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Gay issues surface in Democratic presidential race

By |2007-02-22T09:00:00-05:00February 22nd, 2007|News|

By Lisa Keen

We’re distracted from our real failures and told to blame the other party or gay people or immigrants.”
– Barack Obama in his announcement speech in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 11

When officially announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama mentioned gays. In fielding a question last week on the campus of Dartmouth University, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards refined his position on gay marriage. But during her first foray into New Hampshire last week, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton was never asked her stance on anything gay.
Obama, Edwards and Clinton appear to be emerging as the gay community’s top preferences for the Democratic nomination in 2008, as they are for the general public. And while their positions on the war in Iraq provide analysts one clear cut way to distinguish them, their positions on gay-related issues does not.
But in interviews with more than a dozen longtime activists and gay people attending their campaign forums in New Hampshire, it is clear that how the candidates have addressed and now talk about the war is a top-tier issue for gays. Asked to name the top three issues on which they would measure candidates, those interviewed always included the war, often in the No. 1 slot. After that, gay issues were the most frequent criteria, followed by a variety of matters from health coverage to education to immigration.
“For me, it’s the war,” said David Mixner, who in 1992 made a national name for himself by bundling more than a million dollars in gay contributions for the campaign of then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Mixner is not doing the same for Hillary Clinton because, he says, “she’s horrible on the war.”
“They’re all pretty much in the same place on marriage,” said Mixner. “She still says marriage is between a man and a woman. Obama and Edwards are struggling to find a new position that is more compatible with the community. But they’re all for civil unions which is a step below equality.”
Obama did seem to be struggling for a new position on Feb. 12, when asked about his position during a forum at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. According to several news reports, he expressed support for civil unions but said marriage was a religious institution.
“This is an issue that I think helps to describe who we are,” said Obama, according to a report in the Union Leader newspaper of Manchester, N.H. He then went on to say that the marriage label for same-sex relationships causes so much opposition that he thinks it better to give gay couples all the rights and benefits of marriage but use another term.
The Associated Press noted that he believes “every American has basic rights that have to be respected” and said his parents probably broke a law against biracial marriage when they wed in the 1960s.
Obama also mentioned “gay people” in his announcement speech in Springfield, Ill.
“For the last six years,” he said, “we’ve been told that our mounting debts don’t matter, we’ve been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion, we’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, and that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy, strategy and foresight. And when all else fails,” he said, “when Kartina happens or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we’ve been told that our crises are somebody else’s fault. We’re distracted from our real failures and told to blame the other party or gay people or immigrants.”
Obama’s campaign includes at least one openly gay paid staffer – Democratic National Committee member Jeremy Bernard of Los Angeles.
“My decision to support Barack Obama was not a quick one or one without a great deal of thought,” said Bernard, who has worked on many presidential campaigns. He worked on the first Clinton campaign in 1992, was a delegate to the 1996 and 2000 Democratic National Conventions, raised money for former Vice President Al Gore’s bid, supported Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s bid, and then helped the campaign of U.S. Sen. John Kerry.
“The Kerry campaign was my least favorite,” said Bernard. “I felt that as a community we were asked to be quiet and keep a very low profile. They wanted our money, but that was all.”
“This will be the first campaign in which I am actually paid,” he added. With a partner, Bernard recently launched a consulting and fundraising business “and our first political client is Obama.”
“He reminds me of how I felt in 1992, but maybe even more,” said Bernard. “I didn’t believe that we would see another politician who could move people with words like he does.”

Refining the nuance

Not only do politicians move people with words, they move themselves. Edwards was asked – for at least the fourth time on the campaign trail — to explain his position on gay civil rights and marriage, during a Feb. 7 stop at Dartmouth University.
Initially, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire in December, Edwards said he was not supportive of gay marriage, “Because I’m 53 years old, and I grew up in small town in the rural south, I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It’s part of who I am. I can’t make it disappear….I’m just not there yet.”
When Tim Russert asked him to explain that, on a Feb. 4 “Meet the Press” interview, Edwards said, “The question is whether I, as president of the United States, should impose on the United States of America my views on gay marriage because I know where it comes from. I’m aware of why I believe what I believe. And I think there is consensus around this idea of no discrimination, partnership benefits, civil unions. I think that, that certainly a president who’s willing to lead could lead the country in the right direction on that.”
At Dartmouth, he reiterated much of his earlier answers but refined it in a way that seems to represent a shift: “I am not personally for gay marriage, but it troubles me that I would use my personal experience in life as a basis for establishing any policy for the United States of America.”
Mixner says he thinks Edwards answer illustrates that, “I think he’s struggling to get to marriage equality and he’s doing it publicly.”
We’re talking nuances here,” said Mixner. “He’s struggling. Healthy struggling….If he’s still using the struggling language two months from now, I’m tired of it.”
Hillary Clinton has yet to be asked a question about gays, except during one of her Web site conversations last month. The “conversation” was controlled by a staff person who took questions from people who signed in on the web site, and thus provided the candidate with a great deal of control. But she took considerable time with her answer, saying she “wholeheartedly” supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment, as well as a bill to add sexual orientation to the hate crimes law.
“And, finally, I support civil unions,” said Clinton. “I think that this is a matter that historically has been left to the states because that’s where decisions like these are made. But I have been on record supporting civil unions and equality in relationships.
“You know, there’s so many discriminatory effects that people may not realize. You know, you know so well, not being able to inherit, not being able to own property together in some places, not being able to visit your partner in the hospital, and so much else. Well, I think that, again, regardless of how some have tried to politicize these issues in what I think of as a quite mean spirited way, pitting people against their brothers and sisters and neighbors and colleagues, I think that Americans are fair minded, and we’ll move forward on an agenda of equality.”
Clinton has the support of Hilary Rosen, another long-time Democratic activist and a member of the governing board of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Rosen says she’s personally known the Clintons for many years – ever since she babysat for their daughter Chelsea.
“I think she is just practically the smartest, deepest candidate in the race and frankly one of the smartest leaders I’ve ever met,” said Rosen, who for many years served as head of the Recording Industry Association of America and is now president of, an “L Word”-associated Web site for lesbians. “I think she has – on gay issues in particular and as senator for New York — broadened her horizon on the political interests and needs of gays and lesbians. I think, frankly, she’s a wonderful person. I know her. I’ve always liked her. ”
Rosen said gay issues are her top criteria in evaluating candidates and that she trusts Clinton to get the United States out of Iraq. Rosen said she is helping raise gay money for Clinton and predicted she will “pay a lot of attention to gay issues.”
While many gays have still not committed to one candidate or another, they still seem to hone in on Clinton, Edwards or Obama.
Keith Boykin, a gay writer and activist, said he’s still uncommitted. Boykin knows both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama personally. He campaigned for Bill Clinton and worked in President Bill Clinton’s White House during the first term, and he went to law school with Senator Obama.
“Both would be excellent. I’d just like to see them move farther on some issues,” said Boykin. For Clinton, Boykin would like to see her do more in the Senate to end the war in Iraq. For Obama, he’d like to see some growth on the marriage issue.
Joyce Hunter, who is a researcher in HIV, and an advocate for gay youth, says what matters is who can win.
“The Democrats have to take over the White House,” said Hunter. “We can’t afford to lose. I haven’t decided yet who that person is. I do like Hillary. I like Barack. Unless something goes wrong in the primary, it’s going to be between those two. I’m going to vote for the person I think can win.”

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.