Gay marriage front and center at debate
by Lisa Keen
There had to be a collective sigh of exasperation Monday night when CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper directed a question on gay marriage to Congressman Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and then to Senator Christopher Dodd (Connecticut). Their answers were entirely predictable. But by the time Cooper finished a prolonged discussion of equal rights for gays during the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, some gay viewers believe other candidates had parsed at least minor changes in their positions.
Senator Barack Obama (Illinois) drew ire from national Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wolfson for interjecting into the discussion of marriage rights for gay couples the proposition that religious denominations should be free to refuse to perform ceremonies. Wolfson said Obama's answer was "so disappointing and disingenuous."
"He implied that marriage is a religious term and denominations should be able to decide for themselves, but I'm for equality," said Wolfson. "But marriage is a governmental term that provides status â€“ a license. That's the distinction he should be drawing."
Wolfson also credited New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson with eschewing a statement of opposing marriage for gay couples and instead focusing on "what's attainable."
Lesbian political blogger Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend said she thinks John Edwards had a "microshift" in his position on marriage.
"He said he would not use his personal religious beliefs to advocate for policy" against gay marriage, said Spaulding. That is a slight shift, she said, from comments he made saying he does not believe a president should impose his or her religious beliefs on the American people.
According to CNN, about 3,000 video questions had been submitted by debate time, and a CNN panel of its own staff chose the 39 that ultimately were squeezed into the two-hour debate. The ninth question to come up was posed by two women who identified themselves only as "Mary" and "Jen" from Brooklyn, New York, and was worded much the same as it has been in many other forums: "If you were elected president of the United States, would you allow us to be married to each other?"
Kucinich and Dodd expressed positions they have shared many times before: Kucinich is for equal rights for gay couples in marriage licensing; Dodd is for civil unions, not marriage, but he says he would want his two young daughters be treated fairly if they should grow up gay.
Things got a little more interesting, however, when, rather than rush off to another question, Cooper stayed on topic and pressed Richardson. This was Richardson's first big public appearance since news emerged that he had used the derisive term "maricÃ³n" on a radio talk show last year.
"I would do what is achievable," said Richardson. "What I think is achievable is full civil unions with full marriage rights."
And then things got really interesting. Instead of changing the subject to Iraq or health care or global warming, Cooper brought in a second gay-related video question.
It came from the Reverend Reginald Longcrier, an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal church in Hickory, North Carolina. He had a question for native son Edwards, who has repeatedly pointed to his upbringing as a Southern Baptist to explain why he does not accept the idea of equal marriage rights for gay Americans. Longcrier asked: "Most Americans agree it was wrong and unconstitutional to use religion to justify slavery, segregation, and denying women the right to vote. So, why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?"
Mandy Carter, an African American lesbian activist from North Carolina, said she initially feared the reverend would be posing the question in a way that would be hostile to gay people.
"It was very powerful to hear a black minister asking the question," said Carter.
Edwards first tried to rephrase the question as "whether it's right for any of our faith beliefs to be imposed on the American people when we're president of the United States. I do not believe that's right."
Then he fell back into a rehash of an answer he's been giving repeatedly on the campaign trail to explain his opposition to equal rights in marriage: "I feel enormous personal conflict about this issue. I want to end discrimination. I want to do some of the things that I just heard Bill Richardson talking about â€“ standing up for equal rights, substantive rights, civil unions, the thing that Chris Dodd just talked about â€“ but I think that's something everybody on this stage will commit themselves to as president of the United States. But I personally have been on a journey on this issue. I feel enormous conflict about it. As I think a lot of people know ... my wife Elizabeth spoke out a few weeks ago, and she actually supports gay marriage. I do not. But this is a very, very difficult issue for me. And I recognize and have enormous respect for people who have a different view of it."
"I'm sure he's inching his way toward his wife's position on this," said political blogger Spaulding, "but it's a very slow position."
Gay viewers may have thought the gay questions were over, but they were not. Cooper posed his own question to Obama: "The laws banning interracial marriage in the United States were ruled unconstitutional in 1967. What is the difference between a ban on interracial marriage and a ban on gay marriage?"
Obama referred to the answers of Kucinch and Richardson and added, "we've got to make sure that everybody is equal under the law" but he didn't explain any difference between a ban on interracial marriage and a ban on gay marriage. Instead, he said he it should be left up to the individual denominations to make a decision as to whether they want to recognize marriage or not, but that he supports civil unions.
"I think his answer was far worse than Edwards's," said Wolfson of the Freedom to Marry group.
Carter agreed, saying the reference to the right of religious denominations to perform ceremonies "reconfirmed" people's misconception that allowing gays to marry would force churches to conduct ceremonies against their religion's beliefs.
Carter said she was also disappointed with Obama's failure to address the question about interracial marriage and the "parallel" issue of gay marriage.
"He didn't really get to the difference," said Carter, "he just reconfirmed everyone's perception that it's a religious matter. It has nothing to do with religion."