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Kerry's plan for
gay America

Kerry's plan for
gay America

Kerry

An estimated 4 million gay and lesbian voters could determine the outcome of perhaps the closest presidential race in U.S. history. In an exclusive interview, John Kerry makes his case for the gay vote

Down a hallway guarded by a handful of Secret Service agents, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry sits in a small conference room at a long table shuffling through paperwork. He has just finished rallying a room full of senior citizens in Des Moines, some of whom tell him their bank accounts are stretched so thin that they must choose between buying groceries or prescription drugs. Now the junior senator from Massachusetts sits across from the news features editor of The Advocate for an exclusive interview. He is well-versed in handling questions about gay Americans and the simple rights they desperately want but have been denied. "I have a 35-year lifetime record of fighting for equality," says Kerry, who is endorsed by such national gay advocacy groups as the Human Rights Campaign. "The difference between me and George Bush will be the difference to gay and lesbian couples and individuals across this country--whether rights are afforded them or whether or not they are discriminated against." Since 1992, every Democratic nominee for president has given The Advocate an interview, but Kerry is the only one with the mettle to do it this close to an election. Bill Clinton and Al Gore spoke with the magazine months before facing voters on Election Day. Kerry speaks to us in an issue that will reach readers mere days before November 2. Once again, Kerry will go on the record in support of gay equality. He doesn't have to do this. Frankly, a sizable number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans wouldn't mind if he kept a low profile on this divisive cultural issue, fearing that making it a focus in this election will energize thousands of otherwise nonvoting conservatives to head to the polls, costing Kerry the presidency. No politician--especially a presidential candidate visiting a critical swing state--should want to touch the topic of gay rights. The country is so divided at the moment, if a contender eats sweet corn the wrong way, he risks losing votes from Davenport to Cincinnati. "I think Kerry gets a bit of a bad rap here," former Vermont governor and Democratic primary candidate Howard Dean tells The Advocate. "I'd like to make a pitch to the gay community to vote for Kerry. When it counted, Kerry was with you. This does not have to be a 'lesser of two evils' election. John Kerry is not appealing to bigotry and homophobia." The 60-year-old Kerry has a Boston accent that seems more pronounced in person, and he does not come across as long-winded or pompous. He is direct and businesslike, and he understands the nuances of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, hate-crimes legislation, federal marriage rights, and why "don't ask, don't tell" doesn't work. He may not make small talk with reporters like former president Bill Clinton or Arizona senator John McCain, but the man has "presidential" down pat. Since his election to the Senate in 1984, Kerry has been an ardent gay rights supporter. One of the original cosponsors of legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, he has a nearly unblemished voting record on the issue. He has appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify in favor of revoking the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. In 1996 he was the only senator up for reelection--and one of only 14 total senators--to vote against the antigay Defense of Marriage Act. In a forceful essay that appeared in this magazine, Kerry described the marriage act this way: "Unconstitutional. Unnecessary. Premature. Presumptuous." He asked, "What is this debate really about? It seems no coincidence that every election year a few politicians gang together for some legislative gay bashing. This behavior panders to the basest instincts of the human condition--scapegoating and ostracizing." He will not budge from his long-stated belief that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman, but he is vehemently opposed to the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment. As the Bush campaign has gone out of its way to woo conservative Christians, the Kerry campaign has gone out of its way to reach GLBT voters. Even Teresa Heinz Kerry told an audience in February that she believes the country will eventually move toward acceptance of gay marriage. Courting GLBT voters is becoming increasingly important. According to a Gill Foundation study of the 2000 election, 92% of eligible, self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered voters were registered, and 52% said they vote in all elections. Voter exit polls from the 2000 race estimated that 4 million voters identified as gay or lesbian, and that George W. Bush received 1 million of those votes. "The gay, lesbian, and bisexual vote is sizable, bipartisan, and can be a swing vote in a close election," the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force concluded in one study. Kerry's main challenge will be in getting previously nonvoting gays to the polls. He must convince them that the next president is key to determining where GLBT Americans can get married, if they can adopt children, and what kinds of benefits, such as Social Security, they will or won't receive from the federal government. "I find it difficult [to believe] that any lesbian or gay citizen would fail to exercise their right to vote in this year. There's so much at stake," says James Hormel, the openly gay former ambassador to Luxembourg, appointed by the Clinton administration. "Just imagine what can happen to the federal judiciary in four years? That alone should scare anybody to the polls." Lesbian couple Bev Baccelli and Liz DiCarlo of Mattapoisett, Mass., know what is at stake in the 2004 election. They are spending two weeks of vacation time in Florida, starting in late October, to volunteer for the Kerry campaign. "[Kerry] is our senator, and I've not always agreed with the stands that he's taken," Baccelli says. "I currently don't agree with his stand on gay marriage. But I want us to have a president who can earn the respect of different kinds of people, not with just one group of people--that's what we have in George Bush." Baccelli and DiCarlo, both 55, were very active in their