Obama, McCain Differ Greatly on Gay Rights, An Interview With Congresswoman Baldwin

In this exclusive interview Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) discusses gay marriage and Barack Obama and John McCain's positions on the issue. She also addresses the future of LGBT rights in America, and what it's like to be an openly gay Member of Congress.

Both the Presidential & Vice Presidential candidates have come out against gay marriage. Do you think this is political or ignorance?

I'll take the candidates at their word of why they have concluded that they can't personally support same-sex marriage at this point in time, but, I would also look beyond that first question about what all of the four candidates that we're talking about, both Presidential nominees and both of their running mates would do beyond that to protect LGBT families. In the case of Senator Obama, he supports full equal rights with regard to the same set of protections that are associated with marriage to be extended for same sex couples under the name of civil unions or domestic partnerships. That is not the case with Senator McCain and his running mate. So I think we have a very stark contrast with the two. In other words, the similarity of opposing same-sex marriage ends there. There's no other similarity beyond that and we have a stark contrast between the two candidates for President.

Since neither Presidential candidate endorses gay marriage, will the new Congress work to pass any marriage equality laws under a different name, i.e. civil union or domestic partnership?

Well, in the United States we have traditionally governed the issue of marriage at the state level. That doesn't mean there's no reference to marriage at the Federal level. We know there is. Both with regard to the Defense of Marriage Act, which Senator Obama has pledged to seek the repeal of in its entirety, and we also have reference to basically accepting the State definitions of marriage for purposes of tax law and employment law and other rights and responsibilities. But we've really governed and defined the institution of marriage at the state level and as we can see today, various states are grappling with this in different ways. You have Massachusetts, California and now Connecticut that at this time have fully recognized same sex marriage. You have the State of New York that is going to recognize same sex marriages that have been granted in other states. And you have other states that have civil union protections, domestic partnership protections and some that have none at all for same sex couples.

In terms of what we can expect to see at the Federal level -- because the Federal government isn't in charge of defining marriage, what I hope we will be able to achieve in the upcoming sessions of Congress is first of all, a recognition that the states have decided to do so that if a married couple, a same-sex couple, in Massachusetts seeks to secure some benefit at the Federal level like filing their taxes jointly as heterosexual married couples are allowed to do, that the Federal government will begin to recognize those and we would need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act in order to accomplish that.

Additionally, I offer legislation that would grant domestic partnership benefits and obligations to Federal employees who are in same-sex partnerships regardless of what state they come from and that would include all of the employment benefits that are extended to spouses of federal employees, whether it is health insurance, dental insurance, whether it is pension benefits and also things like leave policies to take care of an ill relative or a loved one.

Have you discussed gay marriage and LGBT rights with Senator Obama?

I have not personally, but I have been very involved with regard to joining as co-chair of the LGBT Steering and Policy Committee for Senator Obama and so right now we've pivoted our policy development, which has been done over the course of the primary and early in the general election to a Steering Committee function which is doing outreach with the LBGT community and that's been my main function with regard to Senator Obama's campaign and LGBT issues.

In Massachusetts where gay marriage is the law we don't have any federal protections for our families. If marriage laws are left up to the states how will LGBT couples ever be treated equally?

I think we will see a progression of recognition in several states and will ultimately, hopefully in the short term rather than the long term, recognize as a nation that this patchwork quilt of marriage definitions that vary very significantly from state to state just doesn't make sense anymore and we'll move toward a situation where all states recognize same-sex marriage and the Federal government, by repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, begins to recognize those also.

There's an alternative that would be sort of the legislative route. We have seen in other instances the Supreme Court stepped in, although I don't think this particular Supreme Court is poised to do that in this point in the debate and the movement. But, what I point to when I say that, is the Supreme Court forty plus years ago stepping in and saying that interracial marriage will be permitted in every state and that any state that has banned recognition of interracial marriages or criminalized the entering into interracial marriage, that those laws are no longer valid under the U.S. Constitution. That's a possible route, but I don't think that's something we'll see in the near term both given the composition of the Court and given where the movement and where we are right now in regard to granting same-sex marriages in the states.

