Scroll To Top

Taking Stock of
This Gay Election

Taking Stock of
This Gay Election


Clinton, Edwards, and Obama all reached out to the community in different ways, leaving gay activists to choose which candidate's approach will produce results for LGBT equality.

The primary season has begun and, by my count, gay media got a total of 30 minutes of interview time with the top three Democratic presidential candidates - that's 15 minutes with Hillary Clinton, and 15 minutes with Barack Obama. (The closest we got to John Edwards was an email exchange with his wife. Truth be told, I was grateful for the time she gave us given her health and schedule demands).

The aforementioned interviews were with The Advocate, and while I don't mean to be egocentric, after speaking with various gay journalists/bloggers - including those from the hometowns of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton - to my knowledge, those treasured 30 minutes were the only one-on-one interviews conducted by gay outlets with the candidates.

The "glass half empty" view is: Once again, the LGBT community has been marginalized and relegated to minimal access. And here's the "glass half full": The two Democratic front-runners competed for our votes in a way never before seen. Heck, all the Democratic candidates made their pitch for our votes at the HRC debate that, while not perfect, was certainly historic.

Of course, the interviews with Sens. Clinton and Obama came about in different ways. The Clinton campaign agreed to schedule her interview, which took place in person, last summer; while the Obama campaign scheduled a "phoner" with us on the heels of the Donnie McClurkin setback he was grappling with in South Carolina - when the gay community became outraged that the lead singer for his statewide gospel tour was essentially an anti-gay ex-gay.

But the different reasons for these interviews, and even the fact that we never managed to secure one with Edwards, don't necessarily prove that any of these candidates is more pro-gay or sympathetic to our issues than any other (though Sen. Clinton deserves credit for being the first to give us time).

Instead, the access they gave may more accurately reflect how familiar the candidates were with our community and the limitations of our press, how comfortable they were with the uncharted territory of openly courting LGBT votes just four years after gays became the pariah of politics, and the choices they made to get their message out in a changing media environment where blogs offer a somewhat insurgent, under-the-radar way to reach activists beyond appearing in a national gay publication.

Sen. Obama made a telling comment at the very end of my interview with him last October. Dismayed over the level of attention the community gave to the McClurkin imbroglio, he said, "It is interesting to me and obviously speaks to the greater outreach that we have to do, that [my record on LGBT issues] isn't a greater source of interest and pride on the part of the LGBT community."

He seemed genuinely disheartened that people didn't know more about his stance for full repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (Edwards also supports full repeal, while Clinton supports partial repeal), or the fact that he sponsored a gay nondiscrimination bill in the Illinois state legislature, or that he regularly addresses AIDS and homophobia in black and religious venues that are not particularly gay friendly.

When he spoke about HIV/AIDS to evangelical leader Rick Warren's congregation at Saddleback Church in California, Obama said, "Like no other illness, AIDS tests our ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes - to empathize with the plight of our fellow man. While most would agree that the AIDS orphan or the transfusion victim or the wronged wife contracted the disease through no fault of their own, it has too often been easy for some to point to the unfaithful husband or the promiscuous youth or the gay man and say 'This is your fault. You have sinned.' I don't think that's a satisfactory response. My faith reminds me that we all are sinners."

This is perfectly consistent with his message of bridging communities gay and straight, red and blue, black and white. But a big part of why many gays and lesbians don't know Obama's record here is because it wasn't readily available. It required digging and a beat reporter covering his campaign at the national level - resources that are the province of mainstream magazines and big-city dailies. This is where a publication like The Advocate, viewed by many as essentially mainstream media, doesn't actually have the same reporting capacity as those other outlets. Instead, the LGBT community and gay journalists were left to put together information piecemeal from sightings by bloggers at campaign events and the slow trickle of gay mentions that flow from the straight press.

The need to prevent this information vacuum is something the Hillary Clinton campaign seemed to understand from the start. The Clintons have worked with the gay community and courted its press and voters since Bill's '92 campaign, where they successfully reaped the benefits of seeking the gay vote without suffering any real drawbacks (at least until Bill got into office and tripped over his pledge to lift the ban on gays in the military). Perhaps prior experience made Hillary's campaign more comfortable with their ability to control messaging and how a cover story on her in a national gay publication would play.

Meanwhile, the Obama and Edwards's campaigns seemed more comfortable working the fringes of blogs and local LGBT pubs.

"One thing I will say for Edwards is that he's been very proactive in working with bloggers, gay bloggers, in terms of outreach," says Pam Spaulding, the blogger who created Pam's House Blend. "His campaign contacted me early on with all of his complete responses to the HRC questionnaire and wanted that spread around. He obviously didn't feel like he had anything to hide, even though he said he was not prepared to endorse full marriage equality. I think that that level of commitment to open communication has worked well for him."

Spaulding, who is based in North Carolina, Edwards's home state, says the Clinton campaign's outreach to her has been "hit and miss," while she's had very little contact with the Obama folks.

Spaulding credits Edwards's blog outreach to a greater comfort level for some candidates with what she calls a "glass ceiling" on how far blog news travels.

"If you do an interview with a blogger, it's not going to go anywhere, by and large, unless it's one of the big ones," she says. "There's a legitimacy that we don't have, and everything that gets said in print - in The Advocate or Time magazine - it's going to get spread wide; it's going to get picked up by the cable networks, it's going to become a story if they do an offhand quote that could be interpreted as a weakness or a weak point. So I think they're very cautious, particularly with LGBT issues and speaking with the LGBT media."

Time is also precious for candidates leading the pack, and doing interviews at the local level becomes a near impossibility. But history is one of the best gauges of how a candidate will behave when he or she becomes president, and it's worth noting that Obama was very accessible to the LGBT press during his eight years in the Illinois state legislature.

