Wednesday, March 01, 2006
by Wayne Besen
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of The Empire State Pride Agenda, rocked the quiescent relationship between gays and the Democratic Party last week by calling Sen. Hillary Clinton "a complete disappointment." He went so far as to recommend that the gay community discontinue giving money to her campaign.
"Supporting an LGBT fundraiser for Hillary Clinton will actually hurt our community," wrote Van Capelle in a leaked memorandum to his Board of Directors. "We have become a community that throws money at politicians and we demand nothing in return."
His comments have started a healthy, if not painful, debate about the place of gay people in the Democratic Party. Van Capelle expressed a growing feeling among many Democrats that the GLBT community isn't getting a good return on its investment. These disgruntled Democrats believe that gay people raise millions of dollars for the party and provide armies of volunteers, but gain little.
Democratic leaders respond that they are going as far as they can, while remaining electable, and that the only alternative for gay people is to vote Republican.
The Democratic malcontents would counter that there is little difference between the two parties. For the most part, leading Democrats and Republicans are opposed to allowing gay people to marry. So, why not redirect our political donations to other charities or go on a great vacation? If the Democrats don't appreciate us, to hell with them - we can spend our dough in Canada, Spain or Denmark where gay people are afforded full equality.
This is an option, of course, but what happens if the Democrats say to hell with us? Without the support of Democrats in Congress, a Constitutional Amendment banning gay people from marrying would pass. So, while we have the power to "show them" they also have the power to "show us." In such a scenario of mutually assured destruction, both Democrats and gay people lose to the benefit of the Republican Party.
The reason political parties exist is to win elections and the Democrats have concluded that to neutralize backlash and achieve victory, they will support Civil Unions while opposing same-sex marriage. Pragmatists in the GLBT community say this is a wise approach that will lead to equality over time. Meanwhile, many leading gay activists believe this is selling out and an affront to our dignity - which it most certainly is. However, this may be a sacrifice worth making if it keeps Republicans out of office.
A serious question to ask is: Has the pragmatic approach worked or actually hurt gay people and the Democratic Party?
Not too long ago, Civil Unions were considered political poison, but they are now the preferred position of Democrats with presidential aspirations. A case can be made that the sooner the Democrats embrace same-sex marriage, the quicker the issue will become non-controversial and politically risky. By taking the middle of the road approach, the Democrats have prolonged the shelf life of the issue and made themselves vulnerable to attacks on gay rights.
If John Kerry had embraced allowing gay people to marry in 2004, wouldn't the issue be a bit tired and old hat by now, thus reducing its power to damage Democrats? After all, the Democrats are still getting accused of supporting same-sex marriage and anyone who cares about this issue enough to change his or her vote is probably a Republican, anyway.
Or, maybe not.
As a columnist, I usually have a ready answer for everything. However, this is a vexing issue with no clear solutions. Our community wants to push back against the Democratic Party, without tripping over the edge. But our own exaggerated fear of an imaginary backlash may sometimes keep us too timid and "in our place." If the civil rights movement taught us one thing, it is that progress is not serendipitous, but a result of constant agitation and the pushing of boundaries.
I think a temporary answer might be for disgruntled Democrats to use the primaries as a time to flex their muscles. They can give their money, time and votes only to presidential candidates who support full equal rights.
In 2004, Rev. Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun supported marriage, yet most gay Democrats ignored their campaigns. Perhaps, in 2008 getting behind such candidates can send a message that we are not to be neglected or taken for granted. This plan can highlight our strength while still allowing us not to commit electoral suicide by sitting out the general election.
Van Capelle's comments jumpstarted a crucial conversation among gay Democrats. We must intelligently strike a balance where we get our fair slice of the pie, without being so pie in the sky that we alienate the party and help elect Republicans.