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Barack Obama had just finished a long day of campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2004 when he called his daughters on the cell phone to say good night. Then he sat back in the car, turned to an aide (who had also been a close friend for more than a decade), and asked, "So, Kevin--have you and Greg thought about having kids?"
The aide, Kevin Thompson (who no longer works for the candidate), says Obama often asked questions about his life as a gay man: wondering how he and his partner made various decisions, why they didn't want to get married, why they weren't planning to have kids. And after Obama marched in a Chicago pride parade for the first time, Thompson says, questions again poured forth: "He wanted to know the history of Pride--how is it that every city has one, what was the origin of it, what was the whole story about Stonewall."
Obama had seen Thompson through ups and downs. They first met when Thompson worked with Michelle Obama in the Chicago mayor's office in the early 1990s. At the time, Thompson was married to a woman, but in the difficult period when his marriage ended and he started coming out, he says, Michelle became one of his closest confidantes. "I knew that [my coming out] made a lot of people uncomfortable, no matter what they said. I never worried, never wondered for a second what Michelle and Barack thought of me. They were the kind of friends who I knew would always be with me."
Lately, though, a number of other gay people have been wondering what Barack Obama thinks of them. Obama's record on gay rights is strong, but his history of advocacy at the national level is short--which leaves some uncertain of the depth of his commitment to gay and lesbian issues. A Harris Interactive poll in July found that Obama led John McCain among registered voters, 44% to 35%, and had a huge lead among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender respondents, but a potentially significant 17% of those voters remained undecided. "Some people don't know what to make of [Obama] because he hasn't known the leading gay activists or even his own advisers on gay issues for very long," says David Mixner, who played an integral role in Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and was one of the first openly gay senior presidential campaign advisers. Of the half-dozen or so gay men and lesbians who occupy top positions on the Obama campaign, deputy national campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, who first met the candidate for two years ago, has known him longest.
"The mafia doesn't know him. David Geffen, James Hormel, David Bohnett -- they're not his friends," says another national gay political leader. "His real gay friends are regular people in Chicago."
In interviews, more than a dozen of those old friends and other gay leaders in Illinois who've worked with Obama described more than a decade of consistent advocacy for gay civil rights. Their stories cast new light on Obama's ties to antigay Christian leaders and on his tortured, though canny, position on marriage equality. They reveal long-lasting relationships with gay people that help explain his ease in talking about gay issues, and a legal disposition that helps account for his choice to speak about gay rights, even in settings where it's not obviously in his best political interest to do so.
Most important, they suggest that an Obama presidency would offer gay people the possibility of grasping the most valuable political asset imaginable, one that they've never had in relation to the White House: accountability. Tracy Baim, the publisher and executive editor of Chicago gay newspaper Windy City Times, has covered Obama since his first race for the Illinois state senate, in 1996. "He and Michelle don't just come to gay events for political reasons," she says. "They come because they understand the issues, and they have friends in the community. If he were to betray us, it would be personal."
If he were to betray his gay constituents, he might also consider it to be malfeasance. Jim Madigan, an attorney who was a student in professor Obama's constitutional law class at the University of Chicago in the late 1990s, says Obama taught the course from a distinct perspective. Every civil rights case study, from Dred Scott v. Sandford to Bowers v. Hardwick, was made "from the perspective of the individual plaintiff," Madigan says. Moreover, Obama approached race and sexual orientation with an even hand: "The approach was always, 'Look at how the government is treating the individual,' " Madigan recalls. "What was personal for him and what was personal for me -- we treated them in the same way."
This legal approach surely helps account for Obama's fluency in the language of gay rights. When Obama announced his candidacy for the Illinois state senate, he invited Rick Garcia of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights (now known as Equality Illinois), the state's largest gay and lesbian political organization, to meet with him. (The state senate has 59 seats, and Obama was one of only three senatorial candidates who requested meetings with the federation during the 1996 race.) Garcia's first impression of the candidate concerned his rhetoric: "He was able to talk about the issues in a natural, normal, comfortable way. He didn't struggle for language. He didn't say things like 'homosexual preference' or 'sexual preference.' He was up to speed even before we started working with him."
