When the Obama campaign announced that Donnie McClurkin would be among the featured singers on the presidential candidate's gospel tour in South Carolina this weekend, it inadvertently ventured into the void between African-American Christians and gays and lesbians.
McClurkin, an award-winning gospel singer who has also struggled with his sexuality for years, is a one-man personification of the craggy crossroads between black gays and Christians. The fact that he has called homosexuality a “curse” that runs against “the intention of God” rips open the wounds of so many gay African-Americans who have been “prayed over” for years by family and friends who endeavor to save them from their “shameful” fate.
As Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign put it once the din to pull the controversial singer had reached a fever pitch midweek, “There is no gospel in Donnie McClurkin’s message for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and their allies.” There appeared to be two choices for Obama’s campaign: Keep McClurkin on the tour and disregard the cash-laden gay constituency that has bundled money with the best of ’em for Obama or ditch McClurkin at the expense of sacrificing a precious bloc of votes from South Carolina’s black religious community.
But rather than oust McClurkin, the campaign found a third way, officially adding gay minister Andy Sidden to the tour on Wednesday.
The gospel tour is an apparent attempt to up Obama’s numbers among a crucial segment of black constituents that made up 47% of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters in 2004 and among whom Obama and Hillary Clinton are running neck and neck in recent polls.
The inclusion of McClurkin brings two things into relief at this critical juncture in the Obama campaign when he needs to translate his substantial fund-raising sums into votes.
For LGBT people, it prompts the question, Weren’t Obama and, by extension, the people who run his campaign versed enough in the pain of the people he calls his “gay brothers and sisters” to see the McClurkin land mine before they rolled over it?
And can Obama really, as he claims, create the “big tent” movement he’s been selling, where voters who vehemently disagree on something as fundamental as what constitutes love put aside their differences to rally around a single candidate?
The Advocate: How did this happen? Was Mr. McClurkin vetted?
Senator Obama: Obviously, not vetted to the extent that people were aware of his attitudes with respect to gay and lesbians, LGBT issues -- at least not vetted as well as I would have liked to see.
Having said that, we viewed this simply as an opportunity to have a gospel concert as part of our overall outreach, and since he was singing at a concert along with a number of other artists, as opposed to being a spokesperson for us, probably it didn’t undergo the same kind of vet that someone who was serving as a surrogate for me might have.
Some black gay activists I’ve spoken to say this doesn’t make them question Obama the senator, but it does make them question the campaign -- do they really understand the nuances of these issues, are they really sitting down and talking with gay folks, because it seems like this decision came purely through the lens of faith?
Look, these kinds of issues are going to crop up inevitably through the course of campaigns. It’s important to recognize that these are issues that every Democratic candidate who has African-American ministers as supporters may have to confront. It just so happened that it popped up on the screen in this particular instance. But I assure you, I am not the only candidate who’s got a black minister or a white minister who’s supporting them prominently who subscribes to similar views.
Part of the reason that we have had a faith outreach in our campaigns is precisely because I don’t think the LGBT community or the Democratic Party is served by being hermetically sealed from the faith community and not in dialogue with a substantial portion of the electorate, even though we may disagree with them.
Part of what I have done in my campaign and in my career is be willing to go to churches and talk to ministers and tell them exactly what I think. And go straight at some of these issues of homophobia that exist in the church in a way that no other candidate has done. I believe that’s important. We can try to pretend these issues don’t exist and then be surprised when a gay marriage amendment pops up and is surprisingly successful in a state. I think the better strategy is to take it head on and we’ve got to show up. These people of faith may be operating in part out of unfamiliarity, or they may be insular in terms of how they’re viewing LGBT issues, they may not understand how what they say may be hurtful, and the only way for us to be able to communicate that is to show up.
I know you’re in a difficult position here trying to balance these two constituencies -- but by keeping McClurkin on the tour, didn't you essentially choose your Christian constituency over your gay constituency?
No, I profoundly disagree with that. This is not a situation where I have backed off my positions one iota. You’re talking to somebody who talked about gay Americans in his convention speech in 2004, who talked about them in his announcement speech for the president of the United States, who talks about gay Americans almost constantly in his stump speeches. If there’s somebody out there who’s been more consistent in including LGBT Americans in his or her vision of what America should be, then I would be interested in knowing who that person is.
One of the things that always comes up in presidential campaigns is, if you’ve got multiple supporters all over the place, should the candidate then be held responsible for the every single view of every one of his supporters? And obviously that’s not possible. And if I start playing that game, then it will be very difficult for me to do what I think I can do best, which is bring the country together.
Look, when I went to Rick Warren’s church at Saddleback, he was under enormous heat because, among his constituency, my position on LGBT issues and my position on abortion is anathema. So his position could have been, we will not have Obama speak because he does not subscribe to our views on these two issues. To his credit, he allowed me to speak, in his church, from his pulpit, to 2,000 evangelicals. And I didn’t trim my remarks, I specifically told them, “I think you guys are wrong when it comes to issues like condom distribution.” And by the way, I got a standing ovation.
My views on gay issues and on choice issues are well-known. I did not trim my sails in the conversation I had with them. And I think as a consequence of appearances like that, I am helping to encourage understanding that will ultimately strengthen the cause of LGBT rights.
At some point, if we are going to have a conversation on these issues, what I expect to be judged by in the LGBT community is, have I been a strong advocate, have I been a forceful advocate, have I avoided these issues in any way. And If I have not, then that’s how I expect to be judged.
Does this tour mark a turning point in the campaign where you’re more focused on wooing voters than fund-raising?
I recognize why this has attracted attention in the LGBT community, [but] in terms of our overall campaign strategy, it’s just one among multiple things that we’ve been doing in South Carolina. People in South Carolina listen to gospel music, so we have organized some gospel concerts. Black folks in South Carolina frequent barbershops and beauty shops, so we’ve had a barbershop–beauty shop strategy. And by the way, I can’t vouch for the opinions of every barbershop and beauty shop owner in South Carolina. But that is where people go, and so we’ve organized a particular way of reaching out to African-American voters in the barbershops and beauty shops. So this is just part of an ongoing strategy with multiple parts.
You have intimated that Senator Clinton is perhaps declaring victory too soon. Looking at the polling, things don't look good for you in New Hampshire, Iowa's iffy, South Carolina doesn’t look great... If you don't win one of those three states, where does your campaign go from there?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with the characterization -- we are basically tied in Iowa, we’re down in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina it’s highly competitive. We have always known that in order to do well we’ve got to do well in the early states, and we expect to do well in the early states because that’s where we’re focusing our attention. We never expected to be able to compete in national polls two months before the first vote was cast because we’re running against the dominant brand name in the Democratic Party over the last 20 years.
But for your audience, your readership, the one thing that I do want to make sure is included in this article is that on issues from “don’t ask, don’t tell” to DOMA to the gay marriage amendment to the human rights ordinance in Illinois that is the equivalent of what we’ve been attempting to do at the federal level and that I was a chief cosponsor of and then passed -- there has not been a stronger and more consistent advocate on LGBT issues than I have been.
And it is interesting to me and obviously speaks to the greater outreach that we have to do that that isn’t a greater source of interest and pride on the part of the LGBT community. (Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate)