Wrong Answer, Governor

By Jonathan Capehart
Monday, August 13, 2007

Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson and I were stealing glances at each other when singer Melissa Etheridge asked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson an easy question: "Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?" His response was quick: "It's a choice!" My visible reaction to Carlson was equally quick: "Oh, no, he didn't!"

The occasion was Thursday's forum with the Democratic candidates for president, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, and Logo, the gay channel owned by Viacom. I served as a panelist at the two-hour event in Los Angeles. It was a historic moment for gays and lesbians nationwide, as many believed that one of the people who came to offer their views on gay issues would be the next president of the United States. (Plans for a Republican forum were scrapped after GOP candidate Mitt Romney declined an invitation and John McCain and Rudy Giuliani did not respond to invitations.)

The forum's organizers hoped to get the candidates to show their concern for the gay and lesbian community and to see whether their understanding emanated from their consultant-generated talking points or from their hearts. Clearly, Richardson's head needed some work. Even his campaign recognized this -- it issued a "clarifying" statement not one hour after the event. And on a gay radio show the next day, Richardson told host Michelangelo Signorile that he didn't understand the question because of jet lag.

That rationale and his initial answer are inexcusable. To gays and lesbians, flubbing the choice-vs.-nature question is like botching the answer to "What's one plus one?" Note to Richardson's current and former gay staffers and supporters: Do an intervention -- and get him an Ambien -- before he implodes again.

Where Richardson got it right, however, was his political assessment of gay marriage. "The country isn't there yet on gay marriage," he said moments before diving headlong into his homosexuality-is-a-choice sinkhole. "We have to bring the country along." He talked about how he would focus on getting what's "achievable" in equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. I support gay marriage, but I am pragmatic enough not to turn my nose up at legislative and legal gains that strengthen gay relationships and lay the foundation for full marriage rights -- or turn my back on those who would fight for them.

Many gays and lesbians couldn't care less about the political calculus involved in gay marriage. They are being denied basic civil rights, and they want them now. Sen. Hillary Clinton's instructive recollection about the charged environment that led to the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, to head off an even more damaging constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, left more than a few people cold. That's understandable.

But that was the reality gays faced then -- and that is what we face now, even in these more accepting times, when civil unions are the safe harbor of politicians on both sides of the aisle who aren't "there yet on gay marriage." Think about it: The two fellas in the race who unabashedly support same-sex marriage -- Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel -- are at the back of the pack.

That's why I don't fault Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama or former senator John Edwards for their opposition to gay marriage, even if their explanations leave me scratching my head. Clinton's mantra that this is a states' rights issue, while logical, makes this descendant of slaves just a bit uncomfortable. Edwards backed off using his Southern Baptist upbringing to justify his opposition. But I still find it hard to believe his opposition is real since his no-nonsense wife, Elizabeth, and daughter Cate are in favor of gay marriage. And I can't even point to a reason Obama is against it, other than his oft-stated belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

But that's okay. Look, they've all committed to snagging for the gay community as many as possible of the more than 1,100 federal rights and responsibilities that come with civil marriage that are now denied to committed same-sex couples. Isn't that what everyone's fighting for in the first place? Like it or not, it's a good start, and if one of these Democrats succeeds in winning the White House, he or she should be pushed to fulfill that promise.

And here's something else to think about before some of y'all fill my e-mail inbox with petty putdowns: Republican pursuers of the White House rejected their invitations to talk to the gay community about the issues important to it. Chances are that if they're not interested in talking to you during the campaign, they will be even less inclined to do so if they win.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address iscapehartj@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company