While showing support for ending the military ban and other LGBT-friendly policies, top Democratic presidential contenders Sen. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama failed to fully explain their opposition to marriage for same-sex couples at the gay presidential forum held Aug. 9 in Los Angeles. Also at the event, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson seemed to indicate he believed homosexuality was a choice, but later retracted his comments via a statement from his campaign.
Hosted by Time and CNN journalist Margaret Carlson, a small audience filled the Los Angeles studio for “The Visible Vote ’08: A Presidential Forum.” Panelists for the event were Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, singer Melissa Etheridge and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Joe Solmonese.
During the course of the two-hour show the candidates appeared in the order they had personally chosen, which matched the order they had confirmed their appearances. Sen. Obama kicked off the event, followed by Edwards, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Clinton. “I’d like to thank HRC and LOGO for setting this up,” Sen. Obama offered at the outset. “It’s a historic moment for the LGBT community and America. I’m glad I’m participating and glad I got the ball rolling.”
He gave his support for same-sex civil unions, but also indicated that he felt churches should not be forced to recognize the unions. “My sense is that civil unions would be great progress.” When pressed on the prevalence of homophobia in the black community and questioned as to whether or not he talked about LGBT issues in non-gay related forums, he was quick to respond. “I talk about LGBT issues in many forums, not just HRC,” he offered. “At a forum for black ministers in Tennessee, I talked about how the notion of gay marriage has been used to divide and distract. I specifically asked that if there was a pastor out there who has seen a marriage broken up by seeing two men or two women holding hands, please tell me because I’ve seen no evidence of that. I also told them that if they thought that was more important than the fact that there were so many black men out there without a job, that I profoundly disagreed with them.”
Sen. Obama was warmly received and insisted that gays and lesbians could count on his support for civil unions, non-discrimination policies and hate crime laws, though he did not endorse same-sex marriage. “I have a track record of working with the LGBT community,” said Obama. “I will continue to work to make sure there is equality for all.”
Former N.C. Sen. and ’04 vice presidential candidate Edwards raised the ire of some anti-gay groups with his response to Etheridge’s question regarding educating students about the reality of children with same-sex parents. “Do you think we should teach kids about LGBT families in public schools?” she asked.
“Sure [we] should. Kids in public schools need to understand that families with same-sex parents are American families. Just like every American family. I do think it’s important that their peers understand what’s happening. That’s a good thing and something that we as Americans embrace.”
HRC’s Solmonese cornered Edwards on earlier comments he had made regarding same-sex marriage. “You have said that you opposed same-sex marriage,” Solmonese offered. “Could you talk about what is it — in your religion — that is leading you to this position?”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Edwards replied with a chuckle. “I believe to my core in equality. My campaign for the presidency is about equality, across the board. It makes perfect sense to me that gay and lesbian couples would feel that civil unions stop short of full equality. As a president, I would not impose my religion on the American people.”
“I believe in the seperation of church and state,” Edwards continued. “I think we should get rid of DOMA and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ It was wrong when it was imposed. I believe in all of these things and that’s where I am. I strongly support civil unions.”
Like Sen. Obama, Edwards confirmed that he does not support same-sex marriage.
Rep. Kucinich, who quite probably represents one of the best candidates for president but at the same time is one of the least electable, came down in favor of all of the questions regarding LGBT issues. At the end of his portion of the forum Kucinich was asked what his closing thoughts were.
He sat quietly for a moment before responding eloquently. “I send you great love. I want you to know that the love of country and equality is something everyone of us embodies. We need a president who’s willing to testify to that and understand love in its deepest sense. My wife Elizabeth is here tonight and we’ve talked about this. I can’t imagine meeting someone, finding the love of your life and being told ‘No you can’t marry her because there’s a certain rule or law that won’t let that happen.’ Because I understand that, I’m ready to be your president and to help transform this nation. I love all of you. Thank you so much for the opportunity.”
Former Alaska Sen. Gravel, who also supports same-sex marriage, responded to jibes from Etheridge about his age, race and the distinct differences between his progressive beliefs and the predominantly conservative views of many of his contemporaries.
“About my generation, most of them are wrong,” Gravel laughed. “When I was a kid there was a lot of homophobia. Now it’s 59 percent [in support of the LGBT community] and the rest is in the dustbin of history. Five years from now, I’ll make you a promise, same-sex marriage will be a non-issue during the next presidential election. Marriage is a commitment between two human beings in love, two lesbians, two transgendered individuals or two gays. What marriage is about is love, and we always need more love.”
Gov. Bill Richardson, who does not support same-sex marriage, but does support civil unions, offered an explanation for his viewpoint when questioned by Capehart.
