Terrance Heath

Democrats on Gay Issues: None of the Above?

Filed By Terrance Heath | July 19, 2007 12:11 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: 2008 Election, civil rights, Democratic Party, marriage, New Jersey

As almost always happens, some major political story breaks when I'm on vacation or traveling, and thus have less-than-ideal- or-immediate web access. Last time it was the Mark Foley story. Last week it was the the controversy over HRC presidential candidates forum and the initial decision not to invite Mike Gravel, one of a handful of Democratic candidates who one of just a handful of Democratic candidates who support fully equality for gay and lesbian Americans and our families.

Though I engaged in discussions with several other bloggers about the news of the forum and Gravel's initial exclusion, I didn't get the chance to post about it here last week. But Mike Rogers had a great round-up posted here.

The progressive gay blogosphere has arrived and the rest of the political world is cordially invited to take notice. The addition of former Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) to the upcoming Democratic presidential candidate forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and MTV's LOGO channel represents a sea change for our corner of the netroots community.

Whether or not one thinks Gravel should have been included in the August 9th event is not very important to the story. The real lesson here is that the growing gay blogosphere is "a new form of political commentary leaving adolescence with all the swagger of a twenty year old," says fellow Huffington Post blogger Sara Whitman

...Blog posts were written, emails flew, phone calls were made, ideas tossed around. Netroots activists and organizational leaders were united by technology and by week's end the event was expanded by a half-hour (to 90 minutes) and Sen. Gravel was invited to attend.

What struck me most during the whole debacle is echoed in Rogers' first sentence: "The progressive gay blogosphere has arrived..." Note, he said "the gay progressive blogosphere," and not "the gay Democratic blogosphere." That stood out to me because as I floated somewhere out in the Atlantic and watched this unfold, it occurred to me that it may be past time to distinguish between "Democratic" and "progressive" and acknowledge that the two are not one and the same.

That occurred to me after reading John's post, somewhat pooh-poohing the events that Michael heralded in his post.

What do I think of all this? I honestly don't care. Gravel is a nut. A very pro-gay nut, and that's nice. But he's still a nut. And so are Kucinich and Ron Paul. Their presence at the debates is entertaining, but they're not going to be the presidential candidates or the vice presidential candidates and, while I know it's a tradition in our country to always have a few goofballs thrown into presidential debate the mix, I tire of wasting what are already pretty lame debates on candidates who simply don't matter.

As for the fairness of excluding someone as pro-gay as Gravel, can't we come up with anyone better than Gravel to present to America as the Democratic party's standard bearer on gay rights? While some argue that Gravel could pull the other candidates the right way (the left way) on gay issues, I worry that he shows Democratic candidates and the country the kooky face of gay politics. The man simply comes off as a bit goofy - why would any Democratic candidate want to align themselves with his remarks in front of millions of Americans? If anything, he gives the Dems covers NOT to embrace the gay cause - i.e., see, I'm not as goofy as HIM. I think he hurts our presidential cause more than helps it.

Actually, I wanted Gravel included, not because he would give anybody cover but because I hope his presence will make some gay voters ask the same question John asked in his post: Can't we come up with anyone better than Gravel to present to America as the Democratic party's standard bearer on gay rights??

Well, no. We can't. And that's just the problem. Gravel's presence at the forum isn't going to make supporting equality seem goofy and thus dissuade Democratic candidates from supporting equality, because the "serious" candidates are all afraid to publicly support equality even if they support it privately. The only person even connected with a major Democratic candidate who has the courage of her convictions is Elizabeth Edwards, and that's a damn shame because she's not running for anything. Her husband is, and while I don't doubt Elizabeth's sincerity, her stance accomplishes little more than making some gay voters feel better about her husband while also giving him enough cover to basically have it both ways by "tolerating" his wife's stance and saying that he opposes discrimination while basically supporting discrimination and inequality.

"A lot of people I love and care about feel the same way Elizabeth does," he said. "I'm very strong about ending discrimination against gay and lesbian couples."

"But I'm not quite where Elizabeth is yet," he added.

No leading presidential candidate from either major political party has publicly supported same-sex marriage.

To that last sentence I might add that none will, so long as we reward them for half-measures. If this is how we reward candidates who actually stand by our community then we don't deserve any better than we're already getting, because it's just reinforcing the notion that any candidate who has the courage to stand for equality is going to be written off by our community as a candidate who can't win. Lesson learned. Democrats can't run on their values and be taken seriously, even by our community.

Am I wrong? Convince me that any other civil rights organization would invite candidates to its forum that defended "separate but equal" and exclude candidates who advocate inclusion unequivocally because of how much money they have or haven't raised.

How many other minority groups would enthusiastically support and contribute to a candidate who supported "separate but equal" but added a belief that separate really should be equal and maybe even some vague promise to try and make separate equal?

I can't put it any better than Nancy Goldstein did.

"I haven't yet got across that bridge," John Edwards says. Clinton and Obama straddle similar lines, "citing religious concerns and the fact that older generations of Americans view the term 'marriage' as a commitment between a man and a woman."

It's a near-perfect ploy. How can you call these nice peoples' positions homophobic or cowardly when clearly it's just a personal-religious-thing and a respecting-the-elders thing?

...So while one of these Democrats will almost surely get my vote, not a one of them is going to get a penny from me.

After all, I'm an old-fashioned kind of girl. My grandparents -- all of them the children of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms of late 19th-century Czarist Russia -- passed on to me their very strong feelings about not supporting bigotry.

