Dems Court the Gay Vote

Democratic presidential candidates attended a historic candidate forum Thursday evening sponsored by the liberal gay and lesbian rights group The Human Rights Campaign and broadcast on the gay cable TV channel LOGO.

Supporters of gay and lesbian rights should have been pleased to see the White House hopefuls treat their group as politicians treat other more mainstream interest groups: They came, they saw, they pandered.

The first task for the candidates speaking to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender crowd of roughly 200 attendees — including the actors who have portrayed Doogie Howser and Lloyd from HBO's "Entourage" — was to try to relate.

"I come to these issues … as a friend of a lot of members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community," said New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said, "When you're a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it's like to be on the outside."

By the same token, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson noted, "I'm Hispanic. I felt the sting as a kid of being stereotyped."

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards even reminded folks of his fight with conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who once referred to him using the word "faggot."

"I think that what Ann Coulter does is the worst kind of public discourse," Edwards said.

But even if there was agreement on many issues — nondiscrimination in the workplace for gays and lesbians, for example — the evening was not without friction, some of it caused by panelist and self-described "privileged rock star" Melissa Etheridge

Referring to an account from Edwards' former political adviser Bob Shrum, Etheridge said to Edwards, "I have heard that you have said in the past that you feel uncomfortable around gay people. Are you OK right now?"

Edwards disputed the account. "It's not true. It's not true," he said. "Elizabeth and I were both there, and both of us have said he's wrong."

Etheridge asked Richardson, "Do you think homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?"

"It's a choice," Richardson said.

"I don't know if you understand the question," Etheridge said to laughter. "Do you think a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, 'Oh, I want to be gay'?"

"Well, I, I'm not a scientist," Richardson said. His campaign later issued a statement declaring that he didn't think homosexuality was a choice — the correct answer for that crowd.

Candidates were asked why all but two of them oppose same-sex marriage — even though they support civil unions.

Obama said, "Semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested is making sure that those legal rights are available to people."

Richardson agreed. "I'm not there yet. And the country isn't there yet," he said.

Darlings of the evening included long-shot candidates Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, the only two who support same-sex marriage. Kucinich was asked whether there were any gay and lesbian rights issues he does not support.

"All I can say is, keep those contributions coming … and you'll have the president that you want."

"I'll take that as a 'No,'" responded the panelist.

A major theme was disappointment with actions taken by President Clinton, with Edwards jumping on the bandwagon. "'Don't ask, don't tell' is not just wrong now, it was wrong when it began," he said.

Obama said he would overturn the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by Clinton in 1996. It allows states to not recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Etheridge directed the communities' disappointment to Clinton directly. "We were very, very hopeful, and in the years that followed, our hearts were broken."

"If I were sitting where you're sitting … I'm sure I would feel exactly the same way," Clinton said. But she defended Don't Ask Don't Tell and the marriage act as the best gays and lesbians could achieve at the time. "I believe that there was a lot of honest effort going on."

But if anything shows how much things have changed since the 1990s for gay and lesbian issues, it was the fact that this event was held with all the front-runners attending.