By Lisa Keen
Keen News Service
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama gave his first general interview to a gay publication this month, sitting down in person for a 25-minute interview at his Chicago campaign headquarters with The Advocate. In the interview, the senator rejects the notion that he has avoided talking with the gay press and says he would not make “don’t ask/don’t tell” a litmus test for his Joint Chiefs of Staff, but says he thinks he could eliminate the policy and “help usher through an Employment Non-Discrimination Act and sign it into law if elected president.”
The interview arrived on the crest of growing criticism that Obama has been snubbing the gay press, perhaps in an effort to appear less liberal as he squares off more and more with Republican nominee-apparent John McCain. Complaints that Obama had not granted one request for an interview by gay newspapers – while his chief Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had granted three – had chagrined many gay journalists and prompted a stinging rebuke in the Philadelphia Gay News.
Clinton, gave her first interviews to the gay press starting in mid-February with the Washington Blade, followed a few weeks later by a joint interview with papers in Ohio and Texas, and, most recently in the Philadelphia Gay News. All of Clinton’s phone interviews took place just before the primaries in those states, were approximately 10 to 15 minutes long, and conducted by phone.
Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal said he held off publishing the Clinton interview for about two weeks, until just last Thursday, because he had hoped to run it simultaneously with an interview with Obama. The Obama campaign did not respond, however, and Segal made clear his disappointment by leaving a gaping hole on one side of his front page April 3 with an editorial questioning the motives of Obama’s failure to speak with local gay newspapers.
Until the April 7 interview with The Advocate, Obama’s only interviews with the gay press was one with Chicago’s Windy City Times during his campaign for the U.S. Senate, and a 10-minute phone interview specifically about the Donnie McClurkin gospel tour controversy in The Advocate.
Asked why Obama has spoken only to The Advocate during his presidential nomination campaign, his deputy press secretary Ben LaBolt said “it reaches a wide circulation.” The oldest gay publication in the country, The Advocate circulates through the mail nationally and, like other gay publications, has a Web site. According to Todd Evans, of the national gay advertising firm Rivendell Media, The Advocate’s circulation is approximately 165,000.
LaBolt noted that The Advocate’s request for an interview was “long-standing” but he offered no explanation for why the campaign did not speak to the Philadelphia Gay News or to other gay newspapers even though they, too, had made requests for interviews – collectively and individually – and repeatedly since June 2007.
In an interview with this reporter, Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal said some people have suggested the campaign snubbed his paper because he had made a $1,000 contribution to the Clinton campaign. But Segal said the contribution was for the price of a ticket to a campaign event that he attended for information gathering purposes, and that he disclosed the fact in the newspaper. In an editorial accompanying the blank page and Clinton interview April 3, Segal said he believes Obama “would rather talk at the LGBT community than with it” and suggested the move could be strategic.
“The local gay press is to our community what churches are to the black community,” wrote Segal, saying that, collectively, “the local gay press now has a national weekly audience of some 2.2 million readers, not including our Web sites.” He also noted that Obama has granted interviews with a Philadelphia sports radio station, Christianity Today, and the French magazine Paris Match. Segal suggested Obama’s snubbing of the gay press could be an indication of his desire to “move to the center” politically.
Campaign spokesman LaBolt said the Advocate interview was scheduled “before that editorial ran” and that the senator is “having an ongoing conversation with the LGBT press…through op-eds, events, and interviews, and will continue to.” The Obama campaign has also, in recent weeks, purchased advertising in several gay newspapers, although not, as of this week, in Pennsylvania’s largest gay newspaper, Philadelphia Gay News.
Advocate news editor Kerry Eleveld, who conducted the interview for the Advocate, said the campaign made no restrictions on what she could ask and did not seek to determine what her questions would be ahead of time. She said she had been in regular communication with various Obama campaign personnel for some time, seeking an interview and got the sense, in recent weeks, that it was seeking an outlet for an interview. She said the campaign called her last Thursday “around noon” to arrange for the interview Monday.
The Advocate interview itself leads off with questions about the perceived snub, saying that Obama has been “weathering a small storm lately in the LGBT community for being too tight-lipped with gay and lesbian news media.”
Referring to the April 7 interview with The Advocate, editor Eleveld says: “Some may call the chat a shrewd political move made by the Obama camp ahead of the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. We call it access.”
In that interview, Obama said “I don’t think it’s fair” to say he has had a campaign of “silence” with respect to the gay press and “I haven’t been silent on gay issues.”
“I actually have been much more vocal on gay issues to general audiences than any other presidential candidate probably in history,” noted Obama. He noted the campaign tends “not to do a whole bunch of specialized press.”
“We try to do general press for a general readership,” said Obama.
Eleveld followed up, suggesting the gay community’s concern is that “if you get into office, will LGBT folks be last on the priority list.”
“I guess my point would be that the fact that I’m raising issues accordant to the LGBT community in a general audience rather than just treating you like a special interest -that is, sort of off in its own little box – that, I think, is more indicative of my commitment. Because ultimately what that shows is that I’m not afraid to advocate on your behalf outside of church, so to speak. It’s easy to preach to the choir; what I think is harder is to speak to a broader audience about why these issues are important to all Americans.”
Eleveld then asked Obama what he “reasonably” expects he could get done “for the LGBT community,” if elected president.
“I reasonably can see ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ eliminated. I think that I can help usher through an Employment Non-Discrimination Act and sign it into law,” said Obama.
Obama said he thinks it will be “tough” to include transgender language in ENDA, characterizing it as a “heavy lift through Congress.”
“And, obviously, my goal would be to get the strongest possible bill-that’s what I’ll be working for.”
Obama said he also believes he can make sure federal employees have equal benefits and that he is “very interested in making sure federal benefits are available to same-sex couples who have a civil union” through repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Noting that Clinton has called for repealing only the federal recognition aspect of DOMA because she said the states’ rights section is necessary to ward off a constitutional amendment, Eleveld asked whether he thinks its possible to get repeal of the full law.
“I don’t know,” said Obama. “But my commitment is to try to make sure that we are moving in the direction of full equality, and I think the federal government historically has led on civil rights – I’d like to see us lead here too.”
Eleveld noted that Obama and his wife Michelle have spoken about the racism in being told to “wait your turn,” then asked “isn’t that what you’re asking same-sex couples to do by favoring civil unions over marriage?”
Obama said he doesn’t ask same-sex couples to wait and that he strongly respects the right of same-sex couples to insist on equality. But he said his “perspective is also shaped by the broader political and historical context in which I’m operating.”
“I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born. That doesn’t mean that, had I been an adviser to Dr. [Martin Luther] King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an anti-miscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward. That’s a decision that the LGBT community has to make. That’s not a decision for me to make.”
Eleveld also pressed Obama on his commitment to repealing the military’s “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy on gays.
“I would never make this a litmus test for the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said Obama. “Obviously, there are so many issues that a member of the Joint Chiefs has to deal with, and my paramount obligation is to get the best possible people to keep America safe. But I think there’s increasing recognition within the Armed Forces that this is a counterproductive strategy – ya know, we’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need. That doesn’t make us more safe, and what I want are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are making decisions based on what strengthens our military and what is going to make us safer, not ideology.”
Obama said his relationship with the LGBT community benefits from his mother’s instilling in him “a belief that everybody’s of equal worth and a strong sense of empathy” and having had an openly gay professor in college.
“And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time,” said Obama, “but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.”
The full interview can be read at http://www.advocate.com.