CHARLOTTE — Thousands of delegates, party activists, politicians and party officials will convene in Charlotte for the 2012 Democratic National Convention in September. With them come the dreams and aspirations of the nation. Pundits and citizens alike deride modern-day political conventions as mere media spectacle, but amid the speeches, parties and celebration, the DNC promises to highlight progressive and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues like never before.
Over the weekend, members of the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee unanimously approved language supporting full marriage rights for same-sex couples. The draft platform will be finalized in August and presented for approval by delegates at the convention.
Several high-profile Democrats have recently come out in support for full marriage equality, including President Barack Obama. He told ABC News he supported full marriage rights in May, just one day after North Carolina voters approved an anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment.
The marriage plank’s addition to the platform isn’t a surprise to some party members.
Convention platform committee member Tobias Wolff said in a recent interview before the drafting committee met that he expected such a plank to be adopted.
“How could our party fail to live up to the example of leadership and principle that our president has set for us,” Wolff said via email.
Wolff, an openly gay senior advisor and spokesperson for the 2008 Obama campaign, said the president has been instrumental in changing the national conversation on LGBT equality.
“… [T]he president’s embrace of marriage equality has enabled LGBT people to recognize and appreciate the immense progress toward full equality that the Obama administration has achieved,” he said. “There is more work to do. But President Obama and his team have fundamentally transformed the relationship that LGBT people have with our national government. For the first time in our history, we are seen, we are heard and we are respected as full participants in the conversations that set public policy at home and foreign policy abroad.”
Kylar Broadus, a lawyer, professor and founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition, sits on the convention’s rules committee. He, too, expected the addition of the marriage plank and said the party’s intentional inclusion of LGBT voices is a sure sign of progress ahead.
“The Democratic Party platform has always been inclusive and they work to be inclusive,” Broadus said. “I think it’s obvious our issues are important or we wouldn’t be a part of the platform or rules committees.”
More than marriage
Critics of the national marriage movement have often said the focus on marriage overshadows other LGBT and progressive causes. Attention on this one issue alone can distract from more important issues like employment, housing and care for youth and seniors, or so the argument goes.
Broadus, who testified on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act before the U.S. Senate in June, isn’t convinced and thinks the attention is ultimately beneficial.
“I think there’s two sides of that coin,” he said. “Some people feel like the resources of the LGBT movement have been put behind marriage equality. But, honestly, marriage equality was a wedge issue in presidential campaigns launched by the opposition and it has turned out to be a main part of the LGBT movement. We took that issue. So the flip side is that it helps to educate folks and sensitize them to LGBT issues.”
Wolff is confident other important causes will come to the fore.
“Our national conversation around LGBT issues today includes the imperative to put in place workplace protections for LGBT employees, to protect LGBT youth and provide for LGBT elders, to recognize the distinct needs of lesbians, the distinct interests of bisexual people, the distinct challenges faced by LGBT people of color, the distinct legal and practical obstacles that stand in the way of trans people,” he said.
Important topics, no doubt, but Wolff can’t say whether they will be included in the platform. “But I can tell you that I will bring them to the table,” he said.
Other matters of public policy and law affecting both LGBT and non-LGBT people alike also need to be addressed. Wolff cites Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, chair of the platform committee, and his work on mass incarceration and the nation’s drug policies as one example of an area desperately in need of action.
“Over the last 30 years, federal drug laws and funding policies have resulted in the criminalization of whole communities — in particular, African-American and Latino communities, who are no more likely to use or sell drugs than their white counterparts but who are vastly more likely to be brought into the criminal justice system,” he said.
Wolff believes the policies have “created vicious cycle of poverty, joblessness, vulnerable families, and community mistrust.
“We need to break out of that cycle,” he said. “It is my hope that those issues will become a major focus of attention for our party in the coming years.”
Division not a concern
The convention will serve as an opportunity for party leaders to unify their base and show their vision for the nation to the public before November’s general election. But controversy is already building as debates over marriage and other LGBT-inclusion efforts continue.
News of the marriage plank stirred opposition from well-known anti-gay organizations. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) told The Associated Press it plans on making it a central issue as election season continues through the fall.
“We will rally supporters of traditional marriage to make sure they realize that the outcome of the presidential election may determine the future of marriage in our country,” NOM President Brian Brown told the news service.
Several conservative Democrats in the U.S. House have said they will not attend the convention. Candidates for office often skip conventions to campaign at home, but some like North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre and Illinois’ Jerry Costello are known for their not-so-friendly disposition toward LGBT equality.
Broadus and Wolff don’t think the marriage plank will cause extreme division. The party’s base is behind it and polls show increasing support for full marriage equality. Those who are already alienated by the Democratic Party’s principles on equality and inclusion won’t be affected, Broadus said.
“Those people are going to vote for whatever, regardless of the issues,” Broadus noted. “In this election, I don’t think marriage will be a determination of that.”
Continuing the work toward fuller equality is simple, Wolff said. Building bridges that cross wide ideological divides is key to progress.
“Every civil rights movement has had to confront the reality that good people sometimes require convincing on issues of equality and justice,” he said. “One major goal of a civil rights movement is to do that work — to convince people of good will to see their fellow citizens in a new way.
The bulk of the Democratic Party is already supportive and even conservative-leaning Democrats can be convinced.
“Most Democrats who are not yet with us on LGBT equality are reasonable and persuadable,” Wolff said. “An important part of our progress in recent years has been our success in showing that there is no good reason for LGBT Americans to enjoy anything less than equal treatment under law.” : :
Extra: Wolff on the movement and N.C. amendment
Matt Comer: Do you believe the LGBT civil rights movement is headed in the right direction? Do you think the community is gaining ground more quickly or less quickly than we might have thought ten years ago?
Tobias Wolff: The LGBT civil rights movement is at an important crossroads. The trends are strongly in our favor. Increasingly, LGBT people are full participants in American life. Elected officials around the country are recognizing the moral imperative of equal treatment for LGBT people. And the Obama administration has achieved heroic progress in establishing equal citizenship status for all LGBT people at the national level. In the years ahead, two major tasks will be top priorities. First, we need to solidify the progress we have made and make sure that LGBT people of all descriptions and from all regions of the country are sharing in that progress. Second, we need to place more emphasis on building strong coalitions. The labor movement has been one of the staunchest supporters of LGBT equality over the years. Has the LGBT rights movement done enough to support working-class Americans? I believe that we can do more. People of color constitute an indispensable core of our community. Have they had a full seat at the table in setting priorities for our advocacy efforts? I believe that we can do better. With national attitudes toward LGBT equality shifting in a strongly positive direction, right now is the time to reach more boldly in establishing strong connections with our allies and broad foundations within our community.
Do recent setbacks like North Carolina’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment have any effect on the perceived momentum toward marriage equality elsewhere (e.g., other states’ progress, the continuing DOMA repeal fight).
The result in North Carolina was a blow. But even a loss can present an opportunity. My father lives in North Carolina, and he took my story with him to conversations about the anti-marriage amendment with his neighbors. A thousand people like my father can have tens of thousands of conversations. The mistake is to believe that losing one fight at the ballot box is the end of the story. The infrastructure that opponents of Amendment 1 created and the new kinds of conversations they undertook will help change the landscape. I believe that it will not be long before a majority of the people of North Carolina view Amendment 1 was a mistake that they regret.