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Feingold comes
out for gay couples

Feingold comes
out for gay couples

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Wisconsin's Russ Feingold has joined the handful of U.S. senators who have expressed their unequivocal support for marriage equality. And he's a serious contender for the White House in 2008. The Advocate's Sean Kennedy talks to the Democratic firebrand

Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold expressed his unequivocal support for marriage equality in early April after being asked about it at one of the Democrat's regular listening sessions in his home state. Back in Washington on April 4, he released a statement arguing that the government should offer gay couples the same marriage rights as straight couples, but that churches and other religious institutions shouldn't be required to marry gays. A constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions is on the Wisconsin ballot this year, providing Feingold with a good opportunity to clarify his position. Feingold isn't the first U.S. senator to come out for full marriage equality--he joins Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Democrats Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon--but he is the first major contender for president to do so.

What exactly were you asked at that listening session in Wisconsin that prompted you to announce your support for same-sex marriage? A young man stood up and said, "Senator Feingold, my girlfriend and I are here and we both are advocates for the rights of gays and lesbians. We would like to know your position on gay marriage." That's what he said.

So, why do this now? I just never thought it was my role until now to weigh in on that. What I took my responsibility to be from the first day I became a state senator to right now is to oppose attempts to discriminate against gay people, and that's exactly what I've done. I was one of only 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, I opposed "don't ask, don't tell," I've been the most active member of the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing the [proposed federal] constitutional amendment. So I thought my role, instead of holding forth on my personal views, was to do my job, which is to stop these mean-spirited attempts to single out gays and lesbians in this way.

Including Wisconsin's proposed ban on same-sex marriage?My state now is considering a constitutional amendment that I will personally vote on about whether we want to enshrine in our constitution this form of discrimination. To me, that [listening session] was a moment to say, "Not only do I oppose this, but as a citizen of Wisconsin, I want you to know that I think this is completely inconsistent with our state's progressive tradition." The subject has been coming up in the last couple of years at my town meetings, and I have always looked at people and said, "You know, I think our society is better off if two people who love each other are together and are married." I've looked right at them and said it. So I just decided to take the next step, given what's going on in my state, and make it absolutely clear that I oppose this amendment, that this really is a civil rights issue to me.

As you point out, you have been an ally for gays and lesbians for some time now.Oh, yeah, very strong, very consistently, very proud--25 years of consistent record. It's one of the things I'm most proud of, because to me this is one of the real cutting-edge issues in our society: whether we're going to be kind and decent to each other and be a community, or whether we're going to try to divide ourselves. To me this is a real test for our society.

Do you think the proposed amendment in Wisconsin is just an effort to drive conservative voters to the polls, or is this how people there really feel?Well, I'm hopeful to defeat the amendment. I do think that some who support the amendment are sincere in their feelings about gay marriage. I think others are using it as a political tool to defeat our governor in part. That's pretty clear, in terms of the timing of it. Frankly, some on the Right in this country and elements of the Republican Party have ruthlessly exploited anxiety about gays and lesbians for political purposes, and I think that is absolutely wrong in America. It's one of the things that I most resent in American politics, and I'm going to fight it every step of the way.

Would you introduce legislation in the Senate legalizing same-sex marriage?I want to work with groups in the gay and lesbian community and find out what strategies they want to use. First and foremost is to defeat these referendums and to defeat the constitutional amendment in June [being brought to a vote by the Senate's Republican leadership]. Once that is done, I am eager to hear what people think we ought to do next. This is not something where I feel like I can just go off as a lone ranger. This is something that is of great concern to many gay and lesbian individuals, and I want to hear from them what they would like done. What I'm hearing right now is, "Let's make sure these constitutional amendments don't pass." But I do see this as becoming a civil rights issue over time, not just a states' rights issue.

Are you hopeful about the movement for marriage equality?Oh, yes, I believe this will be won, and I think it may be won as an issue earlier than people think. I don't think we should underestimate the difficulty of it, because it goes against some very traditional understandings in our culture, but I think it's the wave of the future. As people get to know gay and lesbian friends, it just becomes untenable to say that they cannot be married. It's like, how can you say that to a friend? To me it's just an outrage.

Speaking of gay and lesbian friends, do you have any?Many.

Have they personally asked you to fight for their rights?I was with a group at a dinner the other night who have been friends over the years, and I was so pleased to show up at this large event in Madison and turn to them and say, "Guess what I'm going to do." [Laughs] They're obviously very pleased that I've taken this step, but it was not at all because friends were pushing me. It was just really a matter of my own personal conscience that led me to do this. But I am pleased that they now know that there's no doubt in my mind that they should be able to have the same privileges that I do.

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