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Democrats discuss gay issues

Friday, August 10, 2007

Forum puts Democrats in hot seat over gay issues

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY

Gay questioners put six Democratic presidential candidates on the spot Thursday night on issues ranging from religion and same-sex marriage to whether children should be taught about why some classmates have "two mommies."

The unusually relaxed and personal forum, held in a Los Angeles studio that looked like a talk-show set, was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which advocates for gay rights, and the gay cable network Logo. The questioners, including singer Melissa Etheridge, pulled no punches in trying to make the candidates feel their frustration over their inability to marry and other issues.

Most of the Democratic candidates support civil unions but oppose gay marriage. After hearing four contenders, HRC President Joe Solmonese said, "Their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear."

Solmonese launched the event by asking Illinois Sen. Barack Obama whether he understood that gay people could see civil unions without marriage as "separate but equal." Obama replied that when his white mother and black father married in the early 1960s, interracial marriages were illegal in some states. "Obviously this is something that I understand intimately," he said. "It's not for me to suggest that you shouldn't be troubled by these issues." But as president, he said, his responsibility would be to make sure gay couples have legal rights.

Former North Carolina senator John Edwards said he was wrong to have said in an earlier debate that he opposes same-sex marriage because of his religion, but he did not answer when asked what is at the core of his opposition. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton got the same question and replied, "I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions."

Edwards said he supports teaching about families with "two mommies," as Etheridge put it, because children "can be mean and cruel." Asked what grade that should be taught, he said he didn't know.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, asked whether being gay is a choice or people are born that way, said it's a choice. After the forum, he reversed himself. "I do not believe sexual orientation or gender identity happens by choice," he said in a statement.

Richardson and Clinton were asked why they backed the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Clinton's husband, which says the federal government can't recognize same-sex marriages and states don't have to. They said the law was necessary to stave off a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

This was the HRC's second presidential forum and the first shown live on the Internet and TV. Solmonese called it "a testament to how far we've come that it was being broadcast live on our community's own television network."

Other candidates on the program were Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, the only two Democrats who support same-sex marriage. Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut had scheduling conflicts.

All eight Democrats have said it's time to let gay people serve openly in the military — even Clinton, whose husband started the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy under which gay people must hide their sexual orientation.

Clinton was asked why, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she has not introduced a bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." She said she didn't want to try "in a Republican Congress with a very negative president and have it defeated," adding its repeal is "one of my highest priorities."

That was one of several perceived lapses cited by questioners. Clinton was asked why she waited a day before disagreeing with former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace when he called homosexuality immoral. "It was a mistake," and she fixed it, she said.

Edwards' former consultant Bob Shrum quoted him in a recent book as saying in 1998 that "I'm not comfortable around those people." Asked about that Thursday, Edwards joked that he was not uncomfortable, then said he had never made the remark.

Richardson, who is Hispanic, recently apologized for using the Spanish version of a gay slur last year on Don Imus' radio show.

"I felt the sting as a kid of being stereotyped and I apologized," he said at the forum. He said he "meant no harm" by the remark and urged gay voters to "look at my actions and not words."

Several GOP candidates were invited to appear at an HRC forum, but none accepted. Patrick Sammon, president of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans, said he wasn't surprised: "The candidates are engaged in primary battle, and they're going to tailor their appearances …accordingly."

The imperatives for Democrats are more immediate. "Huge gay populations" in some new early-voting states, such as New York, California, Florida and Illinois, could be key to who wins the nomination, said Edwards supporter David Mixner, a 30-year veteran of national gay politics.

Contributing: LuzElena Avitia in Los Angeles

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