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Requiem for Gay Political Power

10/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The historic Democratic National Convention is over but one question remains: what the hell happened to the gays?

Like so many others around the world, LGBT people watched through excited tears as Barack Obama accepted the presidential nomination at Invesco Field last Thursday. But there was tremendous anxiety in LGBT land, too: after a week of invisibility, would Obama even mention the word "gay"?

And then it happened. Obama said:

"I know there are differences on same-sex marriage - but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination."

Tobias Wolfe, the brilliant author, scholar and Co-chair of Obama's National LGBT Policy Committee, was ecstatic.

"Our next President brought the entire crowd to their feet in a standing ovation with this passage -- 75,000 people, applauding and cheering and stamping their feet for our rights. It was something I will never forget."

Yes, it was an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary speech. But why - in 2008 - should LGBT people be holding our breath hoping to be recognized? And did anyone notice that the bar Obama set for LGBT discrimination was hospital visitation?

Was this wish for agreement the most respect our LGBT leaders could elicit from the Democratic Party's presidential nominee after all the fund raising, all the volunteering, all the hurt feelings over anti-gay errors, now tucked away in the name of unity?

Was this a hint of what we can expect?

Yes, Bill Clinton "threw us under the bus" as Melissa Etheridge put it during the historic Logo/Human Rights Campaign event in August 2007. During the primary, Clinton emphatically promised to lift the ban against gay people serving openly in the military, only to slapped down by Sen. Sam Nunn. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was the result.

Maybe it was because so many of us were dying back then - but compared to today - it seems that LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS had more visibility, more respect, and more political power 16 years ago. Hope and the audacity of courage screamed for change.

And Clinton seemed to "get it." In October 1991, after meeting with the checkbook activist group ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality) at the invitation of his friend David Mixner, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton told the Los Angeles Times without prompting that he would have signed the gay rights bill AB 101 that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson had vetoed, sparking a week of massive street protests throughout Southern California.

And at a massively covered historic speech before an LGBT crowd filled with people with HIV/AIDS, Clinton said, "I have a vision, and you're a part of it." Up and down the LGBT political spectrum, people pushed him to push the envelope, insisting on LGBT visibility.

At his nominating convention in 1992, Clinton asked Elizabeth Glaser and openly gay Bob Hattoy to speak out about AIDS.

Often interrupted by tearful applause, Hattoy said in prime time:

"I'm a Gay man with AIDS and if there's any honor in having this disease it's because it's an honor being part of the Gay and Lesbian community in America. (Applause)
We have watched our friends and lovers die, but we have not given up hope. Gay men and Lesbians created community health clinics, provided educational materials, opened food kitchens, and held the hands of the dying in hospices. The Gay and Lesbian community is an American family in the best sense of the word. (Applause)... We are Democrats, and yes, Mr. President, Republicans. We are part of the American family and, Mr. President, your family has AIDS and we're dying and you're doing nothing about it. (Applause)

Martin Luther King once said that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Fifty thousand people took to the streets in New York today because they will no longer be silent about AIDS. (Applause)

Their actions give me hope. All of you came here tonight; millions more are watching in America. Obviously, we have hope and hope gives me the chance of life. I think it's really important to understand that this year, more than any other year, we must vote as if our life depends on it. Mine does; yours could - and we all have so much to live for. Thank you.
(Standing ovation)
Act Up. Fight Back. Fight AIDS. Thank you."

The Republicans responded with Mary Fisher, the daughter of a top fundraiser for President George H. W. Bush. Fisher, too, eloquently spoke about HIV/AIDS - and gay men.

"Tonight, I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society. Though I am white and a mother, I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. Though I am female and contracted this disease in marriage and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family's rejection."

And then there was Patrick Buchanan.

"Bob Casey was told there was no room for him at the podium at Bill Clinton's convention, and no room at the inn. Yet -- Yet a militant leader of the homosexual rights movement could rise at that same convention and say: 'Bill Clinton and Al Gore represent the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history.' And so they do....

Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side."

America voted for change - but what we got was the cultural war.

Bob Casey, who is pro-life, spoke at Obama's convention last week, but no one spoke out about LGBT rights or HIV/AIDS.

How can this be? After all, just weeks before the convention, the Centers for Disease Control announced that they now estimate the epidemic is 40% greater than in the previous decade and the rate of new HIV infections each year is over 56,000.

Even more astounding - this at a convention run by the campaign of a man who proudly talked about getting an HIV test with his wife, Michelle. He knows the AIDS statistics in the black community, which, despite being only 13% of the US population, experienced about 45% of the new HIV infections in 2006.

The egregious failure didn't go unnoticed. West Hollywood City Council member John Duran, a delegate who is HIV-positive, said later:

"The stakes are so high that I will work like crazy to ensure that Barack becomes the next President of the United States. But I am disappointed that there was no mention from the podium about AIDS in our urban cities or around the world. The pandemic is not over."

