents got married, when they wouldn’t have been able to do that in some states, that he would have advised that the more important issue was voting rights laws, not anti-miscegenation laws?
TN: I feel that he came up with that just to short circuit the comparison between anti-miscegenation laws and bans on gay marriage. He’s been asked that question a lot because he makes his personal story so central to his own candidacy. He can use this personal narrative to diffuse the one-to-one analogy between marriage rights and civil rights.
LD: He’s the one that gets pressured the most on that analogy. So he has to come up with a response to that analogy in a way that the other candidates just don’t.
RK: There were a couple times in this debate where the Howard debate and the AFL-CIO debate were referenced. This debate could be seen as just another one in the identity politics primary. What do you think about that and the way gay issues play into identity politics? It’s not clear to me that, in fact, this forum is the same as the AFL-CIO one, which has a real institutional base, or the Howard debate which had a constituency the Democrats really need.
LD: Labor politics can be translated into a kind of identity politics, as if it’s a special interest politics, but it’s not fundamentally. Meanwhile, the kind of sexual politics that exceeds the terms of identity politics–that wasn’t represented at all tonight. The Howard debate had a lot of depth about economic issues intertwined with racial inequality issues. This one did not. The people who brought those structural issues up tonight were the candidates, not the questioners. And when the candidates were advocating employment nondiscrimination or improvements in health care, the questions would just come back to marriage.
RK: What did you all think about the way Bill Richardson answered the question, posed by Melissa Etheridge, about whether you are born gay or choose to be gay?
AS: I thought Richardson’s failure to grasp that question was one of the most poignant moments of the entire forum. It honestly didn’t matter to him. It just wasn’t computing. Why would it matter? Why would protection from discrimination be appropriate for people who were born Jewish but not for people who converted to Judaism? It makes no logical sense whatsoever, and I think that’s why it wasn’t computing with him, and I found that kind of endearing and also heartening.
LD: I think it was the inadvertent best moment in the whole forum because his answer was basically so good. He said it doesn’t matter, that equality isn’t a matter of choice or biology. It’s when he said, "I don’t want to characterize people according to some standards of science that I don’t understand."
AS: It was his least political, most direct answer. You could really see him processing the question and trying to think it through because for once, he didn’t have a prepared answer. It was very naked and honest–and right-on.
LD: They pushed him on it over and over again. Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed. But he was clearly, absolutely resisting the language of choice versus biology. It’s not clear to me why he was, but he was.
TN: That marks a certain political shift. I thought it was a positive sign.
RK: Do you feel like the questioners treated Clinton, Edwards and Obama differently than they treated the other candidates?
AS: I think HRC felt that with Gravel and Kucinich, they [HRC] were doing those marginal candidates a favor by letting them participate. Gravel even called Joe Solmonese on his decision to exclude him at first. But with the other candidates, the vibe was more that those front-running candidates were doing HRC a favor just by showing up–sort of feeding the tacit expression of need that Tavia mentioned earlier. Melissa Etheridge kept telling candidates how honored and grateful she was that they came, as if we don’t have every right simply to expect candidates to show up.
LD: Kucinich went down the list of economic issues, peace and war issues, all the big issues in this election that matter to everyone. He went down the list of gay issues too, but he also mentioned universal healthcare. He used the words "not for profit" and "Medicare for all," and he was the only one to do so.
AS: Those were the points that got no applause. His answer to the question about health benefits for same-sex partners was that there should be healthcare for all. If he had said marriage rights, everyone would have clapped. But they didn’t clap for universal healthcare. It was the same thing when he said he voted against the war. Silence.
RK: What did you think about the format of the forum? What about the audience?
TN: The audience was salted with former and current Logo talent and the cast of Noah’s Ark. It’s like, they didn’t even go outside the building to get the audience. It was a talk show format instead of a political debate or discussion.
AS: There was no idea of collectivity or movement because of the format.
RK: Who do you think won?
LD: Substantively, I think Obama won. But in terms of positioning and media savvy, I think Hillary Clinton did.
TN: I thought Hillary was a clear winner in the Howard debate, which was surprising. She did so much better than Obama and Richardson, and she really connected with the crowd, which was huge there. Here there was no crowd, a tiny studio audience, so it was harder for her to do that. I thought she did well and was very polished, but I think the performances evened out here. She did better than Edwards. The hardest question for her to deal with was when Melissa Etheridge asked her why her husband had abandoned gay people in 1996…
AS: She said, "You threw us under a bus!"
TN: Right, it was the toughest question of the night because she has a record to stand on, when her husband was in the White House and her votes in the Senate. I think there’s some kind of spell that Hillary Clinton puts us under. Because if you follow the logic of her reasoning, her narration is that we’ve been steadily moving along a progressive path since the ‘90s in this country, and that’s totally counterfactual.
AS: I think what she said was more complicated and calculated. She said we had been in a horrifying moment, and when anti-gay politics was used cynically and viciously, and it got personal. It was ugly, and we really had to fight against that and it was a big setback for us. She used that description to define a difference between Democrats and Republicans as well as to excuse some of her questionable earlier support for such legislation as DOMA, which she characterized as a bulwark against the riled up pressure for a marriage amendment.
LD: What about when she was asked why, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, why she didn’t introduce legislation to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
AS: You didn’t find her answer persuasive?
AS: Why didn’t you? Not that I did, necessarily. But where do you see the flaw in her being strategic as a legislator and asking–Why bother under a Republican Congress, under a completely hostile President?
LD: Because there are other reasons than winning to introduce legislation. If you accept her pragmatic terms, the kind of politician she is, then that’s the answer. But if you were a different kind of politician, then there’s another kind of answer.
TN: Bill Richardson tried to get domestic partnership rights in New Mexico. That’s the one thing I really responded to in his attempt to say he has a progressive record. I found myself sympathizing with him when he said that he’s been trying to get this done in a Western state, not Massachusetts, but spending political capital in this area. What irks me about Hillary’s progress narrative is that it re-writes her own history. She could have actually taken a symbolic stand on a bill in the Senate to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But she’s not prepared to do that kind of thing. Richardson was willing to call a special session and lose.
LD: Going back to the progress narrative…the problem is that it frames as inevitable something which requires political will. So rather than saying we need political will, we just say we should trust in inevitability or in the goodness of the American people. So it lets everyone off the hook in terms of the risks and efforts that are required to organize political will. One of the central tricks of American liberal discourse is to frame political progress as inevitable. So you let everyone off the hook.
AS: That’s one way to read it, but another way–which the candidates at the forum also invoked–is to applaud the LGBT movement, to say what you are doing is admirable. You are on the streets. And I’m right there with you. Still another way of using the progress narrative is to stir people, to say that the train is going, and you should get on, and you should help push.
RK: Kucinich and Gravel said things similar to that…
TN: Here’s where I miss Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton would have said, "I support gay marriage. I’ve performed gay marriage." But then he would have turned it around and made the conversation much more political. And I think, even Kucinich, he kind of resorted to a kind of "I love gays" argument.
LD: I miss Sharpton and Jesse Jackson too, because they were the kind of candidates who would turn things around and challenge the questioners and challenge the audience. They would turn around and say, "Well I’m for this, but what are you for? Are you standing up for other people too?" And none of these candidates did that tonight.