Popping the Question to the Candidates

If same-sex marriage was such a wedge issue in the 2004 presidential campaign, why is it seemingly the litmus test for the gay community’s support in the 2008 race?

The marriage question was the repeated query during last week’s historic HRC-Logo debate that was aired on August 9th, on the nation’s leading television and broadband network for LGBTQ people, with more than 1,000 hours of content and approximately 27 million viewers across the country. And the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equal rights organization in the United States, with more than 700,000 members and supporters.

In an Oprah-like setting, six of the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls spent 15 intimate minutes being grilled on our issues. And while many of the questions varied, in order to bring out the candidates’ individual strengths, they all fell weak on marriage equality. The exceptions were the two who have the longest shot at the nomination – Congressperson Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

“Tonight was an important night in the fight for equality,” Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, who was on the panel posing questions to the candidates, said in a statement released the evening of the forum. “Unfortunately, we have more work to do. The overwhelming majority of the candidates do not support marriage equality. While we heard very strong commitments to civil unions and equality in federal rights and benefits, their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear.”

The frontrunners came out, one-by-one, giving Orwellian explanations of what is clearly their unequivocal opposition to marriage equality.

First out of the presidential runners’ block was Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the master of doublespeak.

“As I proposed [civil unions], it wouldn’t be a lesser thing [than marriage] from my perspective,” Barack told the panel. When asked why he supports civil unions and not marriage, Obama said the difference is merely one of nomenclature. “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.â€?

But while it’s a name-game for Obama, for others, especially of African decent, his answers harken back to this nation’s legalized era of “separate but equal.�

“What bites me is that none of the candidates who stand for civil unions will answer the question about the whole notion of this being another ‘separate but equal’ institution being established in this country. Especially given the history of such a flawed concept,â€? said Vallerie D. Wagner, who was at the HRC-Logo debate. Wagner, a member of Stonewall Democrats and a nationally renown AIDS advocate for more than 20 years, told me, “You’d think that Obama would be the one to get it, but given his racial experience in the country, it’s no surprise that he, too, can turn a blind eye.â€?

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is also not wedded to the idea of gay marriage, but says he believes in equality “to my core.â€? Edwards apologized that evening for using his faith in the past to inform his opposition to same-sex marriage. Edwards also said that unless Americans speak out against intolerance, it becomes “OK for the Republicans … to divide America and use hate-mongering to separate us.”

Clearly, Edwards is a friend to the community. He even supports public schools teaching young kids why some children have two mommies. So why is it that he opposes marriage equality?

And our darling of the night, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, spent much of the evening defending her husband’s past record with the community. She told viewers that a proposed anti-gay federal marriage amendment is “a terrifying prospect…mean-spirited, divisive,” and “a strictly cynical political ploy.” But she, too, doesn’t support marriage equality.

So the question must be asked: Can these front-running candidates be true supporters of full and equal LBGTQ civil rights while not supporting same-sex marriage? Are we to read between the lines and know that while it is strategic not to come out fully supporting us, once they are elected to office they will tear away their playing-it-safe face and come out of the closet?

“Five years from now, the marriage issue will be a non-issue.” Gravel told the panel.

But in present time, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll, voters in three battleground states – Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – are more likely to see the endorsement of gay rights groups as a reason to vote against a candidate. Among those who said they were less likely to vote for pro-gay candidates, the percentages ranged from 34 percent in Ohio to 28 percent in both Florida and Pennsylvania.

Has the community chosen the wrong question to assess sincerity and electability?

“I can’t tell you why it has emerged as the primary focus, but I have my reason why it should be – because it legally recognizes, honors and protects same-gender loving couples’ committed relationships. Marriage would take the next step, by putting same-gender unions on equal footing with other-gender unions,â€? said the Rev. Jimmy Creech of Faith in America, an organization that fights religion-based discrimination of LGBTQ Americans. “The right to create a family with whomever you desire – adult by mutual consent – is a basic civil and human right. If that right is not protected, I think, the others are window dressing.

“And, civil unions? Why create a ‘special’ legal category for same-gender loving couples, like civil unions? Doesn’t that reek of the bad kind of ‘special,’ like unequal and second-class kind of ‘special’? So, if a Democrat says she’s/he’s for full and equal civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, marriage is the ultimate test. Otherwise, they aren’t for full and equal civil rights.�

Democracy can only begin to work when those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what those in society take for granted as their inalienable rights. And civil marriage is one of them. But for that to happen, we need our presidential hopefuls to step forward and make the democratic process work for us all.

Published August 14, 2007 in In Newsweekly, Black Commentator, bilerico.com, etc. 

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