Now that presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has chosen John Edwards as his running mate, the pair must begin the artful dance of courting undecided voters--a very thin but powerful slice of the electorate who might just make or break this election. Look for both men to take increasingly centrist positions in an appeal to an extremely divided country, especially in key Midwestern states. For gay and lesbian voters the question is, How will this play out when it comes to GLBT equality?
Polls show that voters care far more about fighting terrorism and adding jobs to the economy than marriage rights (or the elimination of those rights) for gay men and lesbians. Still, Kerry and Edwards have the unenviable job of appealing to both gay rights supporters and Americans who are still trying to wrap their minds around civil unions. Both men will probably take gay and lesbian voters to the prom, but they will not go all the way.
"They're not going to fall on swords for us, but they'll help us when they can get away with it," says Hastings Wyman, the openly gay editor and publisher of Southern Political Report. "The important thing is that gay marriage is not a front-burner issue," even in the conservative South.
Both Kerry and Edwards have come out strongly against the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment, which the U.S. Senate could start debating by July 12. They both have rock-solid records on funding for HIV and AIDS, favor getting rid of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, and support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Edwards is a cosponsor of the legislation. However, neither supports full marriage equality, but both favor civil unions. Kerry is also on the record as saying that he would support a state constitutional amendment in Massachusetts defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman as long as the constitution also set up a parallel civil unions system for same-sex couples. Don't look for either candidate to use the word "marriage" when talking about gay unions during the campaign. That word continues to be loaded with religious significance and makes too many Americans squeamish. The candidates will instead use such phrases as "equality" and "human rights." They will talk about supporting the extension of benefits to all couples.
"We're never going to find a perfect candidate," says openly gay Washington, D.C., consultant David Mixner, a onetime adviser to Bill Clinton on gay issues. Mixner says GLBT voters should look for candidates who at a minimum support civil unions; ENDA; reversing "don't ask, don't tell"; hate-crimes legislation; and who go to bat for adequate domestic and international HIV/AIDS funding. "I actually think a big asset to the ticket is that John Edwards is not Dick Cheney--a man who told us a lot of nontruths in order to go to war," he said. "I think John Edwards is a young candidate with young children who represents the future of the party and of [the United States]."
As a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, Edwards reached out to gay and lesbian campaign contributors with mixed results during the Democratic primary campaign. Most dramatically, he was booed in 2003 at a fund-raising breakfast in Los Angeles sponsored by Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality (ANGLE), a nonpartisan group of politically active gay men and lesbians.
Speaking to the group months before the Massachusetts court decision that catapulted same-sex marriage into the headlines, Edwards expressed general support for equality. He indicated that he would "stand with" gay people in their fight for justice. During the question-and-answer period, however, the candidate declined to endorse publicly even one firm gay-equality position. He said repeatedly that he needed "to study" the issues before taking a position on matters such as civil unions and hinted that supporting gay and lesbian rights could be a handicap when he returned to his native South Carolina. The boos came when Edwards declined even to support domestic-partner benefits for federal workers, a realm where the executive branch could exert direct influence.
Recognizing his failure to get his message across to an important contingent of Los Angeles gay political leaders, Edwards returned weeks later for a private lunch with some of ANGLE's most influential members. While that lunch was closed to the press, some of those present indicated that Edwards again failed to take any firm stands for gay and lesbian equality.
In January on ABC's This Week news program, Edwards had the following exchange with host George Stephanopoulos:
Stephanopoulos: Let's talk about something else that came up last night, the Defense of Marriage Act. You said that John Kerry did the right thing in voting against it, so do you believe, say, that the state of South Carolina should have to recognize a civil union from Vermont?
You do not?
I do not.
Well, then, you support the Defense of Marriage Act, don't you?
No, no. This is what I--
That's what the Defense of Marriage Act says.
There are two parts of the Defense of Marriage Act. The part that I was referring to last night, or trying sometimes in an inarticulate way to refer to, was the provision that says the federal government will not recognize a gay marriage no matter what a state does.
For federal purposes. Social Security benefits, things like that.
For federal purposes. For benefit purposes. My view is that the states should be making the determination about what constitutes marriage, and it is not the federal government's job to impose its will on the states, which is what I see happening with that provision. That's what I was talking about.
So you believe that every state should make its own decision, but then, say, Vermont really isn't free to make that decision if that contract isn't then recognized like all other contracts.
But on the flip side of that it's a complicated question. The flip side is to say that the state of Massachusetts could recognize gay marriage and therefore impose that view on the rest of the country, by having people marry there and travel everywhere in the country. I think it's not an easy question, but I believe it is something each state should be allowed to say.
So, clearly, though, you are against gay marriage?
But every state should be able to make up its own mind?
On Tuesday national gay rights groups heaped nothing but praise on the North Carolina Democrat. "Senator Edwards is steadfast in his support of our community," said Human Rights Campaign president Cheryl Jacques. "From cosponsorship of key legislation to opposing anti-GLBT adoption policies, Senator Edwards has demonstrated leadership on our issues in Congress. And just like Senator Kerry, he is firmly and vocally opposed to the Federal Marriage Amendment. While we are disappointed that Senator Edwards does not stand with us on the issue of marriage, he opposes using the Constitution to discriminate."
National Stonewall Democrats executive director Dave Noble said, "The selection of Senator Edwards solidifies the most pro-gay, pro-family ticket in the history of presidential politics. Senator Edwards has loudly demonstrated his support for our community, and now our community is ready to stand with him. The Kerry-Edwards ticket greatly contrasts with a Republican ticket that insists on running a campaign that demeans our families and smears our community." Noble added that it is really George W. Bush who is going to be hurt by his call for a Federal Marriage Amendment, because he is overplaying his "traditional values" card.
In a statement, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said it had analyzed Edwards's positions on 13 key issues important to LGBT people and found that he was supportive in nine categories, that his positions were unclear in three others, and that he was not supportive of equal marriage rights. The analysis was based on voting records, public statements, and policy platforms. "In order for them to win the enthusiastic support of the gay community, a critical part of their base, they will have to take a strong and bold stand on supporting our civil rights," said the group's executive director, Matt Foreman.
Foreman added, "We call on Senator Edwards to use his strong Southern and populist roots and speak out against the ugly, divisive, and antigay campaigns being waged all across the country in the guise of 'protecting' marriage. We need him to call these tactics what they are--partisan, debasing, and profoundly un-American."
Jacques says the HRC will continue to remind the candidates that GLBT Americans deserve the same rights as their straight counterparts, including marriage. The difference between a Kerry-Edwards ticket and a Bush-Cheney ticket, she said, is that the former has "an open door and an open heart" to the issues, while "the current administration has slammed that door shut."