Last week, the HRC released the results of a candidate questionnaire that showed that all serious contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination unanimously agreed on providing basic protection at the federal level to gays and lesbians, across the board, with the notable exception of marriage.
In my view, this is a real advance. After years of vague rhetoric from Democrats about “equal rights” for gays and lesbians, the HRC succeeded in nailing down specifics.
The Democratic presidential candidates supported civil unions across the board – which is fine, I guess, but a state and not a federal issue – and, more to the point, supported repealing the provision in the Defense of Marriage Act that blocks federal recognition of gay and lesbians couples who are married or in civil unions or domestic partnerships under state law. The candidates agreed with equal tax treatment, Social Security survivor benefits, and other federal benefits for gay and lesbian couples in state civil unions and domestic partnerships. The candidates supported, as well, extending federal recognition and benefits to gay and lesbian couples in states like Alabama, uh, Wisconsin, that have an "anti-marriage" laws or constitutional provisions, as long as the couples meet yet-to-be-defined federal standards.
It is, at one level, astonishing to see how far we have come since 2000, not to mention the 1980's, when Democratic politicians ran from gays and lesbians like a dog leaving a house afire, leaving gays and lesbians the task of fighting the AIDS crisis without any support at all from government.
But talk is talk. What counts more than "talking the talk" is "walking the walk", and my experiences over the weekend reinforced my conviction that the Democrats bear careful watching, if not downright suspicion. Based on what I've been seeing and hearing lately, my view is that gays and lesbians are going to have to hold Democratic politicians' feet to the fire, constantly and consistently and for years to come, if we hope to get anything but rhetoric out of Democrats.
In Alabama, uh, Wisconsin, we live in the aftermath of the 2006 election, in which the votes in this state approved an "anti-marriage" amendment banning same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships. The aftermath has been predictable, given the experience in Michigan and other states which passed similar amendments in 2004. Every attempt to advance equal treatment for gays and lesbians, from two-parent adoption to domestic partner benefits for the University of Wisconsin, has been resisted by Republicans and complicated by the amendment.
We will get nowhere until the amendment is history.
Which brings me to the Democrats.
I am a Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Sauk County this year, and in that capacity I was a delegate to the 2nd Congressional District convention and will be a delegate to the DPW state convention later this month.
What I saw and heard at the convention did not inspire confidence.
During the course of the convention, we were addressed by a variety of Wisconsin legislators representing senate and assembly districts within the Congressional District. The theme from all of them was consistent – first, Democrats held the governorship and took control of the State Senate in 2006, and need to work hard to take control of the State Assembly in 2008, and second, Democratic politicians in the state have put "gays, guns and God" behind us and the path is open to tackling real issues.
It is, as the confessor in Moonstruck pointed out, the second part of the message that is problematic.
The "gays, guns and God" Republican agenda – Republicans in this state seem to be fixated, in the way that only the doomed can be, with appeasing the likes of Julaine Appling -- may be behind us, but the "anti-marriage" amendment remains, defining a social contract in Wisconsin that makes a mockery of the principle that "all citizens are entitled to equal treatment under the law".
Worse yet, the "anti-marriage" amendment spreads its tentacles throughout Wisconsin statures and legislative efforts to advance the cause of equal treatment for gays and lesbians under the law. Because the anti-marriage amendment is so broad, banning any recognition of gay and lesbian couples that looks or quacks like marriage, civil unions or domestic partnership status, the amendment in Wisconsin, like the amendment in Michigan, can be and is being used to block legislation that could ameliorate the effect of the amendment on gay and lesbian couples, however slightly.
What bothered me about the convention addresses was how quickly and remorselessly Democratic politicians relegated gays and lesbians to the back burner, a group, although gravely harmed by the amendment, can be put on hold while "real" issues – that is, straight issues – are put on the front burner.
I had a conversation with Senator Fred Risser, one of the legislators who addressed the convention, about this during lunch. I told him why his obvious relief that "gays, guns and God" were off the table was inappropriate while the amendment remained in force. He, to be blunt, gave me a lot of prattle back about how I was "talking to the converted". The disconnect was striking – Risser did not seem to have a glimmer of understanding that "the converted' understand that the amendment is a roadblock across the board, and that the few, minor advances we could
make while the amendment remains in force were not enough. After Risser escaped – he clearly did not want to be talking to me, as plain-spoken as I was – my lunch partner, a straight woman of a "certain age" – that is to say, about my age – from Sauk County, said "He really doesn't get it, does he?"
No, he doesn't. And he is not alone, unfortunately.
The platform resolution discussion – each county turns in ten resolutions to the Congressional District convention, which in turn selects ten resolutions to be forwarded to the DPW state convention platform committee – was, in a word, similar. A resolution calling for repeal of the amendment was presented by the Dodge-Jefferson Democrats, but, notably and strikingly, no similar resolution was presented by the Dane County Democrats, and Dane County overwhelmingly rejected the amendment in the 2006 election.
It took a bit of parliamentary maneuvering – a delegate called for the resolution to be "seperately considered", which meant that it would be discussed – and I made a blunt speech explaining why the Dodge-Jefferson resolution should be one of the "top ten" resolutions forwarded to the state. As it turned out, the Dodge-Jefferson resolution made it, but I don't think that it would have absent the effort. And you can bet that no other Congressional District forwarded the resolution to the state DPW convention.
More telling, perhaps, than the speeches and the resolution fight, was the fact that several gay DPW senior staffers came up after the resolution vote to tell me how important it was that I spoke out, telling me that it was important that the DPW hear the message loud and clear from the grassroots.
Really? The DPW has a relatively large number of senior staffers who are gay or lesbian, out, and experienced political operatives who are the lifeblood of political operations of the DPW. Why is it that they
are not speaking up, pushing hard, drawing the line on equality. Is it that they have bought into the "real issues" nonsense, and are playing the game, or do they sense, as I do, that nothing is going to happen, except talk, unless the grassroots kicks and screams.
I don't know, but I do know this – gays and lesbians are going to have to shoulder our own struggle for equal treatment under the law. We cannot sit back and assume that straight folks, Democrat or Republican, Green or Libertarian, are going to make it happen for us. We have to hold everyone's feet to the fire, and hold them close to the fire, or we are going to end up like the anti-abortion folks, marginalized and mocked by their "friends".
I am not suggesting that gays and lesbians should vote Republican in 2008. I plan to vote a more-or-less straight Democratic ticket, and absent something unexpected, I will.
The Bush administration has raised the bar of incompetence in government to record levels, just as the administration has raised the national debt to record levels through its "for anything else there's MasterCard" notion of fiscal responsibility. We are going to spend decades digging our country out of the hole the Bush administration dug for us in the last seven years, and electing Republicans at this point would be akin to handing a mole a power shovel, in my view.
But while we may vote Democratic in 2008, we have to remember that "talking the talk" is not enough. And we have to vigorously remind Democratic politicians that at least one leg of the "gays, guns and God" tripod is still standing. This is not a time for self-congratulation in Wisconsin – the "anti-marriage" amendment is in our constitution, and while it remains, we remain Alabama.
In one sense, things have not
changed since the 1980's. Gays and lesbians cannot
count on anyone other than ourselves for our liberty. Fight on, and fight hard.