Pro-peace, pro-health care, pro-gay

Howard Dean is catching the country’s attention by being everything he says President Bush is not

BY Chris Bull

March 17 2003 12:00 AM ET

No one is saying churches should be forced to hold
marriage ceremonies. The argument is that the
state should recognize gay people’s
marriages, wherever they take place.

Well, when same-sex marriages take place in
Vermont, legally it’s called a civil union,
because the definition of marriage is between a man and a
woman.

You’ve created a circular argument. Why should
separate but equal be acceptable?
There are people in the gay community who think
that’s second-class citizenship. I don’t
agree, because in fact there is every right in a civil
union there is in a marriage. It is true that it’s a
separate institution, but it is still equal.

Why not just go all the way? Why not just support
same-sex marriage and the reform of marriage laws?
Well, because it wouldn’t be possible. Politics
is the art of the possible.

I still don’t understand why you don’t
support marriage rights for gay people. Do you
have a religious objection?
No, I don’t. I just feel that we dealt with the
question of equal rights under the law. I’ve
had this same argument many times. My argument is that
the state’s obligation is to make sure that everyone
is equal under the law.

If elected, what would you do about the Defense of
Marriage Act?
I believe it is unconstitutional. Congress can’t
override the reciprocity clause of the Constitution.
What I would probably do is wait for the appropriate
legal challenge.

But if the courts don’t overturn DOMA, you would
have to take the case back to Congress.

I wouldn’t be scared to make that
argument, though I don’t know how successful
I’d be. It’s the same problem as with
“don’t ask, don’t tell.”
People who serve their country should be proud of who they
are. I think President Bush has hurt the war against
terrorism by firing six Arab-language translators
because they happen to be gay. It’s
exceptionally foolish, and it hurts our ability to defend
our country. I would have to negotiate with Congress
to get rid of the policy.

President Clinton offered more than he was able to
deliver on the military ban. How would you deliver
on that promise? Why would you be more effective
than other Democrats?

I appreciate the sentiments of all the other
candidates, but I’m the only one who has
actually done anything like that. I’m the only one
who’s ever had to take the heat. I’m the
only one who has signed a civil union law.

Clinton ran into problems with the Pentagon and the joint
chiefs of staff. As governor of Arkansas, he was
seen as an outsider by the military. Why would you
fare any better?
President Clinton jumped into the issue too quickly. My
first priority would be balancing the budget and
making sure everyone has health insurance. Then
I’d deal with the military by talking to the joint
chiefs first. But the real issue is Congress. I’d
make the arguments that there are many gay people in
the military and they are doing a great job and the
military in many cases knows they are there. If you are
willing to get shot for your country, you ought to be
able to say who you are.

No presidential candidate in history has spent so much
time campaigning in the gay community. Is there a
political advantage to it?

The gay and lesbian community has been very
willing to raise money for me because they know what
I’ve done. Like every community, they have been
promised many things but have not seen them delivered.
I’ve delivered ahead of time. They know I will
pay a political price for them, and they know
I’m out there talking about an issue that other
people are reluctant to talk about.

Does it have the political clout to put you over the top?
If the gay community is united, it’s very
powerful. I expect to get the lion’s share of
support. I’m not aware of who is supporting Edwards
or Kerry, for that matter. I know that David Mixner signed
up for Gephardt because he has a long-standing
friendship. These are good people, but I don’t
think they can make much of an argument. I remember
one of the candidates—I won’t say who, except
it wasn’t Gephardt—who came to Stonewall
Democrats and never mentioned the word “gay”
or “lesbian.”

As a relative unknown on the national level, are you electable?
I don’t think we can beat George Bush with
someone from inside Washington. There is too much
shading of positions to follow the polls.
That’s not going to win this time around.

In his State of the Union address, the president outlined
a global AIDS initiative that would include $15
billion in new funds over a five-year period. As
both a medical doctor and a presidential candidate,
what do you think of the proposal?

I thought it was a disgrace. Not three weeks
before what he said in the State of the Union, the
U.S. delegation to the population control delegation
in Bangkok tried to get condoms taken out of international
family planning. This is a president with no commitment to
HIV or AIDS. If you can’t discuss condoms and
you take them off the Web site of the [Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention], you are part of the
problem. The speech was hypocritical, cynical, and
despicable.

