Let's face it -- August 9's presidential debate on gay issues is not important because of what the candidates are going to say. The three Democratic frontrunners have virtually the same positions on the issues at hand. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama all support domestic partnerships, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but stop short of endorsing marriage equality.
Rather, what's important about the Human Rights Campaign-sponsored debate is its mere occurrence. If the Dems are confident enough to tackle gay issues head-on for a full hour, it means they're no longer worried that the Republicans will throw it back in their faces. They're not afraid, and more importantly, they're betting voters aren't afraid either.
During the 2004 presidential elections George Bush was able to make a lot of headway by scaring moderate voters with the twin specters of activist judges and the impending doom of traditional marriage. The Massachusetts Supreme Court gay marriage ruling had just been handed down, and Bush, eyeing re-election, called it "arbitrary" and "undermining" to families. Nobody knew what might happen if gay partnerships were made legal -- and Republicans worked to make this unknown quantity as frightening as possible.
But in the 2006 midterm elections, when candidates like Rich Santorum (R - Pa) and George Allen (R -Va) tried this tactic again, it failed resoundingly. There are plenty of reasons why they didn't win, but doubtlessly one of them was their harping on the gay union issue had just gotten tired. (A desperate Allen released no fewer than five press releases on a New Jersey partnership ruling that occurred just two weeks before the election.) Massachusetts hadn't been pulled into the underworld in a burst of flames, and the successes of heterosexual marriage in that state were just as comfortably mediocre as ever. Similar partnership ventures in New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, California, Washington and Oregon, to date, have been carried out with no radical consequences.
Internationally, the marriage equality experiment has also been tested on a federal level in The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, South Africa, and Spain. Last fall, I spent a few months in Spain looking at what happened since that nation legalized same sex marriage on July 2, 2005. After traveling the country doing research and interviews, I came to the unexciting conclusion that the answer was: not much.
In the first year after legalization, of about 190,000 marriages nationally, only about 1,300 were between gay couples. There were no reported divorces. (The newspaper El Mundo claimed to have found the first example in the 13th month, complete with accusations over the loss of an animal hairdressing business, and a custody battle over a dog, natch.) By the Christmas 2006, one in every ten marriages in Madrid was between two members of the same sex. Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the conservative mayor of the capital city, even officiated the gay wedding of one of his deputies. It became, after little more than a year, normal. The right wing Partido Popular dropped most of its objections, and married life in the Catholic country (which has a 17% divorce rate compared to ours of nearly 50%), continued on as before.
As real-life experiments with equal gay rights are carried out federally and locally all over the world, the GOP can no longer count on the issue to scare voters to the ballot box. It may be that the long-term results in those places are not what gay activists would hope for, but in the short term, growing familiarity with the issue is working in their favor. The Democratic presidential candidates, sensing this change, have come out of their shells to talk about the issue openly and comfortably. It will no longer be an ignored plank in their broad platforms, as it was in 2004 when John Kerry rarely addressed his support of civil unions until after Bush suggested a federal amendment banning same sex marriage.
This time around, the Democratic candidates have already been more vocal about their positions. During Thursday's HRC debate, nobody is likely to say anything shocking or new. But for supporters of gay rights and marriage equality, merely having a debate says it all.