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The other
presidential race

The other
presidential race


Chrissy Gephardt and Keith Boykin are running for president on Showtime's American Candidate. The prize? A prime-time chance to speak their minds

Chrissy Gephardt and Keith Boykin got along so smashingly at a recent press event in Los Angeles that it was easy to forget they are fierce competitors. The two out gay activists and eight other contestants are fighting for the grand prize of $200,000 and the unofficial title of "president" of the United States on Showtime's new reality series American Candidate. The winner also gets to address the country in a prime-time "acceptance" speech when the show concludes in October. American Candidate, which debuted August 1, is part civics lesson, part Survivor, as six men and four women with very different backgrounds face off against each other in a series of campaign challenges, such as producing their own television advertisement and organizing a rally. They are aided by real-life politicos, and at the end of each episode a contestant is voted "off the ballot." In the final two episodes viewers will choose the winner, a la American Idol. Props should go out to the cable channel for reserving spots in the cast for an openly gay man and a lesbian. Gephardt, 31, is a Washington, D.C., political consultant and daughter of U.S. House of Representatives minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Boykin, 38, is a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and current president of the newly formed gay rights group National Black Justice Coalition. Other cast members include an avid gun rights enthusiast living in Utah and a retired Air Force nurse from Missouri. Showtime has placed its bets on American Candidate because the American electorate is extremely polarized and attentive to anything political at the moment--even if it is a fictional reality show. Gephardt and Boykin both say they probably wouldn't run for the real presidency because candidates are placed in fishbowls and every detail of their lives are picked apart. However, the 2004 Bush-Kerry race is never far from their minds. Like most politically active gay men and lesbians, they are pained by the attempts by George W. Bush and the Republican Party to gay-bait voters. Meanwhile, they are not pleased that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry does not support marriage rights for same-sex couples. The Advocate sat down with Gephardt and Boykin to get a peek inside the show and their take on the real 2004 presidential race. [Note: As this issue went to press, Gephardt was eliminated in the first episode of Candidate. --Ed.] Why do you think Showtime was convinced that a reality show about politics would work? Isn't this the kind of topic that could easily get bogged down in Washington, D.C.-type speak? Gephardt: They put an entertainment factor in it--sort of like a Survivor-type elimination process, and it combines entertainment and politics. If it was just politics, it would be CNN or C-SPAN. They've made it interesting with character development, which makes for a good story. We're more than just candidates; they do a bio on us and talk about who we are as people. The audience becomes engaged by our life stories. What should viewers take away from this show? Boykin: I think we need to see more diversity in our government, and I think it's only going to happen with ordinary people who step up and start saying something and getting involved in politics. A lot of the time we look at politics and we look at the major party candidates and we get the impression that you have to be a rich straight white millionaire. Chrissy, I imagine in campaigning with your father in the past you've seen your fair share of real politics. How close is the show to that reality? Gephardt: Some of the events are similar to what a real campaign would go through. A lot of it isn't real just because of logistical reasons. And obviously the way candidates are eliminated is not real. It's impossible to have a re-creation of a real campaign, but the advice we got from the different strategists on message and how to run our campaigns was similar. Keith, how did working with Bill Clinton prepare you? Boykin: That experience was very helpful in terms of knowing what it takes to be a good president and knowing what issues are important to the American people and how to communicate the two. I think one of the things that I learned from politics is that you really have to open up your life and live in a fishbowl to be an elected official. It's always something I've been a little uncomfortable with. But I think the show will provide an opportunity to see what it's like to live in a fishbowl, because we have cameras following us around all the time. I have no idea what it's going to look like on TV. Each candidate gets to pick a platform. What are each of yours? Boykin: I focus on jobs, health care, education, home ownership--which may be really critical to building a stronger country. Those are issues that transcend identity. People need them whether they're straight or gay, black or white. I've tried to have a message that appeals to everyone, and I want to continue doing that in my campaign. Gephardt: My platform is investing in people by enriching our communities, investing in health care and education, and putting the priorities on people first in this country. For so long our priorities have been skewed to things that are not helping people. I think that's why people feel disenfranchised and why they don't feel like they have a part in politics. Do your platforms address gay issues? Boykin: My platform also includes support for LGBT issues, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, marriage equality, gays in the military, and hate-crimes protection. I want my campaign to show that gays and lesbians are not one-dimensional. I chose my life partner as my campaign manager so that everyone could see that we're a couple but also see that we're concerned about the same issues that concern other Americans. Gephardt: Equality is part of my platform--equality for all people, which encompasses more than just LGBT equality, but equality in terms of equal access to health care and education, equal opportunities for advancement in college and in careers. Will there ever be a woman or an African-American or a GLBT president in our lifetime? Gephardt: I think we'll see a woman president. We've seen a lot of women leaders in politics in the U.S. Senate. I think that people are more and more accepting of the role of women in positions of leadership, whether it be in the business world or the political. It's just a matter of time. Boykin: I think there are a lot of strong African-American candidates out there who could be president--look at people like Colin Powell. There are other stars, such as [Illinois U.S. Senate candidate] Barack Obama and [Tennessee Democratic congressman] Harold Ford Jr. There are a lot of people out there who have the potential to be able to unite the country and get active. I think we need to get more GLBT people to run for local, state, and other federal offices so we can build up a sense of possibilities for the presidency. Right now, even gay people can't conceive of a gay president. But if you have gay senators and gay governors and gay representatives, that perception will change. How important is the current real-life presidential race for GLBT voters? Gephardt: We must get our troops out and vote, and if we don't, then shame on us. If Bush is reelected, then our rights are on the line. That's why it's imperative that we go and