state in helping to ensure that legal marriage for same-sex couples became a reality. They were not pleased to hear Kerry say that he would support a state constitutional amendment in Massachusetts defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, even if he did stipulate that the amendment must also set up a parallel and equal civil unions system for same-sex couples. Other gay activists around the country were peeved at Kerry's running mate, North Carolina senator John Edwards, for saying that he had no objection to Missouri's overwhelming vote in August in favor of a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (Kerry later clarified the ticket's stance. He thought the Massachusetts and Missouri amendments were the same, and he added that he would not have supported the Missouri legislation because it did not allow for civil unions.) "My dilemma was the fact that when Bill Clinton ran for the first time, we were all excited to have a president of our generation, excited to have a candidate be inclusive," Baccelli says. "When he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, I felt a sense of betrayal. In some cases, I think that was a lesson for the gay community: There's a give-and-take in politics. I'm hoping that Kerry is more open to understanding the benefits of gay marriage once he becomes president." Meanwhile, some critics charge that Kerry has not energized a broad swath of GLBT voters to the degree that Bill Clinton did in the 1992 campaign or Howard Dean did during the most recent Democratic primary season. It's not necessarily Kerry's fault. It's all about being in the right place at the right time. Clinton had the advantage of being the first major-party candidate to ever utter a strong call for gay equality. Dean became a rock star after signing the country's first civil unions bill in 2000. Unlike Kerry, neither Clinton nor Dean was expected to clarify his views on--much less support--gay marriage. Even as recently as a year ago, it would have seemed incredible to most that gay men and lesbians would be legally married anywhere in the United States. "I frankly didn't know much about the gay community when I signed the bill," Dean says. "But because civil unions was the first of its kind in the country, I got invited to a huge amount of speaking to gay audiences and got to know large numbers of gay people. That really helped me communicate with LGBT audiences. I could make little jokes with LGBT audiences that I knew were going to resonate...little nuances where you let people know that you get it and that you're comfortable." Kerry's support, while steadfast, has been less dramatic, and he is running at a time when gay issues are more complex and gay voters are more demanding than ever. These days, a presidential candidate saying he is for equality in broad terms does not guarantee himself millions of gay votes. The candidate must demonstrate that he plans to treat gay Americans as first-class citizens. For Kerry to take the White House, he's going to have get the gay vote as well as the undecided vote in a dozen or more swing states. The 2004 election is likely going to come down to thousands of votes--literally scattered across swing-state counties--from voters who aren't heavily invested in either candidate and care only about the major issues. Gay equality is unimportant to such voters. "This is a campaign that is being run during a time of big national and international issues and consequences," says Amy Walter, political analyst for The Cook Political Report. The Washington, D.C.-based publication studies presidential, Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. "When you're talking about war, terrorism, [the] economy, and education, other issues [such as gay marriage] really do take a back burner." During the interview, Kerry diligently answers all the questions. When asked why gay voters should vote for him--especially given that he doesn't support gay marriage--he becomes more animated. There is such a stark contrast between him and Bush, especially on issues of civil rights, that the answers flow easily. Still, Kerry is not taking the GLBT vote for granted. He wants to remind gay Americans of his lengthy record in support of them. He wants them to know that they'll have a place at the table once he reaches the White House. "I would urge the [gay] community to not get into a place of rigidity and narrowness where they can't view the whole and what is at stake," he says. "I am for civil unions. Tell me what presidential candidate in the history of the nation has supported that? I'm for equality with respect to hate crimes and ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act]. Tell me what presidential candidate has supported those before?" Kerry is getting ready to fly to New Orleans for a campaign stop. The time allotted for the interview is over. He'll probably be raked over the coals by the Christian right for talking about issues close to GLBT Americans. But it's a risk he's willing to take to get gay and lesbian voters to the polls and on his side. At the moment, gay Americans are being used by the Republican Party to fire up their base and get votes. There is a definite climate of political gay bashing in this country. When you are president, how will this climate change? Well, I've always fought against [bashing gays for political gain]. I was the first sponsor back in 1985 of civil rights legislation. I voted against [the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act] precisely because it was gay bashing on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and I said so. I stood up and fought against that kind of exploitation. The president has an enormous bully-pulpit power to help Americans focus on things that are important and to put things in their proper perspective. As president I will never be exploiting the Constitution for political purposes. I'm not going to be driving a wedge between people. I'm going to be trying to pass ENDA. I'm going to be trying to pass hate-crimes legislation, and I'm for partnership rights and benefits and so forth. We're going to have a very different debate in this country. We're going to be having a debate about equality and fairness, a debate about what is right and how we respect each other. Why does such a large segment of Americans support the Federal Marriage Amendment? Because a majority of Americans believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It's very simple. That is the majority position of the