an issue in campaigns
by Matthew S. Bajko
Wedding images depicting a happy heterosexual couple on their special day don't normally come to mind as being problematic photos.
But when they are deployed as part of a political campaign, they can become suspect in the eyes of LGBT voters.
Some may question if the photo is meant to signal a hidden message, particularly if the candidate's opponent is LGBT. At the very least it can be read as insensitive considering the ongoing struggle to win marriage rights for same-sex couples.
On the other hand, depicting one's family, whether a spouse or children, is a time-tested way for candidates to introduce themselves to voters. It is an easy way to signal one's ties to the community.
LGBT candidates can face their own doubled-edged sword regarding how to showcase their loved ones or children. If they aren't out front about their sexual orientation, they could face uncomfortable questions from voters or see it become the focus of news coverage.
Joe Fuld, a campaign consultant who for the last 12 years has helped train LGBT candidates for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said there are various reasons why campaigns will showcase the married lives of candidates.
"I think from a positive standpoint, you can be putting your family in a piece of mail to show you are part of the community, are connected to the community, and are like the people getting the mail," said Fuld, who is straight and owns the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Workshop. "It could be a straight family or LGBT family, whoever it is. It can show what folks are going through."
The strategy can also be used for negative purposes, added Fuld.
"I have done races before where we have seen anti-gay candidates not only say or use anti-gay rhetoric but also do spots where they zoom in on wedding rings," he recalled. "They really try to establish their candidate as being the 'family' or traditional family candidate. We have certainly seen that."
Discerning just what message is being sent becomes trickier when the candidate playing up their family while running against an out opponent also has a track record of supporting LGBT issues.
Two candidates running in the Bay Area this fall considered strong allies of the LGBT community included their wedding photo in mailers their campaigns sent out.
In San Francisco school board president Norman Yee, who is seeking the District 7 supervisor seat, used one of his wedding photos on a mailer that touted his having a "strong family." In addition to the pictures of Yee with his wife and kids, the mailer points out he was born in San Francisco and that he "wanted my kids to grow up on the west side of" town because "there's no better place to raise a family."
Yee told the Bay Area Reporter that the mailer with his wedding photo was part of a series he sent out to introduce "who I am, my life, wife and kids. It was nothing more than to show who I am."
He added that there was "no subtle anything" intended with the mailer.
Joel Engardio, a gay man who is also seeking the District 7 seat west of Twin Peaks, said that he "doesn't read too much into" the Yee mailers. He did criticize them for "not saying a lot about what he is going to do at City Hall."
When he decided to enter the race in the district considered to be the city's most conservative, Engardio said he was told not to bring up being gay or run on LGBT issues.
"I was told don't carry your rainbow flag down West Portal," said Engardio. "The only advice I got was to downplay it."
Instead he has taken the exact opposite approach. His fliers tout that his being elected to a supervisor seat on the west side of town would make LGBT history and feature a photo of him with his partner, Lionel Hsu. He has also written about being asked by residents if he is married or has a family when he knocks on doors.
In the East Bay 18th Assembly District candidate Rob Bonta, a city councilman in Alameda, also raised eyebrows when he included a wedding photo in a mailer he sent out. Bonta is locked in a tough race against fellow Democrat Abel Guillen, a member of the Peralta Community College District board who dates both men and women and identifies as two-spirit.
Some have questioned if Bonta, a deputy city attorney in San Francisco, is playing up his family in order to curry support from more conservative voters in the district.
"What type of dog whistle do you blow so only Republicans can hear it, essentially? Well, you make sure everyone knows you are the only heterosexual candidate in the race," said Alameda resident Leland Traiman, a gay man who lives with his husband and two kids. "Even in small pieces of literature where you can't put a photo there is a line that says Rob Bonta lives in Alameda with his wife and kids. He is running this clearly not so subtle homophobic campaign."
Bonta's campaign calls such allegations preposterous. Mark Capitola, a political consultant working for Bonta, noted not only does Bonta support marriage equality but also won the endorsement of the East Bay Stonewall Democrats, the main LGBT political club in Alameda County.
"When you design mailers you put in photos that demonstrate who your candidate is. The issue you are referring to is a silly issue that was brought up by a couple of gadflies in Alameda," Capitola said. "That accusation being made is offensive to Rob and offensive to me and utterly ridiculous."
The only thing his wedding photo is meant to signal is that he is a person who is married, said Capitola.
"No one should be trying to find some deeper meaning in it," he said.
As for Guillen, he told the B.A.R. that he hasn't been focused on Bonta's mailers and that voters rarely ask about his family status.
"I understand what maybe they are trying to do. I agreed to run a positive campaign," said Guillen, who is single. "I hope he sticks with his pledge as well."
Similar to Bonta's literature, Guillen has used images of him with kids to play up his education background and signal schools will be a top priority for him in Sacramento.
"What is resonating with folks here is they want someone who will stand up for progressive values," he said. "People want a fighter up in Sacramento and I have demonstrated that. That is what is going to make the difference at the end of the day."
Alice Kessler, Equality California's legislative advocate, finds the questions raised about Bonta's mailers surprising. While the statewide LGBT group endorsed Guillen, Bonta scored a 100 percent on the LGBT issues EQCA asked candidates.
"I am a little surprised there are these accusations of homophobia. They don't jibe with our interactions with Mr. Bonta," said Kessler. "I think he would be a strong LGBT vote and ally if he is elected to the Legislature."
The debate over images is puzzling, said Kessler, since it raises the question if LGBT candidates should not showcase their families in their campaign materials. Why shouldn't LGBT candidates include pictures of their family or significant others if they have them, questioned Kessler.
"The other thing personally I find dissonant here is it is not like LGBT people don't have families. If a candidate who is LGBT has kids, I assume they may have their picture in their mailer," said Kessler. "For me, I am not connecting how having a picture of your family would mean you are homophobic."
As more LGBT people come out and seek public office, the issue of how they depict their families, as well as how their opponents portray their own loved ones, will continue to be parsed. At its trainings for LGBT candidates the Victory Fund spends considerable time on the topic to prepare those seeking to enter politics how to handle it.
"It was definitely something they covered in fair amount of detail," said Sabrina Brennan, an out lesbian who is married and attended a 2011 training in Chicago.
As she seeks a harbor commission seat in San Mateo County, Brennan has been very open about having a wife, both at campaign forums and on her website. But Brennan said there are limits to how much of her private life she is willing to share.
"I am not sure I would want to put my wedding photo on any mailers. That feels a little too personal," she said. "I do see people using family photos and baby photos. I can understand why people would want to share those images in their mailers."
So far her sexual orientation really hasn't come up in her race.
"Nobody ever asks me about it," said Brennan. "I feel I am pretty darn out and I don't see it as a problem."