By Rex Wockner
BOSTON – The Democratic National Convention kicked off here Monday with at least 255 LGBT delegates from 48 U.S. states and territories.
At their first meeting, the LGBT caucus was addressed by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and ’70s pop singer Carole King.
“What I’m hearing [from people] is, ‘This is the most important election of my lifetime,'” Boxer said. “Over the next couple of years, we may have as many as four Supreme Court justices appointed, and you and I know that [under George W. Bush] that could change America in a way that we would not recognize.”
Boxer said Bush has taken direct aim at the GLBT community.
“George Bush has decided that this year, you are the scapegoats,” she said, referring to the president’s outspoken support for amending the U.S. Constitution to ban equal marriage rights.
“This hurtful politics is not going away,” she said. “They’ve just begun. Now they’re going to tell the courts that the courts have no right to have an opinion on whether gays and lesbians should have equality. What country are we turning into? … This is a frightening time.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill July 22 that strips federal courts of jurisdiction over challenges to a section of the Defense of Marriage Act that allows states to reject marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states.
King addressed one of the sore spots between the Kerry campaign and some gay delegates.
“I know John Kerry and I agree with a lot of things that he believes,” she said. “I do not agree with his stance on gay marriage [but] I think that with our work and our love and our openness and encouragement, I think he will eventually come to where we are on this. … This is a good man who has been your advocate for many, many years.”
There were two other areas of conflict. While the Democratic Party platform positions on most gay issues, excepting marriage for same-sex couples, was met with praise from delegates, transgender delegates criticized the document for failing to support transgender equality.
Gay delegates also complained about the ban on bringing signs into the Fleet Center, the convention site, allegedly for “security” reasons. This prevented gay delegates from brandishing placards supporting marriage equality, since none of the signs provided inside the convention by the Kerry campaign took that position.
Kerry favors civil unions, not marriage, for same-sex couples, and has gone so far as to support amending Massachusetts’ constitution to ban marriage for same-sex couples if civil unions are available. Massachusetts is the only state where gay and lesbian couples can get married. Kerry does not, however, support the Federal Marriage Amendment.
In general, though, conflict among GLBT caucus members seemed more muted than at past conventions. As openly gay Chicago Alderman Tom Tunney put it, “It’s a unified message to replace President Bush. … The worst result is another four years of Bush.”
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) Executive Director Matt Foreman agreed.
“I think every LBGT person in America has to understand that George Bush’s re-election would be a catastrophe for our community,” he said. “It would set us back for generations to come, and not just around freedom to marry, but HIV prevention, school-safety issues and basic non-discrimination protection.
“No candidate is perfect,” Foreman said. “John Kerry is really good on 11 out of 12 [LGBT] issues. The fact that he supports the state anti-marriage amendment in Massachusetts is disappointing. No politician is perfect. This one is pretty damned close to it.”
Another area of disagreement between gays attending the convention was the Human Rights Campaign’s decision to uninvite comedian Margaret Cho from headlining the weeks’ biggest gay event, a Monday night fundraiser and delegate reception at a nightclub.
HRC’s Steven Fisher said Cho was dumped because “we were apprised to expect an incendiary and controversial performance.”
HRC’s action caused NGLTF to withdraw as a sponsor of the event and gave 17 members of DontAmend.com a second reason to picket it. The group also demonstrated outside the party to highlight Kerry’s anti-gay position on marriage.
“The leading political organizations in our community have chosen to politely downplay the Democrats’ attacks on our equal marriage rights, all while using the marriage issue in fundraising letters to swell their treasuries,” said DontAmend’s Andy Thayer. “Can you imagine the NAACP endorsing a candidate who opposed legal equality for African-Americans [or] NOW endorsing a candidate who opposed legal equality for women?”
HRC’s J. Smith said the group is “sorry for any distress or embarrassment” caused by the Cho decision.
“With enormous national press attention at our event, we want to ensure that the only messages coming out of Boston are positive,” he said. “We did not want to allow the GLBT community … to be used as political fodder for the extreme right at this particular time, in this particular setting.”
But HRC communications chief Fisher conceded that HRC’s action may not have been the best move.
“I can’t say it’s 100 percent that Cho’s performance would have created a bigger media firestorm than what’s going on now,” Fisher said. “But I think the risk was very real. And I think our taking a hit in the community is worth avoiding even a 30 percent chance of distracting from the efforts to defeat George W. Bush. Our community is their target and we can’t give them any opportunities. If I were a Republican operative and I heard that Margaret Cho was going to be debuting new material at the gay event at the convention, I’d make sure press was there. … We have to keep our eyes on the prize.”
Among the people who addressed the convention in prime time the first evening was openly lesbian U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis, who is the convention’s chair.
“John Kerry wants all Americans to be able to enjoy the same great health care that members of Congress and their families enjoy, and he’ll guarantee that right to family health care benefits for all of our families, including domestic partners,” Baldwin said, drawing applause from the convention floor.