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Europe Weighs In
on the Upcoming Election

Europe Weighs In
on the Upcoming Election


Making his way across Amsterdam and the U.K. to chat up Europeans and Americans living abroad on the upcoming U.S. elections, Christopher Lisotta finds that many people are more fed up than we are -- and nearly all see the potential for change in Barack Obama.

It's an unseasonably warm and clear Sunday evening in mid October in Amsterdam, and more than 200 men are milling outside Soho, a faux British pub, on one of the city's numerous main gay drags, Reguliersdwarsstraat. It's Soho's weekly Sunday beer bust, and the crowd has filled the bar to the rafters and spilled outside, confounding hapless drivers trying to make their way down the street.

Thanks to some friendly Dutch rugby players, I'm introduced to Konstantinos, a local celebrity known as one fourth of the "bear band" Bearforce1. Like so many other conversations I've had on my three-week trip to Europe, our discussion soon turns to the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Konstantinos, a Greek native, admits he is following the Barack Obama-John McCain race closely. "Nonstop, day and night," he said over the din. "I'm waking up in the middle of the night to watch the debates."

The interest and enthusiasm for the U.S. election was palpable in both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the two countries I mainly visited on my trip. I wasn't sure what I would find out about gay and lesbian impressions of the election but was open-minded about where my very unscientific study would take me.

Konstantinos, like so many of the gay and lesbian Europeans I met, said he is excited about Obama's candidacy, a feeling he said is shared with most of his gay friends. "As far as I know, 99% are Obama supporters," he said, noting that "people are so sick and tired of George Bush." For Konstantinos the complete turnoff regarding McCain was the selection of his running mate. "For me, it was Sarah Palin being selected. It worked for a couple weeks, but I really feel she is not the appropriate person to be president if need be."

The day before I met Konstantinos I went into the Pink Point, an information booth around the corner from the Anne Frank House and next to the Homomonument, the world's first monument commemorating the persecution of gays and lesbians. Besides pamphlets, guides, and the obligatory rainbow paraphernalia, there are rows of stickers surrounding the cash register, including black and pink ones emblazoned with "Bush: going, going, gone! " and "Buck Fush." The booth's volunteer, Dominik, tells me the Bush stickers have been marked down. "People don't feel so strongly about Bush anymore," he explained.

Like Konstantinos, Dominik said he saw the election as a game-changer. "Of course we're following it, because it is the end of an era," he said. "Bush was the enemy because of the gay marriage he wanted to pull down. He focused on oil and the exclusion of immigrants."

Dominik said he felt sorry for McCain "because he is so old" but described Palin as "quite ridiculous." He also suggested the LGBT community in Amsterdam "is very enthusiastic of Obama."

"People want change, and they can relate to that," Dominik added.

Part of my trip also took place outside the major gay centers, where I wondered if I would find different opinions from what I encountered in a big LGBT-centric destination like Amsterdam. I headed to Gateshead, a city near Newcastle on the River Tyne in northern England that's known for its beer and more recently for its new Millennium Bridge and its contemporary-art museum, the Baltic Centre.

At a bar just walking distance from the main train station, I was introduced to about a half dozen of the city's LGBT men and women. My host was Phyllis Christopher, a San Franciscan of 17 years who left the U.S. in 2006 to be with her legally recognized partner, British citizen Helen Collard. Christopher and Collard both work for the local free weekly publication The Crack, and its editor, Robert Maddes, joined them, along with some of their friends.

Maddes had just published an editorial about the U.S. presidential election with a focus on Palin. Like many Brits, Maddes was mystified by the attention paid to her moose-hunting and the connection made by Americans between being an independent politician and enthusiasm for guns. "Guns have been banned in this country 10 years ago, and people generally see them as not a good thing." he said, after describing Palin as a "symbol of everything that is bizarre and odd and wrong about U.S. politics, really"

While Christopher and Collard's friend Mandy Baxter said she "reads the odd piece" and doesn't follow the election avidly, Maddes said, "You can't help but follow it. If you watch the British news it's on all the time."

Collard noted that for her and Christopher, the 2004 election was "an absolute disaster for us. When Bush got in again we knew there was no way we would have a chance -- that's it, game over." As a binational couple, Collard knew a second term of the Bush administration meant there was no opportunity they could legally stay together in the U.S.

"I think that the whole gay marriage is kicked around like a football out there, and people don't realize the impact it has on people's lives," she said, fighting back tears. "I saw Phil leave her whole community of 17 years. It was heartbreaking."

