Democratic Candidates Address Gay Rights Issues

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 9 -- At the first-ever televised presidential forum devoted to gay rights issues, the Democratic front-runners, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), were sharply questioned on why they do not support same-sex marriage, while the two joined the other candidates in backing civil unions and the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

Obama said it is less important to focus on the semantics of the word "marriage" than to focus on equal rights, and Clinton -- responding to a comment by singer Melissa Etheridge that gays were "thrown under the bus" during Bill Clinton's administration -- said "I am a leader now" on gay rights.

Activists were even more frustrated with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who when asked whether people are born gay or choose to be, said, "It's a choice" and later explained, "I'm not a scientist."

At the two-hour event in West Hollywood, Obama was asked several times why he would not back same-sex marriage, and he pledged to ensure that all same-sex couples have the same rights as married couples, the stance adopted by most of the Democrats.

"Semantics may be important to some," he said, adding that if gay couples had equal rights, "then my sense is that's enormous progress."

The forum, organized by the Human Rights Campaign and Logo, a gay-themed television network operated by MTV, underscored the increasing importance of the constituency to the Democratic Party. When a similar forum was held in 2003, one of the top contenders, then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), did not attend, and the event was not televised.

This time, Edwards appeared, along with Obama and four other Democratic candidates who each spent more than 15 minutes taking questions from a four-person panel that included Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, and Etheridge.

When pressed on gay marriage, Edwards said, "My position on same-sex marriage has not changed." He then used the question to challenge the Clinton administration on its approach to gay rights -- and by implication to challenge his rival, Sen. Clinton. " 'Don't ask, don't tell' is not just wrong now, it was wrong when it began," Edwards said.

Clinton took a stance similar to Edwards's and Obama's, not backing marriage but saying she wanted same-sex couples to have equal rights. She also said states were making better progress on gay rights than the federal government.

"I've also been a very strong supporter of letting the states maintain their jurisdiction over marriage," Clinton said.

The event was a love fest for Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), who backs same-sex marriage. When one panelist, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, asked Kucinich if there was any issue on which he disagreed with the gay rights community, the talkative congressman was left speechless.

"All I can say is keep those contributions coming, and you'll have the president you want," he told the audience.

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