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Clinton, Obama Slow to Respond to Questions on Homosexuality

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By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 18, 2007; 11:42 AM

Do the two leading Democrats running for president think homosexuality is immoral? That question arose this week after Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) seemed slow to criticize remarks by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that "homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral."

Clinton was asked by ABC News about the morality of homosexuality on Wednesday morning. She responded, "I am going to leave that to others to conclude." Obama didn't respond to repeated questions about his position on Wednesday after an appearance in Washington. With a torrent of complaints from the gay community coming in, both candidates soon released statements saying they don't think it's immoral to be gay. (See Clinton talking about the issue.)

But the episode was viewed with some concern by gay activists and political observers. Kenneth Sherrill, who teaches courses on gay politics at the City University of New York, said Obama and Clinton seemed "afraid to say homosexuality is not immoral." He added, "They are afraid of backlash. If you look at the polling data, you find a fairly large percentage of Americans think homosexuality is wrong even though they support equal rights."

Presidential elections tend to crystallize the position of gays in American politics, though sometimes in unexpected ways. In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned saying he would allow gays to serve openly in the military. He was forced to back away from that position and accept the compromise "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In 2004, Republicans -- including President Bush's team in Ohio -- made anti-gay marriage appeals that seemed to galvanize part of the GOP base.

Just more than two years later, though, the gay community arguably has a stronger place in American politics than ever before. A network of gay political donors is exercising an unprecedented role in supporting campaigns, as Joshua Green of the Atlantic chronicled recently. Most of the leading presidential contenders favor civil unions, which were considered controversial just a few years ago.

But none supports gay marriage. "The political reality isn't quite there yet," says Ethan Geto, a liaison to the gay community for the Clinton campaign who has served other Democratic politicians in a similar capacity.

In an Associated Press/AOL poll conducted in January, a slim majority of Americans favored a law banning gay marriage. A Gallup poll last May showed that 51 percent of Americans think homosexual relations are morally wrong, while 44 percent think they're acceptable.

Clinton and Obama have been popular in the gay community. Clinton has close allies at the Human Rights Campaign, where she gave the keynote at an event early this year. In his famous 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama declared, "We've got some gay friends in the red states." Both candidates favor gays openly serving in the military.

But when the question of the morality of homosexuality came up on Wednesday, both candidates would not immediately say whether they thought homosexuality was moral. Clinton focused on her opposition to "don't ask, don't tell," while Obama said Pace ought not to be discussing non-military matters. Then gay advocates got on the phone with both campaigns to demand an express repudiation of Pace's comments -- and got it.

"I think it became very clear to us on Wednesday morning that there was a need for them to be unequivocally crystal clear about what they meant. They had left questions in the minds of people," said Human Rights Campaign president John Solmonese.

H. Alexander Robinson, executive director of the gay advocacy group National Black Justice Coalition, said crucial questions have been left unresolved by the incident.

"The comments about morality and immorality go beyond how people are treated under the law but goes to how we as a society treat people because of the difference of their sexual orientation," he said.

"Both the senators finding their own voice and being willing to speak truth to power was something that was not an immediate, instinctual thing. The way they did it was a statement on the way politics is played right now, which was unfortunate." Further reading:

· CJR Daily: Clinton, Obama 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' Eliciting Outrage

· New York Times: 2 Democrats Clarify Beliefs About Gays

· Newsday: Clinton, Obama skirt queries on gays in the military


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