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pro-health care, pro-gay

pro-health care, pro-gay


Howard Dean is catching the country's attention by being everything he says President Bush is not

When Howard Dean signed civil unions legislation into law, the Vermont governor's political future looked anything but promising. His race for reelection in 2000 was tight enough--Dean captured 50.5% of the vote--to just miss having to be decided by the state legislature, after a heated campaign against a virtually unknown opponent. And at nearly every campaign stop the governor was besieged by critics who screamed antigay epithets at him. Even many gay men and lesbians, the primary beneficiaries of the new statute, expressed disappointment that Dean had not backed equal marriage rights instead of a separate institution to recognize their relationships.

But just two years later, Dean is hoping his steadfast support for civil unions--which provide same-sex couples nearly all the legal rights of marriage--will help take him all the way to the White House. After spending the past year barnstorming the nation's gay and lesbian communities for support, he has gone from long shot to one of the early front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Vermont battle over civil unions "was one of the things that first got me thinking about a presidential bid," Dean says. "I realized that if I could get through the 2000 election, I could certainly handle what the Republicans could throw at me nationally. And I had no doubt about the righteousness of the cause and wanted to help take it to the rest of the country."

Beth Robinson, chairwoman of Vermonters of Civil Unions, says Dean may actually be more popular among gay people outside her state than inside it. "There is no reason to believe that any of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would have been any more supportive of same-sex marriage than Howard Dean," she says. "But on the other hand, a lot of us feel that he fell short of our expectations for him here. A lot of us still feel that full marriage rights were the way to go."

Even so, Vermonters' mixed feelings about Dean certainly have not hurt him nationally. President Bush is riding high in the polls, Democratic presidential aspirants seem to pop out of the woodwork daily, and the primaries are still nearly a year away. But Dean is riding a crest of positive media attention and bedrock support from gay people eager to repay him for his stance. Some have even compared him to Jimmy Carter, the folksy Georgia peanut farmer who came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Republican president Gerald Ford in 1976.

But Dean's path to the presidency is littered with obstacles. For one thing, he faces a major fund-raising deficit to better-known Democrats, including U.S. senators John Kerry and John Edwards, both of whom are also gay rights supporters. In addition, his association with civil unions and opposition to war with Iraq may hurt him with the moderate voters whose support he will require.

"Howard Dean is an extraordinary man," says David Mixner, a gay Washington, D.C., power broker who nonetheless has endorsed another contender, former House minority leader Dick Gephardt, a longtime friend. "But this time around the community is blessed to have many candidates who are good on our issues. Suddenly, it is not enough to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and hate-crime legislation. Those are the mom-and-apple-pie issues. Now there is a much wider range of issues, including civil unions, to consider when evaluating candidates."

In many ways Dean is an unlikely standard-bearer for gay rights. A physician by training, he was elected lieutenant governor of Vermont in 1986 and became governor in 1991 when Gov. Richard Snelling died of a heart attack. Though he signed a statewide ban on antigay discrimination shortly thereafter, by his own admission, he did not have a particularly close relationship with the state's gays and lesbians until 1999, when the Vermont supreme court ordered the state to extend the rights of marriage to same-sex couples. What emerged was civil unions legislation, which extends inheritance, child visitation, and other rights to same-sex couples.

In an exclusive interview with The Advocate--the first of a series with presidential aspirants--Dean was everything he's touted as being: plainspoken, blunt, and willing to take unpopular stands. He went after Bush's AIDS policy, antigay religious conservatives, and even gay men who have strayed from protected sex. While he is perhaps the most unequivocal supporter of gay rights ever to seek the presidency, he once again stopped short of endorsing equal marriage rights for gay men and lesbians.

How much credit for the passage of the civil unions law do you deserve? Credit is something for your readers to decide. Here's what I did. Within an hour and a half of the court decision, I came out in favor of it. I refused to allow a commission to be appointed to study it. I didn't think we should take a year to decide that this is a civil rights issue. This was a bill that had the majority of people against it six months before the election. It shows I will stand up for what I think is right no matter what the polls say. Vermont is now the only state where all couples are treated equally in the eyes of the law.

Passage of the bill sparked the antigay Take Back Vermont backlash. People screamed epithets like "queer" and "child molester" at you in public. Were you surprised by the vehemence of the opposition? I was disappointed but not surprised by the viciousness of the opposition--or, at least, some of the opposition. There were a large number of people who were confused and angry about it. But the people who were really awful about it were the right wing of the Republican Party and the fundamentalist churches. Their behavior was unchristian.

Did you take it personally? No. I understood that people were angry. But the voters had their final say. I had always hoped that that kind of behavior represented only a small minority of people, and in the end I think it does.

Did the mainstream of the Republican Party in Vermont, and nationally, distance themselves from the extreme behavior? No, they did not. They were incredibly cowardly. And in Vermont most of them lost as a result. In one county the GOP put four right-wing, antigay advocates on the ballot, and all four of them lost, and the state senate remained Democratic. Equal rights under the law is something that almost all Americans believe in. And the ones that don't, know they should.

Won't that be a lot harder to sell nationally? I talk about it very simply. I say that civil unions are equal rights under the law. I talk about my own rights and how my family has hospital and visitation rights and all the things everyone else takes for granted. I point out that those rights are not available to people who can't get married. And then I talk about making the tough decision to sign the bill. Frankly, I've only been asked about it once or twice in heterosexual audiences.

Why? I don't think people are that concerned about it anymore. When it does come up, it's usually only positive. People take gay rights for granted. They are more concerned about the same things everyone else is concerned about--health care, education, the economy, and the war.

Do nongay audiences understand the difference between civil unions and marriage? The Republicans keep blurring the distinction. What the bill says is that marriage is between a man and a woman but that same-sex couples have all the legal rights of marriage if they enter into a civil union. So it's not gay marriage. The people who say it is are either malevolent--the right wing knows how poorly gay marriage tests in the polls--or they are ignorant of what the statute does. The difference is really about religion. It's a complicated argument. Marriage was a religious institution until the evolution of civil law. What the legislature did, which I thought was very smart, was to divide the concept into civil and religious marriage. We don't tell churches who they can and can not marry. But we do say with civil unions that everybody is equal.

Do you support allowing gay people to marry? Civil unions have the legal impact we need to achieve equal rights under the law. I don't think same-sex marriage is necessary.

A lot of gay people would beg to differ. They want marriages in church settings just like their opposite-sex counterparts. Many churches will perform those ceremonies, but the state won't recognize them. Yes, many churches will do that, including mine. [Raised Episcopalian, Dean is now a Congregationalist.] It's a difficult argument to grasp, but the state will recognize every legal right that a married person has for a gay person in a civil union. There is no right that I have as a married man that a gay person can't have. So the issue for me is not marriage but equal rights under the law. If the Catholic Church doesn't want to marry gay people, I think that's the Catholic Church's right.

No one is saying churches should be forced to hold marriage ceremonies. The argument is that the state should recognize gay people's marriages, wherever they take place. Well, when same-sex marriages take place in Vermont, legally it's called a civil union, because the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.

You've created a circular argument. Why should separate but equal be acceptable? There are people in the gay community who think that's second-class citizenship. I don't agree, because in fact there is every right in a civil union there is in a marriage. It is true that it's a separate institution, but it is still equal.

Why not just go all the way? Why not just support same-sex marriage and the reform of marriage laws? Well, because it wouldn't be possible. Politics is the art of the possible.

I still don't understand why you don't support marriage rights for gay people. Do you have a religious objection? No, I don't. I just feel that we dealt with the question of equal rights under the law. I've had this same argument many times. My argument is that the state's obligation is to make sure that everyone is equal under the law.

If elected, what would you do about the Defense of Marriage Act? I believe it is unconstitutional. Congress can't override the reciprocity clause of the Constitution. What I would probably do is wait for the appropriate legal challenge.

But if the courts don't overturn DOMA, you would have to take the case back to Congress. I wouldn't be scared to make that argument, though I don't know how successful I'd be. It's the same problem as with "don't ask, don't tell." People who serve their country should be proud of who they are. I think President Bush has hurt the war against terrorism by firing six Arab-language translators because they happen to be gay. It's exceptionally foolish, and it hurts our ability to defend our country. I would have to negotiate with Congress to get rid of the policy.

President Clinton offered more than he was able to deliver on the military ban. How would you deliver on that promise? Why would you be more effective than other Democrats? I appreciate the sentiments of all the other candidates, but I'm the only one who has actually done anything like that. I'm the only one who's ever had to take the heat. I'm the only one who has signed a civil union law.

Clinton ran into problems with the Pentagon and the joint chiefs of staff. As governor of Arkansas, he was seen as an outsider by the military. Why would you fare any better? President Clinton jumped into the issue too quickly. My first priority would be balancing the budget and making sure everyone has health insurance. Then I'd deal with the military by talking to the joint chiefs first. But the real issue is Congress. I'd make the arguments that there are many gay people in the military and they are doing a great job and the military in many cases knows they are there. If you are willing to get shot for your country, you ought to be able to say who you are.

No presidential candidate in history has spent so much time campaigning in the gay community. Is there a political advantage to it? The gay and lesbian community has been very willing to raise money for me because they know what I've done. Like every community, they have been promised many things but have not seen them delivered. I've delivered ahead of time. They know I will pay a political price for them, and they know I'm out there talking about an issue that other people are reluctant to talk about.

Does it have the political clout to put you over the top? If the gay community is united, it's very powerful. I expect to get the lion's share of support. I'm not aware of who is supporting Edwards or Kerry, for that matter. I know that David Mixner signed up for Gephardt because he has a long-standing friendship. These are good people, but I don't think they can make much of an argument. I remember one of the candidates--I won't say who, except it wasn't Gephardt--who came to Stonewall Democrats and never mentioned the word "gay" or "lesbian."

