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Activists view gay TV debate with mixed emotions

by David Crary
Thursday Aug 9, 2007
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The gay-rights movement reaches a milestone Thursday when its agenda is the subject of a televised Democratic presidential forum. Yet many activists - craving bolder support for same-sex couples - view the unprecedented event with mixed emotions.

Though pleased that all the candidates of a major party are courting their votes and endorsing the bulk of their political wish-list, they are frustrated that none of the front-runners is calling for legalization of gay marriage.

The forum, to be held in Los Angeles, is co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group that has become increasingly influential in Democratic politics, and by Logo, the gay-oriented cable channel that will provide a live telecast and Internet simulcast. Every Democratic candidate except Joe Biden and Chris Dodd plans to participate.

Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese will serve as a panelist, along with singer Melissa Etheridge and Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart.

"I hope we can get genuinely heartfelt answers," said Solmonese, who wants the leading candidates to explain why they remain wary of gay marriage.

Organizers say the forum marks the first time that major presidential candidates will appear on TV specifically to address gay issues.

"Simply seeing the candidates step on a stage to speak to a national gay television audience may be as moving as anything they say," said Logo’s president, Brian Graden.

Logo, available in about 27 million homes, offered to hold a second forum for Republican candidates, but the GOP front-runners - less supportive of gay-rights initiatives than the Democrats - showed no interest, said Logo general manager Lisa Sherman.

The Democrats will appear sequentially at 15-minute intervals during the two-hour forum, never sharing the stage with one another.

All of them support a federal ban on anti-gay job discrimination, favor repeal of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy barring gays from serving openly in the military and support civil unions that would extend marriage-like rights to same-sex couples.

But thus far, only two longshots - Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel - have endorsed nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage, which a majority of Americans oppose.

"No viable mainstream contender for president is going to support gay marriage in this election cycle," said Ethan Geto, an adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton on gay-rights issues. "I hope that’s going to change in the next couple of elections."

Geto suggested that Clinton’s hesitancy on same-sex marriage stemmed from her religious upbringing. Yet he also described her as a passionate supporter of other gay-rights causes who is willing to raise those issues even before non-gay audiences.

One of Clinton’s chief rivals, John Edwards, has acknowledged wrestling with his stance on gay marriage.

"I feel enormous conflict about it," he said in a televised debate in July. "This is a very, very difficult issue for me."

He noted that his wife, Elizabeth, broke ranks with him in June and publicly endorsed same-sex marriage.

The third Democratic front-runner, Sen. Barack Obama, belongs to the United Church of Christ, which supports gay marriage, but Obama has yet to go that far.

Many gays and lesbians have submitted questions they would like posed at the forum; Charlene Strong of Seattle said she’d like to be there in person.

Her longtime partner, Kathryn Fleming, died in December after being trapped by floodwaters, and Strong was initially barred from the hospital room because she was not considered immediate family.

"I’d like the candidates to spell it out - what would you do to be sure that doesn’t happen," Strong said. "How do you get to full equality?"

Evan Wolfson, a gay-rights lawyer and executive director of Freedom to Marry, said the good news - in his view - is that all the Democratic candidates support fairness for same-sex couples.

"The bad news is they haven’t yet grasped that equality in marriage is how you achieve that fairness," Wolfson added. "There is no substitute. They wouldn’t trade their marriage for a civil union. Why should gay Americans?"

Wolfson said he was frustrated by the candidates’ sometimes awkward answers regarding same-sex marriage.

"Americans would respect someone who leads, rather than someone who ducks and evades," he said.

Another activist, Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said she was unsure to what extent the candidates’ hesitancy reflected deep-set beliefs as opposed to political calculations.

"Either way, it leaves lesbian and gay couples in the position of being publicly regarded as an inferior kind of relationship," she said.

However, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of two openly gay members of Congress, said he understood the candidates’ caution.

"It’s not wrong for people trying to become president to take political considerations into account," Frank said. "I don’t want a bunch of martyrs on my side."

Among the Republicans, none of the candidates favor repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and only former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has supported limited legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Some conservative activists have denounced the upcoming forum.

"It’s disgraceful that our nation’s moral standards have now dipped so low that it’s considered ’tolerant’ to hold a debate organized entirely around the promotion of sexual immorality," said Matt Barber, cultural issues policy director for Concerned Women for America.

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