By Lisa Keen
DES MOINES, IA – No major party presidential nominee has ever granted the gay media an interview during the general election campaign; but, on Thursday, September 9, U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, agreed to two separate face-to-face interviews with the gay media. One, for Between The Lines and other LGBT regional newspapers around the country, was conducted by this reporter, a veteran gay journalist and independent freelancer based in the Boston area. The other, for The Advocate, was conducted by the magazine’s news editor Chad Graham. Both interviews were conducted separately and were strictly limited to 15 minutes, with only one other person in the room. (Kerry spokesperson Stephanie Cutter sat next to the reporter, taking notes and marking time.)
Fifteen minutes is not much time, but a check of previous interviews granted by the senator indicated that at least some of his interviews to other media were equally brief. Because of the interview’s brevity, this reporter did not ask questions for which there was already a record. For instance, Kerry’s record of support in Congress is well documented: During his first term in the U.S. Senate, he authored a comprehensive gay civil rights bill; in later years, he co-sponsored and voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). He co-sponsored hate crimes prevention legislation, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, and the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act for federal employees. He testified against the “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy of severely restricting gays’ service in the military and was one of the very few senators to vote against it, but he has also said there are some circumstances in which it might be appropriate. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, but he has spoken against legal recognition of gay marriage and in support of a constitutional amendment in Massachusetts that would ban same-sex marriage and replace it with civil unions. He has spoken in support of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down sodomy laws. The Human Rights Campaign says Kerry’s record of support in Senate votes since he entered Congress in 1984 averages 96 percent, but in each of the last four sessions of Congress, it has been at 100 percent.
The interviews took place at a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa, just after the senator spoke to an audience about health care. Below is a transcript of this reporter’s interview.
Between The Lines: The gay community knows your record, generally, and the Human Rights Campaign has described it as stellar. But I don’t think many of us know exactly what inspired you back in 1985, in your first term, to author the gay civil rights bill. Can you recall who or what –
Sen. John Kerry: I just think it’s an important matter of fundamental fairness. I think, you know, all Americans ought to be treated fairly. And the equal rights clause and the equal protection clause mean something to me. And I think you have to take on some tough fights sometimes. And as president, I hope to pass ENDA, I hope to pass hate crimes legislation. I hope to be able to advance the understanding in America of the difficulties people face in some of the choices in life and we have to be a country that’s open and embracing people, period. I mean I just don’t know how we’re America if we don’t live up to those ideals.
BTL: I thought maybe you had a gay friend or gay family member that inspired you to take up that mantle.
Sen. Kerry: Well, I’ve had friends, obviously, and I’ve had supporters in my races and people I’ve cared about. But I just never spent a lot of time thinking about people as, you know, different. I mean, each to their own. People choose or don’t choose – they are who they are. You are who you are. And that’s who we are in America – a country that’s understanding and recognizes that. We obviously have some distance to travel. We’re still fighting discrimination over color and religion and a lot of hurdles to go.
BTL: …including DOMA and the Federal Marriage Amendment. You voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and you’ve spoken out against the Federal Marriage Amendment. In both cases you described it as “gay bashing for political gain.” Many of us feel that the constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and Missouri also constitute gay bashing for political gain. I’m curious why you haven’t spoken out against those two?
Sen. Kerry: Well, I think there’s a distinction. I don’t think that’s gay bashing. It’s, obviously, a position that people in the GLBT community disagree with – I understand that. But I think that, historically, the definition of marriage and the application of marriage laws has always been state defined. It is up to the states, not the federal government. That’s why I viewed the federal efforts, as specifically targeted, as gay bashing, because they were usurping into a territory that they didn’t belong. There was no need to do that. Under the constitution, no state has to recognize another state’s decision, and it’s up to the states. [Note: Under the constitution, states must give “full faith and credit” to the “public acts, records, and judicial proceedings and acts of all other states.” Constitutional law Professor Chai Feldblum says, “the Supreme Court has never directly ruled that, under the constitution, states must recognize all marriages from other states, and as a matter of general practice, states have sometimes invoked their right not to recognize a marriage from another state that is contrary to its public policy.]
So what they were doing was reaching, for political purposes, to drive a wedge. But it is within the rights of a state to define marriage. That’s within state’s rights. And, you know, the majority of people in most states have a different view about what constitutes marriage. So this is a debate that’s going on now. People have different views. What I think is important is to fight for fundamental rights. To me, the focus right now ought to be on the application of the equal protection clause – ought to be gaining the foothold of employment non-discrimination, gaining the foothold of hate crimes legislation, making sure that we’re protecting people’s ability to share the same rights – partnership rights, tax code treatment rights, ownership rights, Social Security – those rights are what are important to me. That’s what’s governed more by the state and it becomes less of conflict between …religion and the state, if you will.
BTL: You have supported the idea of providing federal benefits through civil unions.
Sen. Kerry: Yes.
BTL: How would you go about making that happen, as president?
Sen. Kerry: You have to fight for it. You have to introduce it.
BTL: You would introduce legislation to make that happen?
Sen. Kerry: That’s equal protection under the law.
BTL: I know you supported the Massachusetts amendment and it does provide for an alternative of civil unions.
Sen. Kerry: Correct.
BTL: But the Missouri initiative which just recently passed, and a number of those that are coming up this November – Michigan, Ohio, and others – are written such that they would eliminate even recognition or security through civil unions. [Note: After the interview, this reporter learned that the Missouri initiative does not explicitly ban civil unions, as do the Michigan and Ohio initiatives.]
Sen. Kerry: Right.
