It's unusual when a line from a play or film sticks with you but I think we all carry a handful of them around with us. I've been thinking about one in particular recently -- from the Bernard Pomerance play, The Elephant Man. In a painful wail, John Merrick begs for those around him to see, understand and accept his humanity. "I am not an animal -- I am a human being."
Throughout this presidential nominations process, I have come to see that I too have something to wail. "I am not an issue -- I am a human being.'
We all know the drill of political speeches. You've got to have your policy component, you've got to work in some reference to a higher authority, you've got to have your call to action or the "we need a change" section and last but certainly not least, you need your 'real moments.'
Ronald Reagan was the master of this kind of speech. His State of the Union addresses were masterpieces. 2/3 of the way through his speech, he'd tell a story. About a person, a family. He'd use their names. And then he'd point to them sitting next to Nancy. The story was intended to emphasize Reagan's commitment to a particular policy and it worked like a charm. He made it real.
The leading Democratic candidates know the drill too. They've got an entire inventory of 'real moments' and use them often to emphasize their policy point. There are names, there are faces. But gay and lesbian Americans do not have names or faces in stump speeches, debates or interviews. We are referenced only in the abstract.
Have you ever heard Hillary, Barack or John mention a name of anyone they know or have met who is gay or lesbian? Has John Edwards ever used his "Two Americas" paradigm to assess gay vs. straight America? Has Barack ever told a story about meeting with a lesbian couple (using real names) who want the right to marry and then make a direct correlation with his own parents' struggle as an interracial couple? Has Hillary ever talked about how she would feel if Chelsea's significant other was not Mark but Martha?
I won't leave you in suspense. The answer is no.
I realize that this kind of story telling is exactly what is missing and exactly what I hope to hear when the Democratic candidates meet in L.A. to talk about gay "issues" on LOGO (for all details, visit www.visiblevote08.com). No candidate has told us that in some personal way that we matter. I want to know if they have ever been invited to a commitment ceremony. Would they go if invited? Has any among them sat down with a gay man who's been discharged from the U.S. Army because he "told." I want to ask Senator Obama how he would feel if his daughter, Sasha were to come out, find a life partner and chooses to 'marry' in a Unitarian church. Would he walk her down the aisle?
OK, I know. For these candidates, I am seen as a hot potato. I am a political football. I am a vote the Democrats can take for granted. I am a wedge. I am a potential liability. And I am not naïve. I understand the nature of politics and the realities of the political landscape. I recognize that I am all of the things listed above.
But I am not abstract -- I am real. For decades, the gay rights movement has worked to be visible, to be out, to be real -- recognizing that the opposition's strategy is all about abstraction. It's troubling to see our own candidates feeding right into that.
On Saturday night, I watched To Kill A Mockingbird with my twelve year old twins. Do you remember what is at the heart of the father's unwavering commitment to justice? In the film, his daughter Scout reminds us: "Atticus says that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
I am not asking for too much. I am asking candidates to climb inside my skin and to talk specifically and publicly to gay and straight America about how that feels, what that means and why it matters to them. I believe I am asking the candidates to demonstrate true leadership and show that they care. After all, the care we have and show to one another is what makes us human.