country. That's why. Your daughter Vanessa wrote a great piece for a July issue of The Advocate in which she talks about supporting gay marriage. I'm not sure if you've had such a conversation with her, but how do you explain to her why you don't support gay marriage? If course we've had that conversation. She's a wonderful human being who I respect, and she has strong opinions. We just happen to differ in terms of our view of the historical, cultural institution of marriage itself. As I've said many times, it's historically been between a man and a woman. I'm for civil unions; I'm for full rights and benefits. I think you can find a way to respect what is essentially a difference over terminology and a view of an institution that has historically been regarded by many, many people for a lot of different reasons as a separate kind of institution. So my feeling is that what it's important to fight for are rights so that people aren't discriminated against. Not in terms of terminology, but in terms of their benefits. In terms of their ability to pass a house on to one another. In terms of their ability to visit a partner in the hospital. In terms of their ability to have Social Security benefits or trust funds or other things. Those are rights that make a difference. But how do gay couples get those rights when the federal government has its definition of marriage, which means that there are 1,138 rights that are not currently given to gay couples? I'm for the federal benefits because those are rights. Those are not defined by marriage; those are rights afforded by the government. In my judgment those rights should be afforded as a matter of right. So it's the word marriage that bothers you? To some people it's a term, but to other people it's an institution that has a separate place in their view of the world. You know, the state--the civil society--didn't adopt it. It didn't create it. It adopted the recognition of it. It seems to me we have the ability in America to recognize the rights afforded and at the same time respect that view that's been held for a long time that it's a separate kind of institution. I don't think there's a conflict there. Why should they vote for you, since you don't support gay marriage? Because I have a 35-year lifetime record of fighting for equality. Because the difference between me and George Bush will be the difference to gay and lesbian couples and individuals across this country--whether rights are afforded them or whether or not they are discriminated against. If they think that they want a Supreme Court with more justices like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, then they should stay home. But if they want a Court appointed by John Kerry that's going to fight for equality in America and a fair interpretation of the equal protection clause and due process, this is the most important election of our lifetime. I would urge the community to not get into a place of rigidity and narrowness where they can't view the whole and what is at stake. I am for civil unions. Tell me, what presidential candidate in the history of the nation has supported that? I'm for equality with respect to hate crimes and ENDA. Tell me, what presidential candidate has supported those before? I believe that this is important for the community like no other race historically, and the leaders of the community need to stand up and say, "Hey, folks, let's pass ENDA, let's pass hate-crimes legislation. Let's make sure that there's a Supreme Court that isn't going to take rights away that are critical to our ability to make progress." That, I think, is what is at stake in this race. Would you ever change your mind regarding same-sex marriage? I have my view, and my view is my view. I can't tell you in 20 years or whenever, if someone made a persuasive argument, the world changes. You know, George Bush just changed his mind on a national security director, and he changed his mind on raiding Social Security, and he changed his mind on homeland security. So I don't predict the future. What I tell you is that my position is what it is. When you are president, how do you deal with "don't ask, don't tell"? Do you get rid of it, and how is that accomplished? It's not working, and we have to find a way to have equality in participation in the military. I've committed to find a way to work through the issues. The first thing you do is sit down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and work through whatever their issues are. I think it's pretty clear to people that my record and my history is one that is working more genuinely to try and resolve that issue more than George Bush. What would you do with the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Is there any way to repeal that? It's the law of the land, and you're not going to repeal that with the current Congress. There aren't enough votes. You know, the states historically have had the right to make those decisions, and that is my view, that the law is with the states. What else do you want our readers to know about your candidacy? I think if you look at my record--and I want people to do that--my record of hiring, my record of being there as an advocate and a defender of rights within the community. If you look at my record of taking on rights when it wasn't popular, like standing up in an election year and saying that this is gay bashing on the floor of the Senate. Those are fights that cost me. I pay a price for that right now in this race because [my critics] don't explain the distinctions. They go out and advertise and use all kinds of undercurrent jabs at me to say that John Kerry doesn't share your values. Now, if people are going to make progress on issues like these, they'd better support people like me who've taken risks to stand up for what's right. And when I stood up on that floor of the U.S. Senate and said, "That's gay bashing, and I'm not going to be a part of it, and that's wrong," I hope people will stand up for me in this race and give me the opportunity to fight for things that are right. And it's important, because if people take a walk on those things, life's going to be worse, health care will be less available, opportunities for purchasing homes and sharing property and having visitation rights and doing things that are important will be less available. So if you want to improve the quality of life in America, vote for John Kerry and John Edwards. No one can afford to stay home.

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