By Lisa Keen
From The Democratic Convention
In the most high-profile speech of an historic campaign as the first black candidate to win a major party nomination for president, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama beckoned Americans Aug. 29 to agree that “our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve… to live lives free of discrimination.”
The statement was – in language, content and context – the beginning of a powerful signal that the candidate sees LGBT people as an important part of the American fabric and that he is willing to expend political capital to render some support.
“I know there are differences on same-sex marriage,” said Obama, “but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.”
The remark came in an address to an estimated 84,000 people gathered at the Invesco stadium in Denver and to over 34 million watching on television nationwide. It was believed to be the largest ever audience for a political speech. And, coming on both the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address and on the night Obama became the first racial minority to accept a major party nomination for president, it commanded enormous media and popular attention.
“I was pretty much stunned that, while giving the speech that could very well make or break his run for the presidency, Barack actually brought up the issue,” said blogger Michael Jensen on http://www.AfterElton.com.
Pam Spaulding, a commentator at pamshouseblend.com, noted that Obama’s statement was not everything some LGBT activists might want politically, but it was like “red meat” to right-wing Republicans and “one that he could have easily left out.”
In fact, Obama acknowledged the “red meat” aspect of his remarks, saying he expects some people will “dismiss” his ideas as “happy talk” and “the abandonment of traditional values.” But he preemptively rebuffed such criticisms, saying they come from people who “don’t have any fresh ideas” and rely on “stale tactics to scare the voters.”
Spaulding said Obama’s call for a measure of acceptance on gay marriage and non-discrimination for gays and lesbians was “a statement that will tick off those (in the LGBT community) who want it all, and want it now – after all, separate is not equal,” wrote Spaulding, “but the reality is that, on this national stage, a call for equality in this way is groundbreaking because it was purposefully present – and the crowd responded – and a nation watched a presidential candidate in a close race… put himself out there.”
Former Vice President Al Gore, speaking to the historic political gathering, was the only other speaker Thursday night at the closing of the 2008 Democratic National Convention to refer to the LGBT community. Gore said that had his bid in 2000 for the presidency been decided differently, “we’d be protecting the rights of every American regardless of race, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.”
The convention was notable for having five prominent speakers who spoke of LGBT rights during prime-time addresses. In previous conventions, one reference to “gays” or “sexual orientation” by one, sometimes two speakers had become the norm.
Most LGBT visibility at Democratic conventions in the past had been generated by the LGBT caucus itself by hosting a long line of high-profile politicians and celebrities at its caucus meetings or hoisting placards on the convention floor. This year, the caucus entertained very few visitors and made no efforts to identify themselves as LGBT delegates on the floor of the convention. The platform, while stating explicit support on a record number of LGBT issues, did not once use the words “gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”
Human Rights Campaign official David Smith said the Obama campaign was “taken aback” by some expressions of dismay about the language of the platform. But he said HRC is “convinced” the party and the campaign are committed to “true inclusivity.”
“We strongly believe that this is the most supportive platform we’ve ever seen,” said Smith.
This year’s LGBT caucus was, by far, the largest in size – at least 255 voting members – which represented a 41-percent increase over 2004 and a size larger than all but three state delegations.
Many long-time Democratic activists said the need to create LGBT visibility has simply faded as the recognition of LGBT concerns by the party have grown.
But it may also be, in part, a product of the waning power of LGBT concerns to trigger a negative reaction in mainstream America. Pulitizer Prize-winning editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, who is gay, told a Human Rights Campaign forum at the convention this week that, “We’re not on the radar screen” during this presidential campaign in the same way as in the past.
“And that’s good,” said Capehart. Others echoed the same sentiment: that the American public has achieved a greater comfort level with LGBT people and issues and, more importantly, has come to feel a greater urgency to focus on such issues as the war in Iraq, the price of gas, the increasing number of foreclosures and the economy in general.
Michelle Obama has reportedly accepted an invitation to appear at a LGBT fundraiser in Hollywood Sept. 3 at the home of celebrity agent Bryan Lourd. Joan Garry, co-chair of the Obama LGBT Finance Committee, says that event alone could bring in about $250,000 for the campaign, and she said many others in the gay community are scheduled.