Taking Stock of This Gay Election

Clinton, Edwards, and Obama all reached out to the community in different ways, leaving gay activists to choose which candidate's approach will produce results for LGBT equality.

BY Kerry Eleveld

January 08 2008 12:00 AM ET

The primary
season has begun and, by my count, gay media got a total of
30 minutes of interview time with the top three Democratic
presidential candidates – that’s 15
minutes with Hillary Clinton, and 15 minutes with
Barack Obama. (The closest we got to John Edwards was an
email exchange with his wife. Truth be told, I was
grateful for the time she gave us given her health and
schedule demands).

The
aforementioned interviews were with The
Advocate
, and while I don’t mean to be
egocentric, after speaking with various gay
journalists/bloggers – including those from the
hometowns of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton – to my
knowledge, those treasured 30 minutes were the only
one-on-one interviews conducted by gay outlets with
the candidates.

The “glass
half empty” view is: Once again, the LGBT community
has been marginalized and relegated to minimal access.
And here’s the “glass half full”:
The two Democratic front-runners competed for our votes in a
way never before seen. Heck, all the Democratic
candidates made their pitch for our votes at the HRC
debate that, while not perfect, was certainly
historic.

Of course, the
interviews with Sens. Clinton and Obama came about in
different ways. The Clinton campaign agreed to schedule her
interview, which took place in person, last summer;
while the Obama campaign scheduled a
“phoner” with us on the heels of the Donnie
McClurkin setback he was grappling with in South
Carolina – when the gay community became
outraged that the lead singer for his statewide gospel tour
was essentially an anti-gay ex-gay.

But the different
reasons for these interviews, and even the fact that we
never managed to secure one with Edwards, don’t
necessarily prove that any of these candidates is more
pro-gay or sympathetic to our issues than any other
(though Sen. Clinton deserves credit for being the first to
give us time).

Instead, the
access they gave may more accurately reflect how familiar
the candidates were with our community and the limitations
of our press, how comfortable they were with the
uncharted territory of openly courting LGBT votes just
four years after gays became the pariah of politics, and
the choices they made to get their message out in a changing
media environment where blogs offer a somewhat
insurgent, under-the-radar way to reach activists
beyond appearing in a national gay publication.

Sen. Obama made a
telling comment at the very end of my interview
with him last October. Dismayed over the level of attention
the community gave to the McClurkin imbroglio, he
said, “It is interesting to me and obviously
speaks to the greater outreach that we have to do, that [my
record on LGBT issues] isn’t a greater source of
interest and pride on the part of the LGBT
community.”

He seemed
genuinely disheartened that people didn’t know more
about his stance for full repeal of the Defense of
Marriage Act (Edwards also supports full repeal, while
Clinton supports partial repeal), or the fact that he
sponsored a gay nondiscrimination bill in the Illinois state
legislature, or that he regularly addresses AIDS and
homophobia in black and religious venues that are not
particularly gay friendly.

When he spoke
about HIV/AIDS to evangelical leader Rick Warren’s
congregation at Saddleback Church in California, Obama said,
“Like no other illness, AIDS tests our ability
to put ourselves in someone else's shoes – to
empathize with the plight of our fellow man. While most
would agree that the AIDS orphan or the transfusion
victim or the wronged wife contracted the disease
through no fault of their own, it has too often been
easy for some to point to the unfaithful husband or the
promiscuous youth or the gay man and say ‘This
is your fault. You have sinned.’ I don't think
that's a satisfactory response. My faith reminds me that we
all are sinners.”

This is perfectly
consistent with his message of bridging communities gay
and straight, red and blue, black and white. But a big part
of why many gays and lesbians don’t know
Obama’s record here is because it wasn’t
readily available. It required digging and a beat reporter
covering his campaign at the national level –
resources that are the province of mainstream
magazines and big-city dailies. This is where a publication
like The Advocate, viewed by many as
essentially mainstream media, doesn’t actually have
the same reporting capacity as those other outlets.
Instead, the LGBT community and gay journalists were
left to put together information piecemeal from
sightings by bloggers at campaign events and the slow
trickle of gay mentions that flow from the straight
press.

