By Cathy Markes
FERNDALE – Jeffrey Montgomery stood in a small circle of potential voters who were sipping brightly-colored martinis and cold drinks. They gathered to watch Democratic presidential candidates in the Human Rights Campaign’s inaugural entry into televised national politics, Visible Vote 2008, on the Logo cable network. Montgomery, president of Michigan’s Triangle Foundation, was pleased with the turnout. Triangle was a local sponsor of the event at Ferndale’s SOHO bar.
“I’m hoping that they’ll discuss some real issues beyond marriage, like the hate crimes bill, HIV funding and ETHA (Early Treatment for HIV Act),” he said, before it began. “I am glad that we’re all here for this historic event. We should get a better feel for the candidates tonight.”
Frank Markus seconded the hope for more substance: “I want to see what the candidates will say in concrete terms.
And another attendee, Melissa Pope, from the Triangle Foundation added, “Yes – and just what resources they will commit to these projects.”
The order of guest appearances was based on the order of their reply to the HRC invitation. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) did not participate due to scheduling conflicts. Sen. Barack Obama was the first guest, and marriage was the first topic.
Obama said that church should not make legal determinations and that while the semantics of marriage may be important, the equivalent rights are more so.
Laughter and applause broke out in the decidedly gay crowd when Obama challenged clergy.
“I haven’t seen a marriage broken up by two men holding hands,” he said. “If someone has, please point them out.”
Sen. John Edwards appeared second and explained that he has proposed a heath care plan that adopts the “same rights for gay couples as straight couples.” He said he supports civil unions for gay citizens rather than marriage.
A round of applause came at the mention of Edwards’ wife Elizabeth taking conservative commentator Ann Coulter to task for her mean-spirited suggestions regarding Edwards’ sexuality.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio reasoned that citizens are due, constitutionally, the opportunity to express their love in the form of marriage. He is a proponent of sex education in schools and said he sees “the world as one – interconnected.”
Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel denouncing his competitors, saying, “My opponents won’t lose over playing it safe on gay marriage. … The word’s been misappropriated by religion.
“What they’re saying when they tell you that you can’t marry, is that something is wrong with you. I’ll do more for your causes.”
And Bill Richardson, New Mexico’s governor, began strongly by stating that he believed the nation was on a path to achieving recognition of marriage for same-sex couples – and that he wants to redress the gross intolerance of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then, he seemed perplexed when questioned whether homosexuality is a genetic or a “choice,” fumbling after choosing the latter.
“I’m not a scientist – to me it’s a matter of human decency,” he said.
The moderator, venerable columnist Margaret Carlson, even attempted a clarification of the issue and Richardson’s thoughts. But his lack of a forthright answer landed him on the wrong side of the crowd in downtown Ferndale.
“NEXT!” was shouted through the room from a few disappointed in his hesitation.
Brad Dixon, however, wasn’t detracted. “It shouldn’t matter that Richardson said that homosexuality is a choice. He thinks it’s more about equality. I’m OK with that.”
Even before New York Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton made her entrance, the crowds at both SOHO and in the Los Angeles studio were cheering. She defended “don’t ask, don’t tell” and DOMA – the constitutional amendment eliminating same-sex marriage and a product of her husband’s administration – explaining that it was the best possible legislation at the time of Newt Gingrich’s Congress. She said she plans on changing both as president, with a willing Congress.
“We need to move forward (from “don’t ask, don’t tell”) toward the Code of Military Justice and start judging people on their service,” she said. “(Gay) marriage has not been a long-term struggle, yet … states are enshrining discrimination in their constitutions. … Civil unions will get it to full equality – (including) benefits, rights and privileges.
“I come to these issues as a friend of the LGBT community.”
Clinton concluded by saying that she will not nominate anti-gay judges for confirmation.
As the telecast was ending, Michele Fox-Phillips a community activist working for transgender rights was somewhat disappointed. “Gender identity needs to be as discussed as sexual orientation,” she said.
Robin Porter left with this view: “Obama, so far, seems to understand what it takes to overcome difficulties and he has human compassion. He seems to have empathy for gay rights; he doesn’t just feed the media garbage machine.
“He understands that you don’t choose who you love.”
Clinton supporter Brandon Hynes left supporting her as much as he had when he arrived at the event.
“Hilary is clearly the front runner,” he said. “She understands our issues and the others – they were pandering to the audience. We should continue this dialogue because it’s important to hear where the candidates stand on equality.”
Throughout the evening, the SOHO crowds’ enthusiasm and excitement were palpable. People hushed others so that they could better hear the candidates. It was clear that they were here, and in the California studio, as voters and citizens.
Anne Stockwell, editor of The Advocate, attended the live forum and told Between the Lines that it was “exhilarating” inside of the studio.
“There were about 100 to 150 people in the studio, and we were a wonderful cross-section of people,” she said. “Some stars we love – actors Jane Lynch and Alec Mapa, Andy Tobias (writer and businessman) – with people from Ohio and Dallas.
“Everyone here could feel how symbolic the night was – that this ever happened. Now they come to the gay community to speak about how they are going to serve us – on the record and in front of cameras.”
Hynes shared a final thought from his seat at SOHO: “This is not the election of the status quo; it is the election of empowerment and hope.”