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U.S. Presidential Candidates on LGBT Issues

In Los Angeles on August 9, Human Rights Campaign and LOGO network hosted the first American LGBT Presidential forum. Six of the candidates for the Democratic nomination – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson – participated in the forum. An invitation was extended to candidates from the Republican Party but none accepted.

Presidential hopefuls are campaigning now to win their party nomination in the primary elections. The winner of the party nominations for the Republican and Democratic primaries will face off in the general election in November 2008.

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The forum was formatted so that each candidate had 15-20 minutes on stage to answer questions posed by a moderator and panel. The panel consisted of Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solomonese, and lesbian singer Melissa Etheridge.

Questions covered a range of LGBT issues, including: gay marriage and civil unions, the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, Defense of Marriage Act, hate crimes legislation, early childhood diversity education, same sex parenting, employment protection, homophobia in the black community and HIV/AIDS health care.

Barack Obama

Obama in Clip – ‘People’s experience on a day-to-day basis is that they have got gay friends, they have got gay family members. They love them and they cherish them. And somehow our politics creates craziness and fear that doesn’t match up to people’s day-to-day experiences. It is the job of the President to talk about these issues in ways that encourage people to recognise themselves in each other.’

Currently second to Sen. Hillary Clinton in most of the Democratic primary polls, Sen. Barack Obama was the first to take the forum stage. He answered questions about the place of church in the gay marriage debate, parallels between the civil rights movement for African-Americans and homophobia in the black community.

Sen. Obama voiced support for a ‘strong version of civil unions’. He went on to say that he would work to ensure that the 1100 rights currently not conferred to LGBT Americans were granted.

‘I’ve got a track record of working with the LGBT community. What I have focused on and what I will continue to focus on is making sure that the rights that are provided by the federal government and the state governments and the local governments are ones that are provided to everybody,’ Sen. Obama said.

However, he took a stance against same-sex marriage, arguing that churches have the right to choose whom they marry. He cited the American tradition of separating church and state as a reason for not supporting same-sex marriages.

John Edwards

Edwards in Clip – ‘To have someone brutally murdered in the United States of America because of their sexual orientation and not have that be a hate crime… The United States of America is better than this and all of you are important to bringing about the change that is necessary in this country… The real change and the real movements in America, they did not start in the oval office, they started in places and communities, just like this, with people of courage and strength who went out and stood up and fought for what was right… That’s what you are doing today and you are going to change this country along with the next President of the United States.’

Second to take the stage was 2004 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards. Mr. Edwards, currently third of the Democratic hopefuls in most polls, answered questions about health care for the LGBT community, early diversity education in public schools, trans* rights and same-sex marriage.

Like Sen. Obama, Mr. Edwards supported a strong version of civil unions that closed the gaps in health care and other rights for LGBT individuals. Mr. Edwards said he understood why the LGBT community was lobbying for marriage rights, but ‘the truth is my position on same-sex marriage has not changed… I do believe strongly in civil unions and the substantive rights that go with that. I think we need to get rid of DOMA, we need to get rid of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’… I can only tell you where I am today and today, I believe in all these things, but I do not support same-sex marriage.’

When asked how he would respond to a member of his staff coming out as trans*, Mr. Edwards said, ‘I would support them in every possible way, including on a personal and emotional level, provide every bit of help and support that I could.’ He continued to call for powerful employment non-discrimination laws so that members of the LGBT community could come out and be protected from losing their jobs.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton in Clip – ‘I come to these issues not as a Senator or a lawyer or a Presidential candidate, but as a friend… I want to be a President who can clearly say to the American people these are our friends, our children, our parents. These are people who we want to support as they live the best lives they can. So, it is very personal to me. We are not going to agree on everything, but I will be a President who will fight for you, who will work to end discrimination in the employment area, end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, finally get hate crimes through, do a lot of what we need to do on HIV/AIDS and so much more.’

Former First Lady and current New York Senator, Hillary Clinton was the last candidate to take the stage. The current favourite in the polls for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Clinton spoke about same-sex marriage, civil unions, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and DOMA.

Sen. Clinton’s husband Bill Clinton was President when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was implemented, and Sen. Clinton said she believed when it was first passed that it was a transitional action to stop the ‘witch hunt’ for LGBT soldiers in the U.S. armed forces. She continued to say she felt it was incorrectly implemented and that she would repeal it. She also said that she wanted to repeal section 3 of DOMA to ensure that federal benefits were equalized to all Americans.

When asked about her opposition to same-sex marriage, Sen. Clinton replied:

‘I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions… For me, we have made it very clear in our country that we believe in equality, how we get to full equality is the debate we are having. I am absolutely in favor of civil unions with full equality of benefits, rights and privileges. I have also been a very strong supporter of letting the states maintain their jurisdiction over marriage.’

Singer Melissa Etheridge, who came out publicly during former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration week, said she felt the LGBT community was wooed by Mr. Clinton’s campaign, only to ‘have their hearts broken’ over the course of his Presidency. She asked Sen. Clinton why this time would be different.

Sen. Clinton defended her commitment to the LGBT agenda, saying, ‘We certainly didn’t get as much done as I would have liked. I believe that there was a lot of honest effort going on by the President, the Vice President and the rest of us who were trying to keep the momentum going. I remember when I was running for the Senate as the First Lady, marching in the gay pride parade in New York City. To a lot of people that was just an unbelievable act.’

Other Candidates

In addition to the three Democratic frontrunners, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson attended the forum.

Mike Gravel, a former Senator from Alaska, endorsed same-sex marriage, prompting panellist Melissa Etheridge to call him ‘unusual’ for his ‘generation of straight, white men.’

‘Marriage is a commitment between two human beings in love… They can be heterosexual. They can be two lesbians. They can be transgender. They can be two gays. It is a commitment of human beings in love, and if there is anything we need in this world, it is more love,’ Mr. Gravel said.

Dennis Kucinich, a Representative from Ohio, was the only other candidate at the forum to support same-sex marriages.

‘The states should not be intervening against people, the states should be intervening on behalf of people, to make sure that love has a chance to be facilitated,’ Rep. Kucinich told the forum.

Bill Richardson, governor of the state of New Mexico, said that when it came to same-sex marriage he ‘was not there yet.’ According to many political commentators he also committed the biggest gaff of the forum. When asked by Melissa Etheridge if he believed someone was born gay or it was a choice, he answered it was a choice.

America’s LGBT Agenda at a Glance

  • Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]: Passed in 1996, DOMA defines marriage as between one man and one woman. If a U.S. state legalises same-sex marriage, that union does not have to be recognised by the federal government or other states under DOMA.
  • Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007: This act, currently before Congress, would expand hate crimes legislation in America to protect individuals from crimes committed against someone because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: This is the U.S. military policy that prohibits individuals serving in the armed forces from engaging in same-sex relationships. According to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so long as an individual does not disclose their sexual orientation, their sexual orientation can not be investigated.
  • Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA]: Introduced in Congress in April of this year, this act would make illegal workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity.

The forum can be viewed online .

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