Once elected, Obama immediately signed on as a sponsor of legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The latter is covered by only a handful of state laws and, because it's the more radical idea, is often abandoned by mainstream politicians. But "Obama never wavered in his commitment to the gender identity piece, even when one of the gay sponsors wanted to take it out," Garcia says, adding that Obama lobbied extensively for the bill. p
"One evening we were having difficulty with one of the other Democratic senators. We asked Senator Obama, 'What can you do to help?' And he said he would talk to his colleague. People make that kind of promise all the time, and you never know whether the conversations actually happen." But not long after, Garcia adds, "I'm in the statehouse, and I hear a loud discussion on the landing below me on the staircase, and I peer over and see, it's Barack talking to the other senator very passionately about how he should vote for the gay rights bill. He was confronting the senator -- without an audience, without any sense that anyone was watching."
That other senator was James Meeks, who is also pastor of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church and who last year was named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of the "10 leading black religious voices in the antigay movement." (Among many other alleged declarations, Meeks is said to have denounced "Hollywood Jews for bringing us Brokeback Mountain.") And although Meeks wasn't swayed by Obama, the bill eventually passed in 2005, the year after Obama had left the legislature for the U.S. Senate.
Obama's confrontation with Meeks also speaks to another concern that's arisen several times in this presidential campaign, regarding the company he keeps. When it was reported that Obama described Meeks as one of his spiritual counselors -- and when the candidate was endorsed by other African-American leaders who have been outspokenly homophobic, including gospel singer Donnie McClurkin--some gay leaders condemned the U.S. senator, claiming that if he truly were our ally, he could not also be their friend.
Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese spoke with Obama about the Donnie McClurkin fiasco, in which the gospel singer, an "ex-gay" who has described homosexuality as a "curse" was invited to perform at an event before the South Carolina primary. Solmonese says Obama explained that he disagreed with McClurkin's views but would not drop him from the concert program because "'this is a guy I'm going to keep talking to, someone I'm going to work on, someone I'm not going to close the door on,'" as Solmonese remembers. "I think that he genuinely is committed to that kind of dialogue. I personally would have preferred that McClurkin not be a part of it. But was I interested in the idea of the commitment that Obama made to having a conversation and trying to move him? Yeah, I was."
For Solmonese, Obama's rationale for standing by McClurkin put teeth in the rhetoric of inclusiveness that Obama's critics sometimes dismiss as vague. "This is somebody who thinks that, at the core, one of our greatest challenges as a country is that disparate groups of Americans, like African-Americans and the GLBT community, ought to be working toward the same goals. But he sees that we're not and that we ought to change that," Solmonese says. "You hear that, and on the surface it's like, 'Is that it?' But the more you ponder it, that's saying a lot. If you can clear those hurdles, then a legislative vote count becomes like the commentary on actual social change."
Obama's speeches could not be clearer regarding his commitment to gay people's civil rights. He doesn't talk about the issues just to friendly audiences or when he's forced to. He's spoken of them with greater consistency and to more, and more varied, audiences than any presidential nominee ever has. He referred to gay people in his "Audacity of Hope" speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He spoke about gays when he announced his candidacy for president. He talks about gay men and lesbians in his stump speech. And he's also done so at Rick Warren's evangelical Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., in his Martin Luther King Day speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and in speeches to other black church groups. He describes his commitment to gay rights not only as a matter of legal integrity but also as a matter of spiritual integrity. At a rally in Beaumont, Texas, he said, "Now, I'm a Christian, and I praise Jesus every Sunday.... Sometimes, particularly in the African-American community, in the church sometimes, I hear people saying things that I don't think are very Christian with respect to people who are gay and lesbian.... The Sermon on the Mount says, treat people as you'd want to be treated. When we start...blaming gay people for our problems...we're not solving problems; all we're doing is dividing each other. That's not the kind of politics I want to practice."
His promises to gay people -- full repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a reversal of "don't ask, don't tell," immigration rights for same-sex couples, a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, which adds sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate-crimes laws -- go further than any presidential nominee in history.
Marriage marks the limit of Obama's courage. He supports civil unions, believes marriage rights are best granted by the states, and asserts that he believes "marriage is between a man and a woman" -- the phrase that's been honed by conservative opponents of marriage equality.
His stance on marriage is the one crashingly false note in his message to gay voters. It is difficult to understand his position as anything but calculated dissembling. Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois says, "I wish he was being brave and bold and doing the right thing, but it's his campaign's and his determination that it would not be helpful or beneficial when running for president of the United States at this particular time. I don't think he can risk any position other than the one he's taken."
Tracy Baim of Windy City Times observes that in Obama's most recent book, "he talks about a lesbian asking his position on marriage. He says, 'I might be on the wrong side of history....' Anybody who says that is self-aware enough to know that they in fact are on the wrong side of history."