As a relative unknown on the national level, are you electable? I don't think we can beat George Bush with someone from inside Washington. There is too much shading of positions to follow the polls. That's not going to win this time around.

In his State of the Union address, the president outlined a global AIDS initiative that would include $15 billion in new funds over a five-year period. As both a medical doctor and a presidential candidate, what do you think of the proposal? I thought it was a disgrace. Not three weeks before what he said in the State of the Union, the U.S. delegation to the population control delegation in Bangkok tried to get condoms taken out of international family planning. This is a president with no commitment to HIV or AIDS. If you can't discuss condoms and you take them off the Web site of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], you are part of the problem. The speech was hypocritical, cynical, and despicable.

What would you do differently? The first thing I would do is fund nongovernmental organizations, which do a much better job than governments. I would enhance public outreach efforts dramatically in hot spots, which are mostly in Africa and Asia and a growing problem in Eastern Europe. I would also make drug therapies available, though you have to be careful when you go down that road because it's not prevention. Prevention is clearly the area where we should be putting our money.

Even though HIV infection rates are increasing among some groups of gay men, Bush has pushed a prevention message based almost entirely on abstinence until marriage, a message that does not apply to gay people, especially since we can't legally marry. That's the most preposterous HIV program I've ever heard of. We need to reach gay men through groups like Gay Men's Health Crisis, stressing condom use, stressing the dangers of HIV and AIDS. We need to start over again with young gay men. For some reason, because of the development of triple-drug therapies, HIV doesn't seem like such a big deal any more. We need to send people who are on the therapies into the community and tell these young men what it's really like.

Let's say you were still a practicing physician. A gay man reveals to you that he's not always practicing safe sex. What would you tell him? I would tell him he's endangering many people's lives and what he's doing is immoral.

You would put it in moral rather than medical terms? Yes. It is immoral. If you refuse to practice safe sex and you are HIV-positive, you're basically sentencing other people to a lifetime of hell. That's not right. Of course, I'd also put it in health terms, which comes first, and then talk about people's responsibility to each other.

Bush has put a number of religious conservatives on his council on HIV/AIDS, one of whom had to withdraw his nomination to the council when his antigay past was revealed. Do they have a stranglehold over the Administration's AIDS policy? I think so. This is the most conservative and ideological president I've seen in my lifetime. Both in domestic and foreign policy, he's substituted ideology for thoughtful policy. This is a reckless president. People who believe that homosexuality is something that must be punished by God have no business in HIV/AIDS. Only people who understand GLBT issues with a deep commitment to humane values should play a role in AIDS prevention.

As a medical doctor, what do you think of sexual orientation "conversion" therapy? It has no basis in science. When all the evidence is in, it will be shown that being gay has a significant genetic component. The idea that you can change sexual orientation is laughable. It just goes to show the ignorance of the right wing.

There were dozens of openly gay appointees in the Clinton administration, and while the number is far smaller, Bush also has made such appointments. But no openly gay person has ever reached a cabinet-level post. Is that something you would consider? I'd certainly consider it, but I'm not going to make any promises.

You've talked about how much you learned from African-American roommates when you were in college. Do you have an equivalent person from the gay community? No. The interesting thing is that I didn't have much of an understanding of the gay community until after I signed the civil unions bill. Back when I was in medical school in the 1970s, there was someone who told me he was gay, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was as ignorant as everyone else. We had a gay liaison in the governor's office, of course, and we had discussions with the community. But it was never a community I got to know really well until the bill came along. And then I became more and more determined to get the civil union bill done, the more vicious the reaction became. The average Vermonter was just horrified by the vituperative outpouring of hatred. A lot of people said, "My God, I had no idea that gay people had to face this kind of stuff. I guess I better vote for it."

What do you mean by the hair standing up on the back of your neck? Was there a time when you were insensitive? Oh, sure. I was just as foolish about people who were gay as a lot of people are. Back in high school in the '60s, I used epithets. Back then no one would consider saying they were gay. Today, gay students come out in high school.

What have you learned about gays? It's been a wonderful experience for me. I got to know couples who were really committed to each other. As I became more familiar, I realized the GLBT community is like every other one. The only thing different is sexual orientation. They just wanted better health care, better job opportunities. They are worried about the economy; they are worried about their own families and their kids. Once I realized this, I was determined to get the bill through.

On a personal note, how would you react if one of your kids came out? It wouldn't bother me a bit. I would say, "Be who you are" and "Live how you were brought up." Through the civil union bill, I got to know a lot of parents of gays. They were effective when they went to the legislature and explained their experience of having gay kids. After parents get over their initial shock, they almost always say, "I love my gay children just as much as, if not more than, I ever did." That's how I would feel.

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