vote. Boykin: After a while, activists start to sound like broken records, because we say that this is the most important election in our lifetime or in history. Truth is, it is, but so is every election. But this year we have a choice between two candidates who are completely different. One candidate wants to amend the Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The other candidate only wants to amend the [Massachusetts] state constitution [laughs]. If Bush is reelected, we can count on more gay wedge issues, emphasis on the constitutional amendment to ban marriage, and rhetoric about the "traditional" family. There will be more Supreme Court justices and federal judges who will roll the clock back on gay rights. Why does it seem that voters, particularly gay and lesbian youth, are so apathetic toward politics? Boykin: I think young people in general are not involved in politics because politicians aren't saying things that interest them. I used to teach political science at American University in Washington, and I'd always ask my students if they thought the issues politicians were raising affected them, and they almost unilaterally said no. That was even more true in the year 2000 when candidates were talking about Medicare and Social Security. Young people have enormous power in the process. It only takes a few percentage points to influence an election. In the last election, if 537 LGBT youths had voted for Al Gore [in Florida], that would have saved the entire outcome. Just think how much power people have if we use that power. But so many people have become disenfranchised. Gephardt: I feel that people see that a lot of politicians are controlled by special interest money, and they realize that no matter what they do, even if they vote, that there's a lot they can't control. I think it's that feeling of hopelessness. I think a large segment of the gay and lesbian population is fairly apathetic. But I think there's also a larger number that have been involved lately because of the whole gay marriage debate. I'm seeing more and more people becoming involved in the process because of that. But I think we still have a long way to go. Any thoughts on what it takes to get people to the polls?Gephardt: I think shows like this will help. I also think talking to gays and lesbians about why this election will personally impact their lives [is important]. One of the things that we often see--particularly in some of the political circles or some of the people I've interacted with--is that they say, "I'm fine; I don't see why this is such a big deal. I don't necessarily want to get married. Why does this impact me?" And my argument is, "You may be fine if you have enough money to hire a lawyer to make up a legal document so that you get all your partner's assets if he were to die. But think of all the people out there who don't have the money or means to do that." We should be fighting for those people in this country. We should be fighting for other gay and lesbian families who don't have the same access and privileges that we do. A lot of people don't think it will affect them, but we just have to show them real examples and real stories of people's lives in which they've been affected. I'm sure all of us can recount a story of a gay or lesbian family that wasn't able to adopt or whose children were taken away. Those are the stories we need to tell people. That is why you should care, and that is why you should vote. What are your thoughts on the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket not supporting full marriage rights for same-sex couples? Boykin: I was disappointed by Kerry's decision not to support marriage and more disappointed by his decision to support the constitutional amendment in Massachusetts against marriage. I thought that was a big mistake. I think it was an unnecessary gesture that had the potential to offend his base. I'm going to vote for John Kerry. There's no doubt about that. It's not like I have to agree with everything he does, but I think he needs to be challenged on the issue of gay marriage. I also think the gay community is wrong to try to sweep that under the rug and pretend like it's not hurtful to people. It is hurtful. And people in the LGBT communities want a person who can stand up for them. I think it's OK to say that and not feel like you're going to turn people to voting for George Bush or Ralph Nader. Both parties are trying to cater to the swing voters. They're not really talking to the people they could be talking to. People like myself don't feel like they're represented necessarily in most elections, because politics is catering to a small portion of the population. Gephardt: You know, I see why Kerry and Edwards have to take that position. I really do. Personally, I would be advocating for marriage because I think that's the right thing to do. We're not talking about religious marriage, we're talking about civil marriage. And we're not forcing churches to change--just asking the government to give us the same rights and benefits of everyone else in this country. Any reaction on the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment in the U.S. Senate? Gephardt: I think it shows that people are smart enough to realize that this is a political tactic to energize the Republican base. People realize two things: It's inherently wrong to write discrimination into our Constitution, and the Constitution should never be used to take away rights of one group of people. It should be used to give people rights, not take them away. I think the senators on both sides of the aisle realized that. They didn't fall for Bush's underhanded tactic of trying to energize his base. Why do marriage rights for gay men and lesbians drive conservatives crazy?Boykin: I think that columnist Andrew Sullivan has given the best explanation for this. Marriage and the military are two issues that really validate the GLBT community, because they make us just like everyone else. Those two issues really threaten the superiority or supremacy that straight people have toward gay people. You know, if I can get married like any other straight person can, then they can't look down on me. If there's no law that says that I'm a second-class citizen, then how do they justify their bigotry and their hatred? It seems like the Republicans tried to make marriage a wedge issue among African-American voters. Has that been successful? Boykin: It's a desperate strategy. Most African-Americans do not support same-sex marriage. But 91% of African-Americans voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush. And that was when everyone was saying that the candidates were so much alike. Since then Bush has become even more divisive. If you think that black voters are going to abandon the Democratic Party over the issue of marriage, then I've got some property in Manhattan that I'd like to sell you. What do you make of the phenomenon of gay Republicans?Boykin: I don't understand gay Republicans. But I definitely don't understand black gay Republicans. To me, it's like going to a church where they beat you up all the time. Maybe it's the S/M thing. I guess there are legitimate reasons as to why people would be Republican, but how could you sell your soul for a buck? How could you be part of a party that doesn't care about you? I don't mean all Republicans, but just a large number of them. Why do you think that they belong to the party? Boykin: I think it's mostly economic issues. I think they agree with the Democrats on most issues still. I just don't think they have been challenged about their "beliefs."

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