Baim remembers pushing Obama in an interview to explain what she calls his "basic hypocrisy" on the issue: "I could sense someone who was trying to be practical and not treat it emotionally. I sat there and said, 'I don't have the same rights as you.' And he said, 'You're not going to get them right away, but here's what is possible.' That kind of equivocation can drive an activist crazy, but his job as a politician is to be practical."
That kind of equivocation is even harder to take from a politician who presents himself as a truth-teller. Kevin Thompson says, "He certainly understands and has talked many times about how his own parents' marriage was illegal in many Southern states because of miscegenation laws. I think he on one level really gets the inequality under the law."
Yet it would be naive to think that Obama's public and private positions on marriage are deeply at odds. Most politicians, most of the time, convince themselves to believe whatever they think they need to believe in order to achieve their larger goals. And unquestionably, the next president faces more pressing issues than marriage equality: war, economic decline, global warming, nuclear proliferation. Practically speaking, it's nonsensical even to talk about a presidential push for marriage equality until after DOMA is repealed; at the moment, legally, there can be no progress on marriage except at the state level.
Marriage, therefore, can have no significance in this presidential election but one: It may become the wedge issue that
McCain can use to frighten conservatives and put progressives on the defensive. Obama has beaten this one back before--Alan Keyes deployed it as Obama's Republican opponent in the 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, but Illinois voters found other issues more compelling.
He's likely on course for deja vu this fall, when Republicans will almost surely try to scare voters by emphasizing Obama's opposition to ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage in Arizona, Florida, and California. If that doesn't work, then Obama's support of the civil unions bill moving through the Illinois statehouse may do the trick. That bill--which, if passed, would be the first statewide civil unions law in the Midwest--could come to a vote as early as October.
One of its leading advocates, state representative Greg Harris, who's known Obama for 20 years, says that "the senator and his campaign have said they are willing to help however and wherever they can to make this a reality in Illinois." They have, moreover, offered "hand-in-hand strategizing all the way along" in his planning to bring the bill to a vote.
Though politicians throw their advocate "friends" under the bus all the time, Harris has no fear that the Obama campaign would betray him for expediency's sake. "People in his shop have not spent all this time talking to me because they're not going to do it," he explains, citing particular help from Obama's director of the LGBT vote, Dave Noble, and Hildebrand.
Hildebrand's account of a conversation with Obama about gay marriage may indicate that, even if the candidate will not stump for full equality, he also will not stand in its way. Recalling a discussion after the California supreme court ruling in favor of marriage equality, Hildebrand says, "He thought that was very wonderful. He knew the positive impact that was going to have on thousands and thousands of people."
Then he repeats a joke Obama made to him -- one that sounds an awful lot like a blessing: "He said that if my partner Mike and I went to California to get married, he and Michelle would give us a lovely espresso maker. One of the 14 extras that they got for their wedding."
Renae Ogletree, a Chicago public schools official and Obama convention delegate who's known the candidate since his first state senate campaign, says, "It is not the sweep of a pen that is going to change things for LGBT people in this country. That's not how I believe in Barack. He inspires in me the energy to fight for my beliefs. He makes other people believe that they can make change. And then helps create the policies and provide the funding to make those changes happen."
She, like every other person interviewed for this article, describes Obama's persistent curiosity and willingness to ask questions when conversation ranges beyond his knowledge or understanding, a quality suggesting that his positions on gay-related issues will continue to evolve. Obama's chief LGBT policy adviser, Tobias Wolff, says that in an endorsement meeting with the Houston gay political caucus, the candidate was asked about fully inclusive nondiscrimination laws in the workplace. Wolff says, "They asked if he supported laws that did not just cover gender identity but also gender expression. Obama paused for a moment and said, 'I think I understand the distinction, but I want to be sure my understanding is complete, so why don't you explain that to me.'"
With him, it seems, there is always one more question. Kevin Thompson tells the story of a U.S. Senate campaign fund-raiser at the gay bar Cocktail in Chicago. After Obama finished speaking, he walked to the edge of the crowd and asked a gay guy, "Could I please bum a cigarette?"
Today, Thompson says, that guy can't stop recounting the exchange to his friends. Of all the anecdotes Obama's friends repeat about the time he's spent with gay people, this is the most mundane. As such, it is also a powerful testament to the candidate's humanity, atavistic and futuristic, both at once. Thompson laughs, quoting his friend's boast, a string of words that add up to something truly new under the sun: " 'I can't believe that the future president of the United States and I smoked a cigarette together in a gay bar.' "