The need to
prevent this information vacuum is something the Hillary
Clinton campaign seemed to understand from the start. The
Clintons have worked with the gay community and
courted its press and voters since Bill’s
’92 campaign, where they successfully reaped the
benefits of seeking the gay vote without suffering any
real drawbacks (at least until Bill got into office
and tripped over his pledge to lift the ban on gays in
the military). Perhaps prior experience made
Hillary’s campaign more comfortable with their
ability to control messaging and how a cover story on
her in a national gay publication would play.

Meanwhile, the
Obama and Edwards’s campaigns seemed more comfortable
working the fringes of blogs and local LGBT pubs.

“One thing
I will say for Edwards is that he’s been very
proactive in working with bloggers, gay bloggers, in
terms of outreach,” says Pam Spaulding, the
blogger who created Pam’s House Blend.
“His campaign contacted me early on with all of his
complete responses to the HRC questionnaire and wanted
that spread around. He obviously didn’t feel
like he had anything to hide, even though he said he
was not prepared to endorse full marriage equality. I think
that that level of commitment to open communication
has worked well for him.”

Spaulding, who is
based in North Carolina, Edwards’s home state, says
the Clinton campaign’s outreach to her has been
“hit and miss,” while she’s had
very little contact with the Obama folks.

Spaulding credits
Edwards’s blog outreach to a greater comfort level
for some candidates with what she calls a
“glass ceiling” on how far blog news
travels.

“If you do
an interview with a blogger, it’s not going to go
anywhere, by and large, unless it’s one of the
big ones,” she says. “There’s a
legitimacy that we don’t have, and everything that
gets said in print – in The Advocate or
Time magazine – it’s going to get
spread wide; it’s going to get picked up by the
cable networks, it’s going to become a story if
they do an offhand quote that could be interpreted as a
weakness or a weak point. So I think they’re
very cautious, particularly with LGBT issues and
speaking with the LGBT media.”

Time is also
precious for candidates leading the pack, and doing
interviews at the local level becomes a near impossibility.
But history is one of the best gauges of how a
candidate will behave when he or she becomes
president, and it’s worth noting that Obama was very
accessible to the LGBT press during his eight years in
the Illinois state legislature.

“He always
was open, certainly with our newspaper,” says Gary
Barlow, editor of one of Chicago’s gay
weeklies, the Chicago Free Press. “He
didn’t avoid phone calls and stuff like that.
We talked on occasion. When we called, he responded. I
think that says something about a person.” Barlow
adds that Obama's campaign has paid close attention to
the newspaper and been communicative throughout the
race.

Though the
Illinois Human Rights Act did not pass until 2005, when
Obama had already graduated to the U.S. Senate, he did
sponsor a bill to outlaw workplace discrimination that
included both sexual orientation and gender identity
while he was still a state senator. Barlow says Obama also
lobbied other legislators to vote for the pro-gay bills
being considered. “When we’re talking
about an African-American legislator in the state
legislature, to have someone of his stature lobbying his
peers was important,” says Barlow.

As a U.S.
Senator, Clinton wasn’t quite as accessible to the
local gay press, but she did do outreach with the LGBT
community by speaking at events like an HIV/AIDS
fundraiser for Gay Men’s Health Crisis and
meeting with a group of about 45 LGBT leaders in October of
2006.

Clinton, true to
her reputation, is extremely pragmatic if not cautious.
On DOMA, for instance, instead of advocating for full repeal
like Obama and Edwards, she staked out a position of
partial repeal when answering the Human Rights
Campaign candidate questionnaire last year. Clinton
would leave in place the section of DOMA that allows states
to self-determine the question of marriage without
being obligated to recognize the marriage laws of
other states. She would, however, reverse the section
that does not allow the federal government to recognize
state-sanctioned gay marriages. This goes part of the way to
satisfying gay activists while not leaving her belly
up to Republican attacks in a general election that
she wants to force other states to embrace the
marriage laws of a state like Massachusetts.