I haven't yet got across that bridge.

I'm with Goldstein in that one of these candidates will almost certainly get my vote, but I'm having a hard time envisioning myself doing anything more, like writing a check, staffing a phonebank, handing out literature, etc.

I refuse to cheer any candidate's support of civil unions or "leaving it to the states" unless they either explain why the federal government is even in the business of offering benefits and protections to heterosexual families but not to ours or make a case for the federal government getting out of the business of awarding benefits and protections on the basis of marital status. And I don't want to hear about any candidate's support for civil unions unless it's followed by their vision for some national policy measure that establishes civil unions in a way that protects our families across state lines.

Anything else is just a whole lot of mouth music, without even the benefit of the usual finish. I don't care about their private support. Unless I'm a friend of theirs or a member of the family, their private support means nothing to me unless it translates into policies that protect our families. I've heard too many stories about what happens to our families as a results of not having equal protections, and blogged about them here, to go out of my way for a candidate who merely support the status quo.

Ask gay couples in New Jersey how much protection civil unions offer them.

But more than four months after New Jersey's civil union law went into effect, Ross, 46, and Cash, 54, are among the many same-sex couples severely disillusioned with their prospects for legal equality. Citing federal regulations that allow many employers to effectively ignore state laws regarding corporate benefits, the Fortune 500 company where Ross has worked as a computer specialist for 21 years denied the couple's request for joint coverage.

"I feel beaten up and deflated," said Ross, who asked that his company's name be withheld out of concern for his job. "Everyone celebrated when this thing passed because we thought it would be equal to marriage, that the only thing different would be that we called it 'civil unions.' But civil unions aren't giving us the legal rights we hoped for."

Since the movement to win legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples began in earnest more than a decade ago, states have sought to use new designations -- including "civil union" and "domestic partnership" -- to define the legal status of same-sex couples. But some activists now fear that the problems in New Jersey may signal that the movement to win equal marital rights for same-sex couples nationwide will be harder fought than many had thought.

For that matter, ask Janice Langbehn, whose story I covered in a previous post.

Four months ago, Lacey resident Janice Langbehn, her partner Lisa Pond and their children Katie, David and Danielle, ages 10 to 13, were set for a relaxing cruise from Miami to the Bahamas.

But Pond, Langbehn’s partner for nearly 18 years, was stricken in Miami with a brain aneurysm and died. The family says the way they were treated by hospital staff compounded their shock and grief.

Langbehn, a social worker, said officials at the University of Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital did not recognize her or their jointly adopted children as part of Pond’s family. They were not allowed to be with her in the emergency room, and Langbehn’s authority to make decisions for Pond was not recognized.

“We never set out to change the world or change how others accept gay families,” Langbehn told the crowd at the Capital City Pride on Sunday. “We just wanted to be allowed to live equally and raise our children by giving them all the same opportunities their peers have.”

While Washington is one of a half-dozen states to recognize same-sex partnerships in some fashion, Florida is not.

Ask John Crisci.

The day Michael Tartaglia died was a day he had prepared himself and his partner of 33 years for, obtaining every protection available under Colorado law. But at the very moment they most needed to fulfill their responsibilities to each other, Colorado law kept them apart. In November, Colorado voters have the chance to fix the law, by approving Referendum I.

In the mountain home he designed and built with Tartaglia, John Crisci takes a moment to collect himself, his eyes welling up with tears, as he recalls once more the events of Jan. 8, 2004.

“It doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times you say it,” he manages, his voice wavering. This is a story Crisci has told to the Colorado legislature, to newspaper reporters and to various groups throughout the state.

When Tartaglia collapsed at the gym on his 70th birthday, Crisci was with him. But the legal papers documenting the couple’s relationship were at their home, 15 minutes away by car. So while an ambulance rushed Tartaglia to Denver’s St. Anthony Central Hospital, Crisci could not be with him, as any spouse would expect to be. “They just weren’t going to allow it,” Crisci said of the paramedics. Instead, he rushed home to retrieve his documents, then drove 30 minutes to the hospital, only to find his worst fears confirmed. Tartaglia was already dead.

Facing the same situation, married couples are treated very differently. While Colorado law grants a spouse rights to make medical and end-of-life decisions by default, Crisci knew he needed in hand both Tartaglia’s medical power of attorney (a document that expires upon death) and his will for the worst outcome.

John knew he would need to arrive at the hospital carrying both a durable medical power of attorney for the best outcome, and a will for the worst.

Theirs are far from the only story, and it feels like an insult to their families to go to great lengths to support any candidate who claims to "oppose discrimination" and yet offers no solution to what happened to these families, what happens to a number of our families on a regular basis, and can happen to any one of our families. And when it happens to yours or mine, we'll need far more than any candidate's words against discrimination if they aren't backed up by policy proposals that will make a real difference. In short, in the face of crisis, what real use do we have for candidates who talk more than they lead; who don't, in other words, try to make a real difference?

My answer is "None."

And, though I probably won't in November, my inclination upon looking at the likely lineup for the Democratic nomination is the same as a great many Republicans looking at their own choices: none of the above.

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I have long argued that I am a progressive, and belong to the Democratic party only because it's the least-worst option.

It'll be a cold day in Texas before a "serious" Democrat takes equality. If you want to be a "candidate that matters" you have to steer clear of constituencies and issues that don't matter, at least as much as possible.