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How HRC Outted the Democrats Last Night

Last night's debate revealed what a sea change has taken place in gay politics. Remember when Howard Dean's grudging support for civil unions made him a raving leftis? That was 2004.
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I've been aggressively avoiding reading any commentary about last night's Human Rights Campaign/LOGO forum with the Democratic presidential candidates. So I have no idea how the gays of America took to it. But here's my uncorrupted take.

Like most political theater, last night got much right and a little wrong.

One thing it got right was that it revealed what a sea change has taken place in gay politics in an amazingly short time. Remember when Howard Dean's grudging support for civil unions as Vermont Governor made him a raving leftist as a Democratic presidential candidate? That was way back in 2004. Barack Obama was treated much like a leper last night by the questioners -- HRC's Joe Solmonese, The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, Margaret Carlson, and Melissa Etheridge -- for falling over himself to defend "strong civil unions" but stopping short of same-sex marriage.

Obama would have been on the cover of The Advocate for that same stance three years ago. Instead, Solmonese grilled Obama on whether or not he understood that for gay people civil unions can sound a lot like "separate but equal." That questioning offered just the first of many of last night's peeks into the candidates hearts and minds on gayness. It was that pushing that forced Obama to reveal himself beyond what Carlson chided as his "politically feasible approach." Look, said Obama, miscegenation laws made my mother and father's marriage illegal in some states, but if I were an adviser to the civil rights movement, I still would have told them to focus on something real and concrete, like voting rights laws.

Jeebus, I thought at the time. Obama doesn't quite get it. He scored points, with me at least, for referencing 1,138 -- a sort of totemic number for gays, representing the number of federal legal protections they miss out on without the benefit of marriage. He was spot-on in calling gayness a "political football." But undergirding his advocacy for civil unions was the refrain that under his administration, civil unions won't be a lesser union. Frankly, Obama's faith in the superhuman powers of the presidency aren't all that reassuring. Nurse Smith isn't likely to dial up President Obama before she decides to boot Tom from John's hospital room, now is she? It was indeed a revealing exchange.

When his turn came, John Edwards demonstrated a similarly strong faith in the ability of the executive to make American life sweetness and light for gay people. Pushed on how to create buy-in around doing away with Don't Ask Don't Tell, Edwards sneered at the idea that buy-in was needed at all. "I think the President of the United States can get rid of Don't Ask Don't Tell," he said. Indeed, no. Repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell Would take an act of Congress. The questioners let Edwards pass with that misunderstanding. But when Etheridge rests a question on his statement, attributed to him by Bob Shrum, that "I'm not comfortable around those [gay] people," Edwards wasn't about to let that pass. Edwards was adamant that he never said those words; "it's just wrong" to attribute it to him, he said. Point made.

The more Etheridge, Solmonese, Carlson, and Capehart pushed, the more the candidates showed their hand and hearts. One of the more unseemly aspects to Edwards' opposition to gay marriage his been his couching that stance in his religious faith. Edwards interrupts Solmonese when he questions him on that approach, saying "I shouldn't have said that." That's a significant shift. But it's a significant shift that revealed a truism in gay politics -- when it comes to homosexuals and public policy, hypocrisy is A-OK. "It makes perfect sense to me," said Edwards, that gay people feel like civil unions "stop short full equality." Still, he stands firm on the idea that civil marriage means one man and one woman. Next question!, said Edwards, while I shook my head in confusion.

While Edwards didn't attempt to thread the needle on how an advocate for equality is comfortable with a policy that he himself can see is less than fully equal, Hillary Clinton gave it a shot. But in truth she had little choice when it came, at least, to Don't Ask Don't Tell. It was a policy borne of her husband's administration, a policy response to one of the central idea's of their 1992 campaign. Don't Ask Don't Tell, said Clinton, was a better policy for gay soldiers than what was in place before it. (Clinton agrees with Edwards that its time has passed, but she gets the logistics right where Edwards had it wrong, saying that Don't Ask Don't Tell was a legislative act and would take an act of Congress to amend.)

Clinton took a similar politically-attuned approach to the Defense of Marriage Act. It was good politics and the best possible policy at the time, she argued. The states were passing some crazy laws back then, she says, and the federal government's DOMA was a way of cutting them off at the pass. But when probed on the question of marriage today, Clinton punts the matter back to the states, saying that the question should be decided there and not at the federal level. When Solmonese pressed her on the inconsistencies in that approach, the senator from New York argued back that the push for marriage equality is a new struggle. And with that reality, she seemed to be saying, comes with certain political limitations. Her's was a Clintonian "politics is the art of the possible" approach.

Same went for her response to Etheridge when the singer said with a sight that while gay people started out the Clinton Administration with a great deal of hope, they soon found themselves "thrown under the bus." I don't see it the way you describe, she told Etheridge. And she went beyond that to tell Etheridge that while she understood why she -- who has faced health challenges in the recent past -- would want things done quickly, as a political leader she has to have a vision that sustains change over the long haul. Clinton wasn't about to let herself be painted as anti-gay at a Human Rights Campaign forum. When Solmonese asked Clinton why she's so down on marriage equality, she responded: "I prefer to think of it as very positive about civil unions," with a hearty laugh.

Again, much was good last night, and a little was not so great.

What was great? We were treated to a whole lot of insight into how the Democratic presidential candidates understand and approach issues related to gayness in America.

So what was not so good?

The first failing of the forum, if it can be called such, was the underlying assumption that same-sex marriage is the holy grail for all gay Americans. It's not, though to be sure there are a great many gays just itching to register at Williams Sonoma or Bed Bath and Beyond. But for many others, marriage isn't the be all and end all. The front and center role that marriage equality played last night wasn't at all sup rising, given that the Human Rights Campaign is about as mainstream as a national organization for gay people can be. Last night may have seemed like the gay debate, but it truth it was more like a gay debate. But come on, considering that the complete marginalization of any and all gay folk curbed only recently, that's a quibble. It's painful for a leftist like myself to think the thought "be happy with what you got," but in this case, hey, it's perfectly reasonable to be happy with what we got.

The second failing. The ridiculous number of gay celebrities in the small crowd! How could I listen to the questioners' questions or the candidates' responses when all the while I'm busy shrieking, "ooh, that's the divorce lawyer from The L Word!" or "oh my gosh, there's Doogie Howser in the back row." And I've spent way too much time today unsuccessfully Googling the identity of the man in the middle section who looks a bit like Lloyd from Entourage, but I think is actually the host of one of those interior design reality shows. You know the guy I'm talking about?

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