While that type
of calculation angers gay activists, it can also produce
results. HRC president Joe Solmonese credits a phone call
Hillary Clinton placed to him before the second
Federal Marriage Amendment vote in 2006 with
potentially helping to shelve the FMA for the foreseeable
future.

Before the vote,
Clinton suggested to Solmonese that HRC conduct
nationwide polling about the issue, which ultimately showed
that although support for marriage equality had risen
about 13 points since 2004, voters of every stripe
were "enraged" that Congress was debating the issue
rather than the Iraq war and gas prices.

Based on that
data, HRC advised Democratic congressional leaders to
direct their floor debates at the GOP’s focus on
marriage to the exclusion of more pressing issues. By
the time the vote was taken, two Republican senators
switched their stances from 2004 and voted against the
amendment. Losing those votes shifted the momentum of the
FMA, making it less likely to be resurrected any time
in the near future.

“She’s a real strategist,” Solmonese
told me during a 2006 interview. Of course, that is
one of the biggest criticisms levied against Clinton
– that she’s too focused on polling and
perhaps not guided enough by her heart. LGBT people
relentlessly question whether Hillary would abandon
gays and lesbians the way Bill did as president when he
signed DOMA into law and agreed to the
military’s “don’t ask, don’t
tell” policy as a compromise.

But Sen.
Clinton’s prudence – or what some deem as
cunning – may be the very thing that keeps her
from running a replay of her husband’s missteps
on gay issues. Bill is the great “feel-good”
politician, which is exactly how he got into what
became the “don’t ask, don’t
tell” debacle of his presidency. Campaigning at
a gay fund-raiser in 1992, he reportedly pledged to
lift the ban on gays serving in the military.

Hillary Clinton,
by virtue of who she’s not, is the least likely of
politicians to take a position on something that isn't
thoroughly vetted. In contrast to her more free-flowing
husband, she approaches every policy decision and
political stance with great care. People may not like
her maneuvering, but she has little chance of making
promises she can’t deliver on – to gays and
lesbians or anybody else.

As Susan Webster,
an LGBT Clinton supporter in Iowa, said prior to the
caucus, “Hillary gets criticized for being
calculating and cold and then she gets called a
politician … I want someone who is very thoughtful,
very calculated, very strategic, and a politician.
It’s a political job – the last guy we
elected sounded like he was fun to have a beer with, and
look where we are.”

Ironically,
Obama’s biggest liability in the eyes of many in the
community – his faith and whether his religious views
might weaken his support for gay issues – also
appears to be a strength. Few people are better
positioned to confront homophobia in the church and in black
communities. The McClurkin incident was clearly a low point
for Obama with the community, but he does have a
history of speaking truth to power and, in that sense,
exhibits the trademarks of the uniter he claims to be.

As he told The
Advocate
while trying to douse the McClurkin fire:
“Part of the reason that we have had a faith outreach
in our campaign 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.”

John Edwards, for
his part, has been quite candid about his
“journey” with understanding gay issues,
saying all along that same-sex marriage “is the
single hardest social issue for me personally”
because of his religious background – a
sentiment that much of straight America shares,
whether we like it or not. While Spaulding questions whether
Edwards is using religion as a “fig
leaf” for what may be a more politically
motivated stance, “at least he’s been honest
about his limitations [on marriage] publicly,”
she says.

He has also
logged some firsts on the campaign trail: he was the first
candidate to release a list of gay supporters, the first to
really trumpet his support for a bill to repeal
“don’t ask, don’t tell,”
(though Clinton went on record for repeal as early as 1999),
and the first to have a spouse – and a
daughter, for that matter – publicly endorse
gay marriage. Say what you will about Elizabeth serving as a
surrogate for John on the issue of marriage, she may have
done more to raise the profile of marriage equality in
mainstream America through his candidacy than any
other campaign.

The question for
LGBT voters seems not to be which of these candidates is
more supportive of gay issues – they have all
conducted more LGBT outreach than previous politicians
in their shoes. It’s more a matter of which
candidate one believes will achieve the best results
– the strategist, the bridge-builder, or the
journeyer.

Tags: Politics

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