Phil Wilson, Founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, was more forceful:

"It was disappointing that on the occasion of this historic nomination, that one of the greatest health threats facing America today was not more front and center during this year's Convention. This is my fourth Democratic Convention and it has never been so difficult to put HIV/AIDS on the agenda. At a time when the AIDS epidemic is worse in our nation's capital than in many parts of Sub Saharan Africa, how can AIDS not be a featured as a priority by our Democratic Presidential nominee?"

What happened? And given the constant pronouncements about the Democratic Party's "proud" diversity, where were the LGBT speakers? Isn't the whole point of "identity politics" to identify those for whom equality is still only a promise, a hope, a dream?

Last January, I wrote "Change? What change?" after John Kerry endorsed Obama. I raised the issue of LGBT invisibility at the 2004 Democratic National Convention - when 11 states faced Karl Rove-inspired anti-gay initiatives.

Jeremy Bernard, a DNC delegate, an ANGLE board member and Obama's high profile California finance guy, said this:

"I've gotten a sense from my friends -- and I feel this way too -- that we're tired of being ATM machines. They come and take our money and leave California and they don't really pay attention to what we think or believe. In Boston [during the Democratic Convention in 2004], we were good soldiers because Bush is so bad. But it's the last time. We're not going to swallow our pride like that ever again. In 1992 [during Clinton's inauguration], we were part of a new, exciting world. To think that 12 years later we have moved backwards -- it's horrifying. And the fact that most people didn't think about it [gay visibility] and no one noticed at the Democratic convention -- that's the saddest part."

So expectations were high for this convention. National LGBT leaders and donors seemed to actually serve high up in or have access to the Obama campaign, if not the candidate. And National Stonewall Democrats had been tasked by the DNC to basically implement the new Inclusion Rule - recruiting LGBT delegates from each state as part of DNC Chair Howard Dean's 50-state strategy. That part went swimmingly, with Stonewall reporting more than 350 LGBT participants (delegates and alternatives) attended the convention - approximately 6% of total convention attendees, up 27% increase from 2004. Additionally, people of color accounted for about 40% of the LGBT Caucus.

And the Party Platform was called"the most sweeping pro-LGBT national platform in Democratic Party history," though there was a lot of grumbling that the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" were used instead of "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender." Openly lesbian Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin explained that the language was the same as that used in legislation.

At the LGBT Caucus, Steve Hildebrand, the openly gay deputy campaign director of the Obama campaign - who national political reporter Lynn Sweet called "a mastermind of field operations," conceded that the campaign had not done enough LGBT outreach.

"I believe that our campaign has not done the effective job it needs to do to persuade and convince LGBT voters that Barack Obama is someone who will lead for them, who will fight for them, fight for us...That's a failure on behalf of our campaign in my opinion, and I've played a role in it. What we need is for all of you to be our voices in our communities and to work tirelessly to give every single day, as much time as you can give, to know Barack's record and to know John McCain's failed record and to go out and talk to people who care about the future of LGBT people in this country."

Later, Hildebrand told The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld that the gay vote - usually about 4% to 5% of voters in national exit polls - matters.

"I believe that at least 12-14 states this election will be decided by 2-3 percentage points one way or the other, and if we do our collective work persuading LGBT voters to support Barack, I think it can make a big difference."

So - if the LGBT vote is needed, if the LGBT community is contributing its fair share of Big Bucks - where was the love?

On Monday afternoon, DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias talked about the economy, then slipped in this line: "As a gay man, I yearn for a president who believes in equal rights for all Americans."

That was it. Yes, Baldwin spoke - but on health care and she was not identified as a lesbian.

Gays got shout-outs from Sen. Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton, and Sen. Ted Kennedy in their speeches and during the roll call, the Massachusetts delegation had the audacity to proudly say their state was the first in the nation for marriage equality.

But that was it. Our issues and stories were not even woven into the fabric of the convention themes - though they could have been:

The economy: the Platform calls for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Right now in 31 states, it's legal to fire someone for being gay; in 39 states it is legal to fire someone for being trans-gender. Imagine the fear of being found out, or once fired, the fear of never finding a job. Forget gasoline - how do you eat and pay the rent? ?

National security: the Platform calls for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - the Pentagon fires two gay people every day, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. These are folks who are fighting now in Iraq and Afghanistan and who want to sign up - including much-needed linguists.

And for all the talk about religion and faith - we were left out. This is prickly. Obama has every right - like the Clintons - to hold his own private belief about same sex marriage. But it is troubling when a constitutional scholar indicates that the reason he does not agree with marriage equality is because "for me, as a Christian, it's also a sacred union. God is in the mix," as he told Rick Warren.

Well, ask the Episcopal Church if "God is in the mix" for LGBT people, too. They're facing a schism over it!

So - what happened? It looks like, once again, our LGBT leaders were seduced by the proximity to power and, for the sake of personal access or Party unity - didn't press for our unequivocal inclusion onstage. And if the Party and campaign don't think we're good enough for prime time - or more than hospital visitations - why should the American people vote down anti-gay initiatives?

Thank heavens the private sector and the grassroots - those 75,000 who cheered at the mention of "gay and lesbian" by Barack Obama -"get" the link between equality and visibility and stand up for us better than our LGBT leaders do.