What is your opinion on the separation of church and state and how that relates to gay rights? It appears that the candidates are using this to prevent our LGBT community from obtaining equal rights. What is your take on this?

I think a lot of the arguments that are brought up relating to fear mongering and scare tactics just need to be exposed for what they are. There are a lot of folks who say recognition of same sex marriages will lead to churches being forced to preside over same sex marriages and nothing could be further from the truth. There's absolute clarity that religious communities have their own authority to decide whether or not they want to participate in same-sex marriages. And frankly even before the civil marriages were granted were doing so, others certainly have chosen not to. But the idea of raising the specter that religious organizations will be forced to do so is just false and there's just no question about that.

There's another arena in which religious sentiment has been raised in this and that's when people cite their own personal deeply-held religious beliefs for leading them to the conclusion that they don't support same sex marriage, and with regard to that, I can respect the role that people's personal faith plays in a lot of decisions relating to public policy. That's been the case for all time and so that's something that I accept.

Since gay marriage was legalized in California, what are your thoughts if Proposition 8 passes and the California Supreme Court decision is reversed?

First of all, it would cause great sadness. There are, I think now, well over 10,000 couples who have married just in the few months since same-sex marriage was recognized in the State of California. And, if the voters were to act to reverse that, it would be a very sad day. But, then if this eventuality were to happen, I'm certainly hoping and working toward making sure that it doesn't. But that said, we still have the status of those who have entered into marriages in California to analyze. I guess, I would assume there would be efforts to uphold all of those 10,000 plus marriages and continue to recognize them since Proposition 8 has no retroactive effect as far as I understand, and to continue to work to advance marriage equality in all states, in all parts of the country. That's certainly something we need to do.

This is the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. Last year we came close to passing the Matthew Shepard Law. Is it impossible to pass Hate Crimes Legislation at the Federal level?

I do believe, certainly, the vote in the House is testament to the fact there is strong support for inclusive Hate Crimes legislation and we didn't get to see the vote in the U.S. Senate this time. However the Senate has in the past voted in support of the Hate Crimes Law by attaching it to other legislation and so we know that the votes are there. What we lacked in this session of Congress in terms of our ability to get this legislation through the whole process was any type of support from the President of the United States.

In fact, he issued a veto threat on the day we were debating the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill in the House of Representatives. So, we need a new President and we need the right new President. And so our work to elect Senator Obama as President forwards and advances our mission of having Hate Crimes legislation signed into law very much.

We also came very close with ENDA. Do you think it will be possible to pass The Employment Non-Discrimination Act nationally?

I think the results of the November 4th election will inform the answer to that question also. We had, by my count, a very, very close to a majority who were willing to vote on an inclusive measure. We were very concerned in a lot of the sort of internal discussion, when we were advancing the Bill to the floor which revolved around what sort of response there would be to any type of mischief-making on the floor by the opponents of this legislation and, whether we could if there was an attempt to separate out gender identity and expression withstand an attempt to do that and keep the Bill intact. And, while I was not in the prevailing side of the internal debate on this, the decision was made to introduce separate bills, one protecting people from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and the other based on gender identity and expression and to move those Bills separately.

Again, I was advocating a different course of action, but in terms of can we do it next session, I think the question will be how many more individuals will be elected to the Congress in this election who are willing to cast that vote. And, if we have a stronger majority, I think we will be able to move forward with an inclusive Bill.

One other thing, it reminds the whole question, reminds me of the Patricia Ireland quote. First, when we're dealing with a sitting Congress, you're trying to build majorities by changing people's minds, but she use to say "If you can't change their minds, change their faces." And that's what we do in elections. We're hopefully going to seat a new Congress in January of next year that has greater numbers of pro-equality members.

What is your reaction to the Historic Connecticut Supreme Court decision to pass gay marriage?

The decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court to recognize the constitutionality of same-sex marriages under its state constitution is another sure step in our nation's march toward full equality. I applaud the Connecticut Justices who cited the decision written by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in 1819 in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland that the Constitution must adapt to changing times. Indeed, we are in a period of monumental change and slowly, but surely, gay and lesbian Americans are achieving the equal status they deserve.

Copyright OUTTAKE Media LLC 2008. Listen to the conclusion of this interview & Post Election Interview.