Two presidential election cycles ago, talking about gays was all the rage. Anti-marriage-equality measures littered state ballots across the country. There was even talk that they brought social conservatives out in numbers that gave President George W. Bush an edge in 2004 over Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. In separate studies, Kenneth Sherrill of the City University of New York’s Hunter College and Gregory B. Lewis of Georgia State University, put that myth to rest. Still, for better or worse, the lives of gay men, lesbians and their families were part of the national conversation.
This year, not so much. And that’s a good thing. No, it’s a great thing.
Sure, there are plenty of issues facing lesbians, gay men and bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans that ought to be discussed. But after years of gays being used in bigoted ways as wedges in American politics by Democrats and Republicans, the silence is a blessed relief.
There have been three debates featuring President Obama, Mitt Romney and their respective running mates without so much as an allusion to the LGBT community. There are two reasons for this. First, the president took the issue (and the drama that went with it) off the table when he declared his personal support for marriage equality in May. Second, the American people, particularly deep-pocketed and well-connected Republicans, believe that same-sex couples should have the right to marry the person they love.
“What we’re seeing is proof positive that gay issues aren’t the wedge they used to be and furthermore, the public has moved on,” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign. “When the president announced his personal support for marriage equality, there wasn’t an iota of a dip in the polls as many on the right had predicted.”
“Clearly, Obama coming out in support of our families and marriage equality hasn’t hurt the president,” said National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Rea Carey. “If anything, as we kept saying, it was a key moment for a wide range of voters (not only LGBT voters) who were looking for a reason to be passionate about the president again.”
As for Romney, there clearly is no desire to make LGBT issues an attack line in the campaign. “[W]ith the number of opponents to gay equality getting smaller with each passing day and related issue intensity also waning, Romney has little incentive to use his debate airtime to dog whistle the issue,” Jeff Krehely, vice president at the Center for American Progress told me. In fact, the Romney campaign doesn’t want to use any time at all talking about things such as same-sex marriage.
Over the weekend, Chris Geidner of Buzzfeed had a story about how Bay Buchanan suggested that Romney was backing off his support for the odious Federal Marriage Amendment. That was big news — until Buchanan reaffirmed Romney’s support for chiseling discrimination in the U.S. Constitution within 30 minutes of Geidner’s post. But notice, the quick turnaround came not from anyone from the Romney high command but from the surrogate who caused the confusion. If Romney wanted greater attention for such a principled stand, you better believe he would have been out front.
Lanae Erickson, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, gets at one of the reasons for the Romney campaign’s swift but arm’s-length reaction to the Geidner story. “At the moment, neither party thinks they can pick up points with swing voters on the marriage issue. The landscape is moving too quickly, and they don’t want to risk it,” she said.
But marriage equality isn’t the motivating issue for LGBT voters in this election. “[I]f you do look at the polling data on what LGBT people care about in this election, it turns out that the debates did in fact address the critical issues on the minds of LGBT voters including the economy, jobs, and health care,” said Carey.
The poll she’s referring to is the Harris Interactive-Logo poll of LGBT voters and the general population that I wrote about in August. The top three issues of concern to the 1,367 U.S. voters surveyed online by Harris Interactive were the same top three issues for the 1,190 self-identified LGBT voters surveyed. They were “economic issues” (24 percent to 18 percent), “unemployment/jobs” (15 percent to 14 percent) and “health care” (12 percent for both).
That being said, there are issues of importance to the LGBT community that are getting “short shrift,” as Sainz told me. “People, for example, don’t know that Mitt Romney opposes federal workplace protections for LGBT people or that his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment would mean divorcing already legally married gay couples.” Carey pointed out that Romney also opposes civil unions.
And that gets to a larger point. While Obama and Romney haven’t talked much about LGBT issues during the general election, where they stand is very clear. “From President Obama’s impeccable record, it’s clear who is on our side and who supports our community,” said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director and chief executive of the National Black Justice Coalition. “From repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to plainly stating his position on marriage equality, President Obama’s commitment to LGBT Americans is indisputable.” As always, actions speak louder than words.
[Correction, 10:30 a.m., Oct. 22: Kenneth Sherrill is a professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, not at New York University, as I originally wrote. The post now reflects this.]