What would you do differently?
The first thing I would do is fund nongovernmental
organizations, which do a much better job than
governments. I would enhance public outreach efforts
dramatically in hot spots, which are mostly in Africa
and Asia and a growing problem in Eastern Europe. I would
also make drug therapies available, though you have to
be careful when you go down that road because
it’s not prevention. Prevention is clearly the area
where we should be putting our money.

Even though HIV infection rates are increasing among some
groups of gay men, Bush has pushed a prevention
message based almost entirely on abstinence until
marriage, a message that does not apply to gay people,
especially since we can’t legally marry.
That’s the most preposterous HIV program
I’ve ever heard of. We need to reach gay men
through groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis,
stressing condom use, stressing the dangers of HIV and
AIDS. We need to start over again with young gay men.
For some reason, because of the development of
triple-drug therapies, HIV doesn’t seem like such a
big deal any more. We need to send people who are on
the therapies into the community and tell these young
men what it’s really like.

Let’s say you were still a practicing physician. A
gay man reveals to you that he’s not always
practicing safe sex. What would you tell him?
I would tell him he’s endangering many
people’s lives and what he’s doing is
immoral.

You would put it in moral rather than medical terms?
Yes. It is immoral. If you refuse to practice
safe sex and you are HIV-positive, you’re
basically sentencing other people to a lifetime of
hell. That’s not right. Of course, I’d also
put it in health terms, which comes first, and then
talk about people’s responsibility to each other.

Bush has put a number of religious conservatives on his
council on HIV/AIDS, one of whom had to withdraw
his nomination to the council when his antigay
past was revealed. Do they have a stranglehold over the
Administration’s AIDS policy?

I think so. This is the most conservative and
ideological president I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Both in domestic and foreign policy, he’s
substituted ideology for thoughtful policy. This is a
reckless president. People who believe that
homosexuality is something that must be punished by
God have no business in HIV/AIDS. Only people who understand
GLBT issues with a deep commitment to humane values
should play a role in AIDS prevention.

As a medical doctor, what do you think of sexual
orientation “conversion” therapy?

It has no basis in science. When all the
evidence is in, it will be shown that being gay has a
significant genetic component. The idea that you can
change sexual orientation is laughable. It just goes to show
the ignorance of the right wing.

There were dozens of openly gay appointees in the Clinton
administration, and while the number is far smaller,
Bush also has made such appointments. But no
openly gay person has ever reached a cabinet-level
post. Is that something you would consider?

I’d certainly consider it, but I’m
not going to make any promises.

You’ve talked about how much you learned from
African-American roommates when you were in
college. Do you have an equivalent person from the
gay community?
No. The interesting thing is that I didn’t have
much of an understanding of the gay community until
after I signed the civil unions bill. Back when I was
in medical school in the 1970s, there was someone who
told me he was gay, and the hair stood up on the back of my
neck. I was as ignorant as everyone else. We had a gay
liaison in the governor’s office, of course,
and we had discussions with the community. But it was
never a community I got to know really well until the bill
came along. And then I became more and more determined
to get the civil union bill done, the more vicious the
reaction became. The average Vermonter was just
horrified by the vituperative outpouring of hatred. A lot of
people said, “My God, I had no idea that gay
people had to face this kind of stuff. I guess I
better vote for it.”

What do you mean by the hair standing up on the back of
your neck? Was there a time when you were insensitive?
Oh, sure. I was just as foolish about people who were
gay as a lot of people are. Back in high school in the
’60s, I used epithets. Back then no one would
consider saying they were gay. Today, gay students come out
in high school.

What have you learned about gays?
It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I got to
know couples who were really committed to each other.
As I became more familiar, I realized the GLBT
community is like every other one. The only thing
different is sexual orientation. They just wanted better
health care, better job opportunities. They are
worried about the economy; they are worried about
their own families and their kids. Once I realized this, I
was determined to get the bill through.

On a personal note, how would you react if one of your
kids came out?

It wouldn’t bother me a bit. I would say,
“Be who you are” and “Live how
you were brought up.” Through the civil union bill, I
got to know a lot of parents of gays. They were
effective when they went to the legislature and
explained their experience of having gay kids. After parents
get over their initial shock, they almost always say,
“I love my gay children just as much as, if not
more than, I ever did.” That’s how I would
feel.

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