Christopher shared in her partner's frustration, something she now sees much more clearly living in Great Britain. "It's really interesting to live outside of America, because I feel like politics here is so much more logical and mature," she said. "America seems like a Hollywood monkey show. They are very dramatic, and they keep making sweeping statements that don't mean anything. Words don't mean anything at all; that's what I feel like.

"I feel really fortunate to live here," Christopher added. "I breeze through the border now. As soon as they see the visa, they totally respect that. I feel like it is a real partnership; it is respected legally, in any business way. They are always like, 'No pressure,' very professional."

But I wanted to know if Christopher and Collard think their status will change if Obama is elected president. "You can only hope," Collard said. "I watched [Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe] Biden in the debate, and he was just pathetic. 'Yes, I think gay people should have rights,' but in the next breath it was, 'No, I don't agree with marriage.' Well, what are you going to do? How are you going to register people who have a relationship?"

Christopher pointed out that a form of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gay and lesbian Americans to bring their partners to the U.S., has been languishing in Congress for the past eight years. The bill is more likely to be signed in an Obama administration, Christopher suggested, even though she was disappointed Obama himself has not been one of the bill's 18 Senate cosponsors.

"I hope someone sneaks it through," she said, arguing that the only way it could become law was as part of a larger bill and by not being the focus of great scrutiny. But if it does pass, Christopher wondered if it mattered who was in the White House. "I sort of think it could be just as likely in a McCain government," she added.

Christopher provided a conduit to some of her colleagues in the Love Exiles Foundation, a group that speaks out for U.S. citizens and the struggles they face getting legal recognition for their foreign partners. That included a conversation with Martha McDevitt-Pugh, Love Exile's founder. McDevitt-Pugh moved to Amsterdam in 2000 with her Australian-born partner, thinking that at some point she could figure out a way to get them both to the U.S. "People do figure out ways, but it is not easy," she explained. The potential for electoral change is building up expectations for some Love Exile members, McDevitt-Pugh said.

"People in our groups are hopeful," she added. "They are hopeful that an Obama presidency will open up the opportunity for us to get immigration rights. They are really clear a McCain presidency is going to close that door for another four years. On the other hand, they don't see the evidence that this is something he is going to be able to do very quickly. So a lot of people are in short-term dire situations, and they want the legislation now, or maybe last week. So those people are frustrated and upset."

McDevitt-Pugh noted that if Obama does get elected, she understands her issue is among a myriad of subjects the new administration will have to tackle quickly. "It means we have some work to do," she said. "I think there are a lot of expectations; there is a lot to clean up in the world in terms of relations with other countries. There is a lot there."

McDevitt-Pugh is also involved with Democrats Abroad, a group recognized by the Democratic National Committee that is active in party politics. A volunteer in helping set up Democrats Abroad's first global primary in February, McDevitt-Pugh works closely with the group's Netherlands chair, Bob Bragar.

Bragar, who also served as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention this summer in Denver, had me over to dinner in Amsterdam with him and his partner, Rik Kruisdijk. Over tandoori chicken, the couple of more than 10 years told me they were optimistic that opportunities for couples like them could change under a new administration.

"Obama is a world figure," Kruisdijk said. "He has lived abroad, he knows what the world looks like. He's about making alliances with Africa, South America, Europe. It's communication first, diplomacy first, then aggression. It's a completely different world view."

Like McDevitt-Pugh, Kruisdijk is realistic about the pace of change for binational couples. "It's not short-term," he said. "It will take years for a new mentality, new spirit, new Congress. I can see it."

Bragar was torn about which Democrat to endorse during the primaries but eventually settled on Obama. Bragar said a specific experience showed him Obama was a different kind of voice on his issues, after a chance encounter with the nominee at a Democratic committee meeting last February.

"So there I am, in a sort of crowded room, but fortunately, I'm next to Barack Obama," Bragar recalled. "He turns to me and says, 'Hi, how are you, what's your name?' and 'Where are you from?' and I said, 'I'm from Amsterdam.' That caught his attention, and he said, 'Why do you live in Holland?' I said, 'I'm gay and I fell in love with a Dutch man, and U.S. law specifically prevents me from bringing that man into the U.S., so I must live outside America.'

"He came out of his public persona, and looked me right in the eye and said, 'That's not fair.' He looked back at me and said, 'That's really not fair.' And those few words spoke to me so deeply. It was totally real. It was a moment of communication. He got it; he didn't know about it before, and he got it. That man as president would be such a gift."

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