Prominent gay rights groups are ready to issue an election-year pass to Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry even though he opposes same-sex marriage, settling for less than they want in hopes of avoiding a constitutional amendment they fear.
"It's always disappointing when we find elected officials or candidates who do not support us 100%," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "But we understand that people are on a journey of becoming more understanding and more supportive of all that affects the gay and lesbian community."
Democrats have aggressively courted gay voters and their campaign donations in recent years. Exit polls showed that Al Gore got 75% of the votes cast by self-identified gays and lesbians in 2000, compared with 25% for George W. Bush.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said he has heard little or no complaining from gay rights supporters about attempts by Kerry or Edwards to finesse the same-sex marriage issue. "The mortal danger that our community faces right now is not the battle to win the freedom to marry," he said. "It's having the battle shut down by a constitutional amendment."
Kerry and Edwards stress their support for civil unions and other measures short of marriage that would extend additional benefits to gay and lesbian couples. These are steps that the Human Rights Campaign officially dismisses as half measures. "In short, civil unions are not separate but equal, they are separate and unequal," the group says on its Web site. "And our society has tried separate before. It just doesn't work," it adds, an apparent reference to the discredited "separate but equal" doctrine of the pre-civil rights era.
Even with only 25% backing, Bush gained an estimated 1 million votes from gays in 2000, although it's unclear what the impact would be on his reelection campaign if many of those supporters deserted him. Several states with large gay communities were strongly Democratic four years ago, including New York, California, and Massachusetts, and pose formidable obstacles to Bush this time too.
But even so, Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the gay political group Log Cabin Republicans, said the president's support of the amendment could prove politically costly. Guerriero said Bush could rekindle past political cultural wars and give independent voters cause to wonder "whether or not the president and the party have embraced a creepy social agenda."
"You can hear the echoes of Pat Buchanan's speech in Houston," he said, a reference to the unsuccessful Republican candidate in 1992, who delivered a combatively conservative speech on the opening night of the party convention that said America was confronting a cultural war, with gay rights one of the key battles. Republican strategists later concluded that the speech was politically costly because it conveyed an image of intolerance. [To read the text of Buchanan's speech, click here.]