“It’s important to accomplish what’s acheivable,” Richardson said. “Achievable is civil unions with domestic patnership. If I am elected I would repeal DOMA and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I’d also repeal the ‘No Child Left Behind’ act. There are parts of it that hurt diversity education.”
LOGO’s “The Visible Vote ’08: A Presidential Forum” forum was hosted by Time and CNN journalist Margaret Carlson, seen here with presidential hopeful Dennis Kuncinich (right). Panelists for the event included Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, singer Melissa Etheridge and Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.
Minutes later the candidate made the major faux pas of the evening when questioned by Etheridge on sexual orientation. “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” Etheridge inquired.
Gov. Richardson looked a bit confused, but responded with a sympathetic tone. “I think it’s a choice,” he offered somewhat guardedly.
“I don’t think you understand the question,” Etheridge continued. “Do you think gays and lesbians are born that way, or sometime around seventh grade they just go, ‘ooh I think I want to be gay’?”
“Well, I — I’m not a scientist. It’s — you know, I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition,” Richardson continued. “I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. You know I don’t like to categorize people. I don’t like to, like, answer definitions like that that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.”
Following the forum, Gov. Richardson released this statement:
“Let me be clear — I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice. But I’m not a scientist, and the point I was trying to make is that no matter how it happens, we are all equal and should be treated that way under the law. That is what I believe, that is what I have spent my career fighting for. I ask that people look at my record and my actions and they will see I have been a true supporter of the LGBT community.”
Sen. Clinton appeared last, to a standing ovation. She shook hands with many in the crowd and took a seat just before fielding a question from Solmonese as to why she has not introduced legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“With a Republican congress and now a Republican president, I don’t want to waste my time,” she explained. “I want to wait until I’m elected to take care of this.”
Host Margaret Carlson with Mike Gravel on the LOGO set for the presidential candidates forum.
She went on the defensive in response to her husband’s, former President Bill Clinton, enactment of the policy in 1993. “I think you have to realize that 15 years ago, people like Staff Sgt. Eric Alva could have been criminally charged if he did not give names of other people he may have been involved with … so at the time, ‘Don’t Ask’ was a tremendous step forward.”
Solmonese then pushed Clinton on same-sex marriage, though she never fully answered his question.
“What is at the heart of your oppostion to same-sex marriage?” Solmonese asked. “Well Joe — I like to think of it as being very positive on civil unions. We have made it very clear in our country that we believe in full equality and I think it’s important we get there, even if it is through civil unions, which offers the same recognition and benefits of marriage. Equalizing federal benefits, repealing section three of DOMA, which stands in the way of benefits for those in same-sex relationships are a priority.”
In summary, Sen. Clinton offered these closing remarks.
“A lot of members of the LGBT community who are my age have suffered though a lot. I want to be able to say to the American people that these are our family and friends and people we care for. They’re our children and our parents. People we want to support. I will be a president who will work for you and fight for you. End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ End hate crimes, HIV/AIDS and so much more. I really hope we can be partners in making our country a little bit better and a little more progressive for all of us.”
Reaction from the anti-gay right-wing was predictable.
“The fact that this debate even took place reflects the wildly disproportionate extent to which a very few super-wealthy homosexual activists have commandeered the political machinery of the Democratic Party through their contributions and influence,” Caleb H. Price, research analyst for Focus on the Family, said in an interview with citizenlink.com.
Response to the forum from organizations within the LGBT community has been largely supportive.
“Stonewall Democrats across our country watched this forum with excitement as we witnessed how our work has helped to monumentally move the Democratic Party in their support for LGBT issues,” said Laurie McBride, Co-Chair, National Stonewall Democrats Board of Directors. “While this forum dramatically demonstrated our progress, it also displayed the challenges that must be faced as we continue to build a more inclusive Democratic Party. It is no longer enough for Democrats to be better on our issues than Republicans. Democrats must be better Democrats.”
“Perhaps the most remarkable part of this historic event was not what was said, but that it took place at all,” said MCC leader Rev. Elder Nancy L. Wilson. “We experienced history-in-the-making as six candidates for the U.S. presidency took part in a forum on issues of concern to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. For the first time on commercial television in U.S. history, presidential candidates, at least Democratic ones, not only believed they needed the support and endorsement of the LGBT community, but were willing to take part in a public forum on LGBT issues, hosted by a LGBT organization, on a LGBT television network, with a panel of LGBT interviewers. In many ways, the forum was a test of candidates’ knowledge and sensitivity to LGBT policy issues, as well as their level of personal comfort and connection to the community.”