by Richard C. Auxier and Alec Tyson
On Thursday night six Democratic candidates for president came together for a debate on issues important to the gay community. The debate was broadcast on the Logo cable channel and co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. Candidates took on issues from gay marriage to “don’t ask don’t tell” and addressed a party whose rank-and-file hold ambivalent positions on some key issues of concern to gays.
The six Democratic candidates who attended the debate made a point of demonstrating their support of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. But only Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel specifically supported allowing gays and lesbians to marry. “To me, this isn’t even a close question,” said Kucinich, who said there was not an issue where he disagreed with the gay community. The divide between the Democratic presidential hopefuls reflects the split within their party on gay marriage: 49% support allowing gays to marry but 43% are opposed. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois stated that this should not be a partisan issue, but it clearly is: Only 21% of Republicans favor gay marriage and 75% are opposed, according to a January Pew survey. Other candidates publicly described what they said were the political realities of the gay marriage debate. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico repeatedly focused on discussing “what is achievable” rather than gay marriage because “the country isn’t there yet.” He was correct in his assessment, with the January Pew survey showing 55% of the country opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry and 37% in favor.
The candidates that did not support gay marriage tried to stress that their campaigns wanted to accomplish what was achievable – such as equal rights – rather than pushing for the more controversial measures like gay marriage. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” Obama said. When discussing the politics of gay marriage, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said, “How we get to full equality is the debate we’re having.” In a Pew survey conducted in July 2006, 49% of Democrats said they believe supporters of gay marriage should push hard to make it legal, while 43% said supporters should not push too hard. Overall, fully half (51%) of the country believes supporters of gay marriage should push to make it legal while 41% say they should not.
A State Issue?
When discussing her opposition to gay marriage, Clinton said that she is a “strong supporter of letting the states maintain their jurisdiction over marriage.” Democrats are divided on this issue: 50% are in favor of deciding this issue on a national level while 45% disagree, according to a July 2006 Pew survey. Overall, the country is split, with 48% favoring a national solution and 46% preferring that states decide for themselves. Republicans (49%) also favor a national solution on gay marriage.
While not specifically mentioned in the debate, allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children remains a controversial issue within the Democratic Party and among the public as a whole. Several Democratic candidates emphasized the need for equal rights for gays and lesbians and the right to adopt a child would seem to qualify as an equal rights issue. A slim plurality of Democrats (48%) opposes allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children, while 47% favor gay adoption. Republicans are less ambivalent on the issue with a 67% majority opposing adoption by gays. The general public also opposes allowing gays and lesbians to adopt by 52%-42% margin.
A Choice and Change
Gov. Bill Richardson said he believed that being gay was “a choice,” a response that was met with some incredulity from Melissa Etheridge, the Grammy-winning singer who served as host. Richardson then qualified his statement by saying “I’m not a scientist” and “I don’t like to categorize people.” While Richardson released a statement after the debate clarifying his position, rank-and-file Democrats do not take a clear stance on the issue: a 42% plurality believes that homosexuality is something people are born with while 36% say it is just the way that some people prefer to live and 10% say homosexuality develops because of how people are brought up, according to a July 2006 Pew survey. Democrats are more likely than Republicans (27%) and the general public (36%) to say homosexuality is something people are born with.
Furthermore, a majority of Democrats (54%) believe that a gay or lesbian person’s sexual orientation cannot be changed while 33% say it can be changed. Republicans take the opposite view: A 48% plurality saying sexual orientation can be changed and 42% saying it cannot.
‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’
The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy came up repeatedly in the debate and met with unanimous opposition from the candidates. Clinton called the repeal of the policy one of her “highest priorities” and former North Carolina Sen. Edwards said that it was “bad for America, bad for the military.” On this issue, the candidates have the strong support of Democrats. A 70% majority of Democrats favors allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, according to a March 2006 Pew survey. By contrast, 46% of Republicans favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, while 46% oppose such a measure.