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Michelangelo Signorile

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Evolution Matters: How President Obama Transformed the Democratic National Convention and His Party

Posted: 09/10/2012 8:43 am

I tried to find the homophobes in Charlotte. Really, I did.

I went to the delegations where gay marriage is on the ballot this fall, hoping to interview those Democrats gathering at the DNC who might be voting against marriage equality, such as in Maryland. There, I approached the first woman who was accessible on the exceedingly inaccessible floor at the Time Warner Cable Arena, an African-American woman.

She turned out to be Mary Washington, an openly lesbian legislator who was among those who spearheaded the bill Governor O'Malley signed to bring marriage equality to the state (and which will be voted on in November).

Oops. Talking to a few other people randomly at the Maryland delegation also proved futile.

Surely there might be someone antigay among the Texas delegation, right? I approached a macho-looking Latino dude in a cowboy hat. What did he think of the convention so far?

"The thing that hit me the most," he said, "is the platform we passed. For the first time in the history of the country, it embraced marriage equality. I think that speaks volumes about the values of the Democratic Party."

Yes, Texas delegate Juan Ayala turned out to be gay too.

Finally, I came upon a Mississippi delegate who actually was not gay and who had "mixed emotions" on marriage for gays, an African-American man who described his strong religious faith. But...no such luck.

"I know in black churches there are members who have a problem with same sex marriage," he said, "but I don't think it is something that will keep them from going to vote [for Obama]. I think for many Americans there are more important issues than someone's sexual preference."

And how would he vote if the question of marriage equality were on the ballot?

"I tend not to judge people," he said. "I'd probably vote for it."

All this and much more were indications that the DNC had undergone a profound shift this year as compared to years past -- and I've attended these conventions for the past 20 years. But it wasn't just about doing the right thing for gays. It was about understanding how dramatically public opinion had shifted, and capitalizing on that mightily. It was about helping to unify a party, giving it moral clarity, making its members feel that they stand for something greater -- in the way they did in the history-making election of 2008 -- and yes, inspiring them with enthusiasm and energy to help re-elect Barack Obama president.

Speaker after speaker -- from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to Michelle Obama -- spoke out about the freedom to marry whomever one loved. As each of them said the words embracing inclusion, cheers rang out not just from LGBT delegates but from throughout the hall. A video ran on the night of Obama's acceptance speech, highlighting Obama's LGBT accomplishments, including repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and it was greeted with thunderous applause.

As Human Rights Campaign president and former Clinton staffer Chad Griffin noted, in years past gays were lucky to get one openly gay speaker in late afternoon on one of the days, far away from prime time. This year, as the Obama campaign actually saw a plus in putting them front and center, gay speakers, as well as their family members, abounded night after night, from Iowa activist Zach Wahls talking about his two moms to the openly gay members of Congress, Tammy Baldwin, Jared Polis and Barney Frank. Congressman Frank told me that he and his husband Jim Ready were treated "as heroes" as they walked the halls of the arena, with many of the delegates expressing that they were "proud to be part of this movement."

Almost one in 10 delegates to the convention were LGBT -- over 550 LGBT delegates, representing an increase of nearly 200 from 2008, with every state represented for the first time.The former chair of the LGBT Caucus attributed the increase almost entirely to President Obama's full support of equality. Transgender delegates, a record 14 this year, talked about big wins the Obama administration had delivered them, and about feeling accepted among the crowd.

None of this, of course, means there are no homophobes in the Democratic Party. Their existence is certainly evident by the attack last week made by Democratic state legislator Emmett C. Burns Jr. -- from Maryland, no less -- on Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo because of his support for gay marriage. But such voices were missing or muted at the convention. The memo went out this year to fully include gays. And everyone agrees it was President Obama who sent that memo, when he finally evolved on marriage equality in the spring.

Of course, let's not forget that the president didn't get there on his own and often needed a push, despite much of the revisionism going on at the convention. Jim Messina, White House deputy chief of staff until 2011, now chair of the Obama campaign, told dramatic stories to the LGBT Caucus about Obama "pounding his fist" on desks to get "don't ask, don't tell" repealed -- and he received a standing ovation -- when in fact even Democratic leaders in Congress back in 2010 were perplexed at the lack of muscle the White House displayed throughout much of the process in the battle for DADT repeal. It was grassroots and netroots activists who pushed the president hard to move on LGBT rights, from DADT repeal to marriage equality.

Those activists loudly and boldly pressured an often overly cautious president not only to move faster to foster equality; in the end, they actually helped him to use his accomplishments on gay civil rights to help galvanize his base in his reelection campaign, aiding in energizing his party and showing independents that he stands by his convictions in ways that his opponent does not. Evolution matters. Not just for civil rights, but in elections as well.

 

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