Six Democratic presidential candidates engaged Thursday in a strikingly candid and revealing discussion about gay rights in a forum hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and broadcast on the gay television and Internet network Logo.
Margaret Carlson moderated with three additional questioners — HRC president Joe Solmonese, rock musician Melissa Etheridge and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart — who all asked some of the most difficult and probing questions the candidates have faced this election cycle.
Six of the eight declared Democratic candidates appeared, one at a time, sitting on an upholstered chair to answer questions.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was asked whether he thought homosexuality is a choice, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was asked what place he thinks the church should have in government-sanctioned civil marriages and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was asked what is at the heart of her opposition to gay marriage.
Some of the candidates appeared stunned at the pointed nature of some of the questions.
Former Sen. John Edwards appeared to be caught off guard when asked about anti-gay comments his former political strategist accused him of making in 2004.
"You have said in the past that you feel uncomfortable around gay people," Etheridge asked the former Democratic vice presidential nominee. "Are you OK right now?"
Edwards smiled and quickly said that the accusation leveled by Bob Shrum was not true. "Someone else said it. It's not true," Edwards said.
Richardson seemed to struggle to explain how he'd voted for the Defense of Marriage Act while serving in Congress. He now opposes it. He said that in his heart he's now committed to what is achievable — civil unions — but that the country is not ready to accept gay marriage.
On the question of whether people are born gay, Richardson said he's not a scientist. "I don't like to … answer definitions like that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else I don't understand," he said.
Obama said he understood the plight of the gay community because he's a minority. "When you're a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it's like to be on the outside," he said.
Obama asserted that he is strong believer that the government has to treat all citizens equally and that the struggle for equality is what prompted him to get into politics.
Asked whether he would put the fight for gay rights on par with the civil rights struggles endured by blacks in the 1960s, Obama said he's always cautious about getting into comparison of victimology but that "doesn't mean there aren't parallels."
On the question of homophobia in the black community, Obama scored applause from the audience when he said he doesn't know any marriage that has been broken up as a consequence of two men or two women holding hands.
"If you think that issue is more important to the black family than black men don't have any jobs and are struggling in inner cities, I profoundly disagree with you," he said.
There was an awkward exchange between Etheridge and Clinton. Etheridge voiced anger with Clinton's husband, former President Clinton, accusing him of forgetting about the gay and lesbian community, which had extremely high expectations for his presidency back in 1992.
"Our hearts were broken. We were pushed under the bus," Etheridge said to Clinton.
Clinton conceded that her husband didn't get as much done at she would have liked, but that there was an honest effort on their part to fight for gay rights.
"I think I am a leader now. And I think we are doing a lot to not only talk about laws, as important as they are, but to really try to change attitudes that we should be more open. More accepting," the former first lady said.
The audience seemed most pleased by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a long-shot presidential candidate who is in step with the Human Rights Campaign with his support of same-sex marriage. He was introduced as a longtime champion of the gay community and told the crowd the nation needs a president who is going to be an "exemplar of equality."
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel went after his '08 rivals for "playing it safe" when it comes to gay marriage. He said Democrats are not going to lose votes by supporting gay marriage.
Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut did not participate in the two-hour forum, citing scheduling conflicts.