Image: Kerry
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. opposes gay marriages but supports civil unions giving gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/8/2003 10:05:58 AM ET 2003-12-08T15:05:58

The importance of nation’s estimated five million gay and lesbian voters was underscored Tuesday as seven of the nine Democratic presidential contenders appealed to the leading gay and lesbian lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign, for its backing. Gays and lesbians are a formidable force in Democratic Party fund-raising and organizing, and account for an estimated ten percent of the voters in Democratic primaries — so an endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign will be significant.

Dean tweaked his rivals by telling the crowd of 400 gay and lesbian activists that he could “tell you what I’ve done — as well as what I’ll do.” As he does in nearly every speech, Dean touted his record as the only governor to sign a civil unions bill giving gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples.

REPEAL 1996 LAW

If elected president, Dean vowed, he would “do everything in my power” to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was signed into law by President Clinton. That statute says states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

When asked by moderator Sam Donaldson why he opposed same-sex marriage, Dean replied, “I have never said that.” He added, “Marriage should be left to the churches.”

He deflected Donaldson’s question about marriages performed not by clergy, but by justices of the peace.

Dean’s chief rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said he had supported gay rights in the 1980s when few others did and pointed out to the crowd that an openly gay man was the treasurer of his campaign.

Kerry explained his opposition to gay marriage by saying it was simply “a matter of how I view the world. Culturally, historically and religiously I don’t believe that is a distinction that makes a difference.” Kerry said he backed civil unions of the type Dean had signed into law.

On integration of openly gay people into the military, Kerry cautioned that there would be “very real difficulties” with “unit cohesion” — for instance, if a gay person were made part of 12-man Navy SEAL team operating in Afghanistan.

“There is a process of transition that we will have to go through,” Kerry said.

Two other Democratic contenders Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, also said they opposed recognition of gay marriages, but supported states enacting civil unions bills as Vermont has done.

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Lieberman also pledged that if elected president “I won’t listen to ideological extremists or cave in to the special interests.”

Gephardt compared his advocacy of gay rights to the stand taken by another politician from Missouri, Harry Truman, who ordered the racial integration of the armed forces when he served as president.

Long-shot presidential contender Rev. Al Sharpton sharply attacked Dean, Lieberman, Kerry and Gephardt for backing civil unions, instead of gay marriage. Supporting civil unions, he said, was “like saying we’ll give blacks or whites or Latinos the right to shack up, but not marry!”

Topping all other contenders in drawing a reaction from the crowd, Rep. Dennis Kucinich answered the question of whether he’d appoint an openly gay person to the Supreme Court, by replying, “I’d nominate any gay to the Supreme Court, or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered person to the Supreme Court as long as they were ready to uphold Roe v. Wade,” the court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

UNANIMOUS FOR GAY RIGHTS

Winnie Stachelberg, the political director for the 500,000-member HRC, said in an interview with MSNBC.com that all nine Democratic contenders “are unanimous in support of gay and lesbian equality and fairness. They all support ending workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

“We’re disappointed” in those such as Kerry and Dean who oppose gay marriage, said Stachelberg. But she noted, “each of the Democratic contenders who are not supporting gay marriage do support some version of relationship recognition,” such as Dean’s civil unions law.

Dean’s candidacy has come very far, very fast, despite — or perhaps because of — his outspoken advocacy of gay rights, a fact that HRC activists find highly encouraging.

DEAN’S APPEAL

Unabashed support for gay rights is, said Stachelberg, “part of who Gov. Dean is — and it resonates with the electorate — that he’s a man who has convictions, who takes his convictions seriously, who acts decisively and not based on opinion polls.”

She likens his stance on gay rights to his position on guns. Dean favors enforcing current federal gun laws, but leaving all remaining gun regulation issues to the states. “He is very clear and he does not apologize for it,” she said.

HRC made its endorsement of Al Gore in February of 2000, when it was clear he would defeat Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination. Stachelberg is not tipping HRC’s hand on the timing of an endorsement this year.

LEGALIZE GAY MARRIAGE

For gay and lesbian voters, as well as for social conservatives who find the idea of gay marriage repugnant, the issue of marriage may well dominate the presidential race.

Gay rights activists are awaiting an imminent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision which may make marriage for same-sex couples legal in that state.

If the court legalizes gay marriage in Massachusetts, some gay rights advocates say it would automatically be legal in every state, due to Article IV of the Constitution which says, “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”

It was to avoid this outcome that Congress passed DOMA in 1996. Lieberman and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, another presidential hopeful, voted for DOMA, while Kerry voted against it.

In a deft bit of political triangulation, Clinton — who’d sought to allow gays to serve openly in the military — ran radio ads in some states such as Colorado in the 1996 campaign taking credit for signing DOMA.

“Most court watchers know that DOMA was unconstitutional,” said Stachelberg. If it is repealed by Congress or struck down by the courts, gay marriage might become the law in all 50 states.

TOUGH SELL IN THE SOUTH?

Gay and lesbian marriage, or even Vermont-style civil unions, could be a tough issue to sell to conservative voters in the South and the Midwest.

Three Southern Democrats in the House, as well as Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, are co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment which says, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.”

“The opponents of equality in marriage for gay and lesbian couples know the only way to block it is to pass the constitutional amendment,” Stachelberg said.

Referring to the South, Stachelberg acknowledged, “there are regional challenges when it come to gay and lesbian issues.”

No Democrat has ever won the presidency without winning at least a few Southern states.

Dean addressed that point directly. “People will say, ‘How is this guy going to win in the South having supported civil unions?’ I’ll tell you exactly how we’re going to win the South. The South has the highest percentage of veterans” of any region in the country.

Then he recounted the story of how he’d met a closeted gay man who had served in the Army in 1944 and landed on Omaha Beach during D-Day.

“That’s a guy who deserves exactly the same benefits as anybody else,” Dean said.

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