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The historic Visible Vote 2008 Presidential Forum hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and MTV's Logo cable channel Thursday night in Los Angeles and broadcast live to as many as 27 million households left unanswered one nagging question: Who among the three major Democratic candidates--Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama--is going to step up to the plate and show some real leadership on LGBT issues?
Clinton, Obama, and Edwards cruised into the night, a one-by-one showcase of the Democratic presidential field on LGBT issues, in agreement on points like the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," preferring civil unions to same-sex marriage, and supporting legislation to end discrimination against gays and lesbians on the job. But none of them managed to distinguish themselves, recycling the same sound bites they always use when asked about gay rights.
They stood in sharp contrast to long-shot candidates Dennis Kucinich, a current House member, and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, who were so visibly at ease in unequivocally supporting marriage equality, it sparked amazement from forum moderator Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News, a longtime fixture in Washington political journalism. "Congressman, you're so evolved for a member of Congress," Carlson said to Kucinich at one point. "How did you get there?"
Carlson moderated a panel composed of HRC president Joe Solmonese, Washington Post editorial page writer Jonathan Capehart, and musician Melissa Etheridge, who asked their own questions of the candidates in 15-minute sessions. Carlson chimed in with her own, along with a few viewer-submitted ones. The event transpired live from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. Pacific time, followed by fund-raisers and after-parties at various West Hollywood bars and clubs.
The candidates appeared in the order that they accepted HRC and Logo's invitation to participate. Senator Obama went first and started out by emphasizing the fact that he was the first candidate to say yes to the event. He has been particularly tricky to nail down on LGBT issues given his limited voting record on the subject, but among the big three, he may have helped himself the most among the gay electorate.
Recalling his famous "red state/blue state" speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama reminded the studio audience and television viewers that he often talks about gays and lesbians in arenas that aren't necessarily gay-friendly. But he, like Clinton and Edwards in their own appearances later, reiterated his frustrating support for civil unions and not marriage equality.
However, he assured the panel that even though he wouldn't call gay unions "marriages," he does believe in full rights for gay couples. The title of marriage, he said, should be left up to religious organizations and states to decide.
"[Civil unions] wouldn't be a lesser thing, from my perspective," Obama said. "Semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested in is making sure that those legal rights are available to people."
To his credit, the senator did introduce a concept that may have been revelatory to many an American: that gay relationships have no impact whatsoever on heterosexuals.
At a meeting of black ministers that former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford assembled in that state earlier this year, Obama recalled, "I specifically pointed out that if there's any pastor here who can point out a marriage that has been broken up as a consequence of seeing two men or two women holding hands, then you should tell me, because I haven't seen any evidence of it."
Asked about homophobia in black churches in general--perhaps in a nod to skeptics who doubted issues pertaining to gay people of color would be raised at the forum--Obama said it was a "political football" and that it should be stopped.
In the hot seat next was former senator John Edwards, who notably retracted his standard position that he opposes same-sex marriage because of his "faith beliefs."
"Well, you know, I have to tell you, I shouldn't have said that," he said, to the audience's applause. "First of all, I believe, to my core, in equality. My campaign for the presidency is about equality across the board."
But ultimately he stopped short of truly recasting his view on marriage equality, saying that he still supported civil unions. "I think you deserve to know the truth, and the truth is that my position on same-sex marriage has not changed," said Edwards. "I think we're past the time of political doublespeak about this," he added, even though it appeared to be the language he was speaking in at that very moment. If he's decided that same-sex marriage is no longer in conflict with his religious beliefs, then why does he still not support it?
Where Edwards showed resolve, perhaps surprisingly, was on using presidential power to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
"Oh, I think the president of the United States can get rid of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" he said in response to a question from moderator Carlson about whether a president could banish the policy with an executive order. "It is the job of the president of the United States to make this policy decision. And I can tell you I am firmly committed to eliminating" it.
Although Edwards spent time talking about how it's "so important" for anyone who seeks to be the leader of the United States of America "to stand up strong and firm" and "speak out strongly for equality," none of the questioners asked him about the fact that he was absent for the first Federal Marriage Amendment vote in 2004. It would have been interesting to know how his inability to vote "no" on that measure squared with his ostensible support for equality.
One of the most poignant moments of the evening was during Senator Clinton's session before the panel, when Etheridge harkened back to the optimism many gay and lesbian Americans felt at the time of President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. "For the first time, we were being recognized as American citizens," said Etheridge. "It was wonderful. We were very, very hopeful." But, she added, "in the years that followed, our hearts were broken. We were thrown under the bus. We were pushed aside. All those great promises that were made to us were broken." She didn't have to say it explicitly, but everyone knew she was referring to "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, both of which Clinton signed into law. "What are you going to do to be different than that?"
Senator Clinton responded by politely saying that she had a different perspective on the situation, reasserting her belief that "don't ask" was a step forward in the context of the time period and that DOMA became a strategic necessity in order to defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment in this decade.
When questioned by Solmonese about her opposition to same-sex marriage, Clinton quipped, "Well, Joe, I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions." The remark lightened the mood of a room that was clearly hoping to hear more. Overall, Clinton missed an opportunity to say anything fresh, which amounted to one of her weaker performances at a debate or forum to date.
The senator was the last candidate to speak for the evening, but she was preceded by New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a former cabinet secretary in President Clinton's administration. His was arguably the worst showing of the evening, as he seemed to get confused when asked by Etheridge whether homosexuality was a matter of choice or biology.
"It's a choice," he said emphatically, but then was interrupted by a clearly dismayed Etheridge. "I don't know if you understand the question," she said, and reframed it. "Well, I'm not a scientist," Richardson said. "I don't see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency." He then went on to note some of his pro-gay accomplishments as governor, such as blocking a DOMA from being enacted, passing a statewide hate-crimes law, and appointing openly gay cabinet members.
But the damage was clearly done, and the Richardson campaign immediately sent out a press release. "Let me be clear--I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice," Richardson said in the statement. "But I'm not a scientist, and the point I was trying to make is that no matter how it happens, we are all equal and should be treated that way under the law."
Richardson's camp also approached The Advocate after the debate to do an interview with the governor to further clarify his views. [See story on Advocate.com.]
The high point of the evening? When Kucinich said he would stand for nothing less than full marriage equality. It was exactly what the audience was waiting to hear, and the response was overwhelming.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to have met the love of my life and...to have such a depth of feeling for her and then be told that no, you can't--you just can't be married, because there is a certain rule or law that won't let that happen," Kucinich said. "That would be devastating."
Upon entering the room minutes earlier to hoots and hollers--and an embrace from Etheridge--moderator Carlson remarked, "They really like you here on the Left Coast." The congressman from Ohio responded, "Actually, I represent mainstream America."
It was positively dreamy. (Kerry Eleveld with Michelle Garcia, The Advocate)
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