BTL: I think in Missouri, you said after that vote that –
Sen. Kerry: I did. And I was not aware. I was unbriefed and I thought it was the same amendment we had in Massachusetts. And that’s very simple. I just thought it was a simple prohibition and not one that excluded civil unions. Obviously, it’d be inconsistent. I am for civil unions and, therefore, I would not have voted for that had I been there….I just didn’t know it went as far as it did and, obviously, I don’t support it.
BTL: How often does this issue come up on the campaign trail? Do people ask you about it?
Sen. Kerry: It’s not coming up very much right now, no. It depends on where you are, but mostly people are talking about health care, and the war in Iraq, education, and jobs.
BTL: The polls would seem to indicate that it’s kind of on a lower tier, but it is on the radar screen.
Sen. Kerry: I think it’s because the states are sort of dealing with it. And there’s less sense of – I mean I know that within the community there’s a sense of urgency and disappointment, and I understand that. But I think that politically right now nationally the vast majority of people are focused on the outsourcing of jobs and their inability to pay their bills and survival, in a sense.
BTL: If you noticed the turnout in Missouri was much larger last month than expected, and many of the additional voters who showed up to vote seemed to show up specifically to vote for the marriage amendment.
Sen. Kerry: Well, that’s the Bush strategy. Sure. That’s their strategy – to try to exploit.
BTL: Can you beat that?
Sen. Kerry: Well, I’m going to have to. And you know we can’t afford to have 60 percent of the community stay home like they did last time. [Note: This reporter could find no data to support the notion that 60 percent of the gay community stayed home during the 2000 presidential election. Instead, precinct data collected by The Washington Blade from 118 precincts in heavily gay neighborhoods around the country suggested that 68 percent of registered voters in those heavily gay neighborhoods turned out to vote in 2000.]
People are going to have to realize that what’s at stake here is the Supreme Court of the United States. What’s at stake is whether you’re going to have a president who’s prepared to fight for ENDA and fight for hate crimes [legislation], or one who’s going to just let them sit there. So if people want to make progress in America, in terms of equal protection under the law and living up to our constitutional rights, this election is the most important election of our lifetime.
BTL: Speaking of constitutional rights. Many of us see this issue – and I hate to keep hammering on gay marriage, but it is the one we feel most under siege about right now – The constitution guarantees equal protection, but we see poll after poll saying most Americans – the latest said 60 percent – are opposed to letting gays have any kind of legal security or responsibility or benefits through marriage. As president, how would you reconcile those two different places?
Sen. Kerry: Well, the presidency is the power of bully pulpit to some degree, and you have to talk reasonably to people. Look – you have to begin at a beginning. It took us a long time to pass the civil rights law. There was a huge filibuster against it. Nowadays, people couldn’t conceive of why did we fight about that. It took us a long time for women to get the right to vote in America. You have to fight for things. And you pick a starting point and my starting point is to try to pass ENDA and try to pass hate crimes [legislation]. And you begin to educate people, and hopefully you change the climate and tone — it’s been very exploitive in the last year or so. And you lead.
BTL: And would you do that for the gay community – try to –
Sen. Kerry: I have. Why do you ask me if I’d do it?
BTL: As president. Would you do it as president?
Sen. Kerry: Yes, and I told you what my priorities are going to be. I’m trying to be very honest about it. You’ve got to begin with ENDA and begin with hate crimes and proceed to grow people’s understanding.
Stephanie Cutter (to reporter): You only have 30 seconds.
BTL: OK, last question. I’m curious: If you had been born gay, how different do you think your life would be?
Sen. Kerry: I can’t tell you the answer to that question because I don’t know what my – you know, I just can’t tell you how I would have responded to it. Would I have been at the forefront of the crusade in the 1960s or would I still be, as some people are, living a double life or something, I don’t know.
BTL: Could you have been in the military?
Sen. Kerry: Uh, I can’t tell you the answer to that. I can’t speculate at all. There’s no way for me to speculate on a life I haven’t lived.
BTL: Well, gay people do it – speculate that, if we were straight, maybe we could run for Senate or maybe we could –
Sen. Kerry: Gay people run for the Senate.
BTL: They do now, but back when you were first starting out –
Sen. Kerry: Gay people run for members of Congress. Gay people served beside me in Vietnam.
BTL: Is there anything else you –
Sen. Kerry: Gay people have served in the military for years. For years, they’ve served in the military. I know this. This is what’s important: I want an America in which people are loved and respected and not an America which has outcasts and discrimination and different layers of being an American or a human being. People are who they are, and America’s greatness is that we honor that and can respect it.
I think, you know, and I’ve said this before, I think marriage raises a different issue in the minds of a lot of people because of its deep religious foundations and institutional structure as the oldest institution in the world. It is the oldest institution in the world – older than country, older than our form of government, older than most forms of government. And people view it differently. What’s important to me is not the terminology or the status; what’s important to me are the rights. The rights. That you shouldn’t be discriminated against in your right to visit a partner in the hospital. You shouldn’t be discriminated against in your right to leave property to somebody, if that’s what you want. You shouldn’t be discriminated against if you have a civil union relationship that affords you the same rights. Now, I think that’s a huge step. There’s never been a candidate for president who has stood up and said I think we should fight for those things. And you’ve got to progress. Even that, I take huge hits for. And you know, I stood up on the floor of the Senate and voted against DOMA because I thought it was gay bashing on the floor of the United States Senate. I was one of 14 votes. The only person running for reelection who did that. So, I’m not going to take a second seat to anybody in my willingness to fight for what I think is right. But I do think you have to take things step by step, in a reasonable way, so you can achieve some progress and not go backwards.