by Bob Roehr
In the news
When seven Democratic presidential candidates took the stage to discuss LGBT issues on July 15, 2003, the LGBT community had won one of its most important victories only weeks before when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Lawrence decision striking down the remaining state sodomy laws as unconstitutional.
Only the southern Senators Bob Graham (D-Florida) and John Edwards (D-North Carolina) did not participate in the event organized by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), due to prior commitments.
The setting was the recently completed Ronald Reagan Building, that huge edifice that sits on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Sam Donaldson, the pit bull of television journalism, grilled the candidates and C-SPAN carried it live.
Three candidates supported same-sex marriage, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who is running again this year. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun traced her support back to her aunt, who married a white man at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states. But as a practical matter, she thought the issue of marriage should remain in the hands of the states.
The Rev. Al Sharpton drew the most sustained applause when he said, the inference of the question on same-sexy marriage “is that gays and lesbians are not human beings that can make decisions like any other human being. We must stop this separation of gays and lesbians from other Americans.”
“If people respect you, it is not about gays and lesbians having the right to marry, it is about human beings having the right to marry who they choose.” Sharpton added, “It’s like saying, we give blacks, or whites, or Latinos the right to shack up but not to marry.”
The event was universally deemed a success. It was the first time that major presidential candidates of a political party had agreed to appear at a forum to address issues of concern to the gay community. It took place at the symbolic center of the nation’s politics, and it was broadcast by the chronicler of the nation’s political life.
Given that unbridled success, why change the formula this time around? The answer is, times change, particularly in the rapidly evolving area of communications. The LGBT cable channel Logo was launched in June 2005, and with it a number of other associated communications platforms.
Logo VP for Communications Steven Fisher says the company’s goal is “super-serving the niche audience.” Early in the year they began talking internally about hosting a forum. “We saw this as a tremendous opportunity to educate and inform and bring our community together and give the candidates an opportunity to speak directly to this audience in a way that has never been done before.”
Fisher had worked at HRC and approached them about collaborating on the event. David Smith agreed; HRC had been planning to hold its own forum but the candidates have limited time and rather than compete, a partnership made sense.
A firestorm of protest erupted when word got out that one of the most vocally pro-gay candidates, former Senator Mike Gravel, was not going to be invited to participate. Smith says, “We wanted to make sure that our community had the opportunity to hear from the next President of the United States. And, that is not going to be Mike Gravel.”
But he adds, “We listened” to those protests and Gravel was quickly included. Smith also acknowledges the importance of “minor” candidates in pushing the “major” ones on issues important to the community, as Sharpton did in 2003.
Fisher says the importance of the early California primary (Feb. 8, 2008) and the large, diverse, and politically active LGBT community in the state were significant factors in deciding to hold the forum in Los Angeles.
The event has morphed from an initial one hour to two hours. There will be more time for the candidates and for political analysis at the end. Six of the eight candidates have agreed to participate.
Smith said that the forum “is designed to educate gay voters on the differences of positions and opinions of the major presidential candidates. A by-product of that is an intelligent, thoughtful conversation on our issues in the mainstream media.”
Bob Witeck, the public relations guru who has worked for Logo, HRC, and corporate America, said it will be good to have all of the candidates on the record. “They have gone round and round on the issues already. In the question on gays in the military they raised their hand – so talk to me about it.”
Witeck thinks the average viewer “is also going to be looking for the connection; does the candidate ‘get it?'” How comfortable are they with the issues? What is the body language? Sometimes it is even saying (or avoiding) certain buzz words for the community.
Witeck believes that “Melissa Etheridge and Joe Solmonese are under deep pressure to do it right and make it authentic.” She might draw a crossover audience, “which is not a bad thing.”
Ken Sherrill, the dean of gay political scientists, who teaches at Hunter University in New York, says, “Logo has developed a much larger viewership than anybody expected it to have at this point.” Given the various ways to access the program, it may capture more gay viewers than would tune into C-SPAN.
He believes the forum is more important for Logo than for HRC. “It is saying to an audience and to advertisers, we are an important segment of the market, take us seriously.”
“If Logo is going to perform a service, it should be doing stuff like this,” says Larry Gross, chair of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.
“The problem with this whole thing is that HRC is such a suck-up to the Democratic Party that this can be seen as more of an attempt to round up gay support for Democratic candidates than the reverse. It is more servicing the Democratic Party than challenging the Democratic Party…It is more, how can we help you get gay voters, and money, no doubt.”
Gross says the questions will need to be focused. “If you narrow it enough, you have enough time to force them to say something” beyond platitudes. “Somebody should ask Hillary about DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act]. Bill signed it.” He doesn’t think the candidates should be let off the hook by saying they would leave marriage to the states.
“Many of the critical issues that marriage impacts are federal. DOMA means that being married in Massachusetts still doesn’t get you any of the federal benefits or opportunities. So, leaving it up to the states is a false solution if the feds are holding the cards on immigration, taxes, and a lot of other issues. You can’t say it should be up to the states if it’s not.”