"He always was open, certainly with our newspaper," says Gary Barlow, editor of one of Chicago's gay weeklies, the Chicago Free Press. "He didn't avoid phone calls and stuff like that. We talked on occasion. When we called, he responded. I think that says something about a person." Barlow adds that Obama's campaign has paid close attention to the newspaper and been communicative throughout the race.

Though the Illinois Human Rights Act did not pass until 2005, when Obama had already graduated to the U.S. Senate, he did sponsor a bill to outlaw workplace discrimination that included both sexual orientation and gender identity while he was still a state senator. Barlow says Obama also lobbied other legislators to vote for the pro-gay bills being considered. "When we're talking about an African-American legislator in the state legislature, to have someone of his stature lobbying his peers was important," says Barlow.

As a U.S. Senator, Clinton wasn't quite as accessible to the local gay press, but she did do outreach with the LGBT community by speaking at events like an HIV/AIDS fundraiser for Gay Men's Health Crisis and meeting with a group of about 45 LGBT leaders in October of 2006.

Clinton, true to her reputation, is extremely pragmatic if not cautious. On DOMA, for instance, instead of advocating for full repeal like Obama and Edwards, she staked out a position of partial repeal when answering the Human Rights Campaign candidate questionnaire last year. Clinton would leave in place the section of DOMA that allows states to self-determine the question of marriage without being obligated to recognize the marriage laws of other states. She would, however, reverse the section that does not allow the federal government to recognize state-sanctioned gay marriages. This goes part of the way to satisfying gay activists while not leaving her belly up to Republican attacks in a general election that she wants to force other states to embrace the marriage laws of a state like Massachusetts.

While that type of calculation angers gay activists, it can also produce results. HRC president Joe Solmonese credits a phone call Hillary Clinton placed to him before the second Federal Marriage Amendment vote in 2006 with potentially helping to shelve the FMA for the foreseeable future.

Before the vote, Clinton suggested to Solmonese that HRC conduct nationwide polling about the issue, which ultimately showed that although support for marriage equality had risen about 13 points since 2004, voters of every stripe were "enraged" that Congress was debating the issue rather than the Iraq war and gas prices.

Based on that data, HRC advised Democratic congressional leaders to direct their floor debates at the GOP's focus on marriage to the exclusion of more pressing issues. By the time the vote was taken, two Republican senators switched their stances from 2004 and voted against the amendment. Losing those votes shifted the momentum of the FMA, making it less likely to be resurrected any time in the near future.

"She's a real strategist," Solmonese told me during a 2006 interview. Of course, that is one of the biggest criticisms levied against Clinton - that she's too focused on polling and perhaps not guided enough by her heart. LGBT people relentlessly question whether Hillary would abandon gays and lesbians the way Bill did as president when he signed DOMA into law and agreed to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as a compromise.

But Sen. Clinton's prudence - or what some deem as cunning - may be the very thing that keeps her from running a replay of her husband's missteps on gay issues. Bill is the great "feel-good" politician, which is exactly how he got into what became the "don't ask, don't tell" debacle of his presidency. Campaigning at a gay fund-raiser in 1992, he reportedly pledged to lift the ban on gays serving in the military.

Hillary Clinton, by virtue of who she's not, is the least likely of politicians to take a position on something that isn't thoroughly vetted. In contrast to her more free-flowing husband, she approaches every policy decision and political stance with great care. People may not like her maneuvering, but she has little chance of making promises she can't deliver on - to gays and lesbians or anybody else.

As Susan Webster, an LGBT Clinton supporter in Iowa, said prior to the caucus, "Hillary gets criticized for being calculating and cold and then she gets called a politician ... I want someone who is very thoughtful, very calculated, very strategic, and a politician. It's a political job - the last guy we elected sounded like he was fun to have a beer with, and look where we are."

Ironically, Obama's biggest liability in the eyes of many in the community - his faith and whether his religious views might weaken his support for gay issues - also appears to be a strength. Few people are better positioned to confront homophobia in the church and in black communities. The McClurkin incident was clearly a low point for Obama with the community, but he does have a history of speaking truth to power and, in that sense, exhibits the trademarks of the uniter he claims to be.

As he told The Advocate while trying to douse the McClurkin fire: "Part of the reason that we have had a faith outreach in our campaign is precisely because I don't think the LGBT community or the Democratic Party is served by being hermetically sealed from the faith community and not in dialogue with a substantial portion of the electorate, even though we may disagree with them."

John Edwards, for his part, has been quite candid about his "journey" with understanding gay issues, saying all along that same-sex marriage "is the single hardest social issue for me personally" because of his religious background - a sentiment that much of straight America shares, whether we like it or not. While Spaulding questions whether Edwards is using religion as a "fig leaf" for what may be a more politically motivated stance, "at least he's been honest about his limitations [on marriage] publicly," she says.

He has also logged some firsts on the campaign trail: he was the first candidate to release a list of gay supporters, the first to really trumpet his support for a bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," (though Clinton went on record for repeal as early as 1999), and the first to have a spouse - and a daughter, for that matter - publicly endorse gay marriage. Say what you will about Elizabeth serving as a surrogate for John on the issue of marriage, she may have done more to raise the profile of marriage equality in mainstream America through his candidacy than any other campaign.

The question for LGBT voters seems not to be which of these candidates is more supportive of gay issues - they have all conducted more LGBT outreach than previous politicians in their shoes. It's more a matter of which candidate one believes will achieve the best results - the strategist, the bridge-builder, or the journeyer.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Channel Promotion

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Be sure to follow Advocate on your favorite social platforms!


Want more news, top stories, and videos? Check out the all NEW Advocate Channel!
Your 24/7 streaming source for equality news and lifestyle trends.
Click this link right now:

Latest Stories