An Election Lesson: Stay Out of the Bedroom, but Level the Mattress First
Had the night of November 6 gone as poorly as I’d sometimes feared, my fallback position for this column was to write about the reasons The New Normal is a better sitcom than its rival gay-themed series, Partners. I figured that, like me, most of you would want to take a big step back from reading about politics to lick our wounds and figure out how to regroup in a new administration openly hostile to gay rights.
But my column on boob-tube laugh lines can wait (though Partners was expected to be axed at any time). The electrifying drama that played out on our screens election night turned out to be one of the most exhilarating television shows ever aired. That night we witnessed tremors that some analysts hailed as indicative of a seismic shift in American culture. An excited CNN political analyst Margaret Hoover declared the election results a “watershed moment for the gay civil rights movement.” New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Eugene Robinson called the election a “sea-change” for LGBT citizens.
At the risk of overstatement, I agree that a convergence of election results represented an unprecedented ascendancy of gay and lesbian clout and a break through the gay glass ceiling that has held LGBT Americans back from first-class citizenship. First, there was the reelection of a president who had worked for LGBT rights and campaigned directly for our votes. President Obama’s record (from the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to his endorsement of same-sex marriage to his appointment of sensitive jurists to the Supreme Court) stood in stark contrast to his opponent who was so insensitive to the concerns of gay people that he would not even support a federal policy of hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples. As a result, nearly 80 percent of openly gay and lesbian voters, who comprised about five percent of the electorate, cast their ballots for reelection.
Also impressive was the election of Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin as the first openly gay person ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. As she cracked open the gay glass ceiling, she also added to the rapidly growing number of female senators (now up to 20 from 15).
But most dramatic of all was the fact that voters in Maine, Washington state and Maryland approved same-sex marriage. Breaking a 32-state losing streak on gay marriage referendums, Maine became the first state ever to enact marriage equality by popular vote. (In Maryland and Washington, gay-marriage laws were approved by lawmakers and signed by the governors this year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to challenge the laws.) What’s more, Minnesota voters rejected an amendment that would have constitutionally banned gay marriage—the type of amendment that had routinely passed states in the past.
Those unprecedented votes had TV’s talking tongues rolling about how Republicans must better relate to gay voters, whom they credited as being a major factor in the President’s winning coalition, along with Latinos, African Americans, women, and youth. For the first time I can recall, LGBT people were being discussed as an important constituency, one too important to ignore.
Only minutes after the election was called in the President’s favor, CNN launched into a discussion of gay political power, and even one of its most conservative Republican commentators called out his party for its anti-gay positions and rhetoric.
As noted, Margaret Hoover initiated the discussion, calling the gay marriage victories “a watershed moment for the gay rights movement. First this passed in the courts and the opponents said this is judicial activism. Then it passed it the legislatures and the dissenters said it will never pass at the ballot box. And tonight it has passed in likely three or four states.”
Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, once part of John McCain’s go-for-the-jugular ad team, then made a confession I’ve never heard before from a GOP spinner: “Republicans have a problem [with gay rights issues]. This is an area where there is a schism in the party, where the party is at war with itself…. [With] the next generation of Republican leader I think you’re going to see: ‘freedom nationally, values locally.’ Live your life. The Republican Party can’t be the party that thinks that one of the biggest problems is that there is too much love in the world. We’re not going to move forward that way.”
Castellanos concurred with other commentators that the GOP will not likely win national elections if it continues its anti-gay ways—though he implied that if states choose to discriminate against gay citizens that would be their decision based on “local values.” His pass-the-buck approach shows that he does not yet appreciate that guaranteeing civil rights is a federal responsibility, not a states-rights option.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also criticized his party the next day, arguing that federal anti-gay marriage laws do not jibe with the party’s philosophy that less government is better. “Let’s not use big government to cheat and enforce our values,” he told CNN. “Big government doesn’t become a good thing just because we’re running it.” He noted that the GOP needs to adopt the Libertarian view to “stay out of the bedroom.”
Giuliani’s position (and that of Castellanos) might appeal to some voters—including some LGBT voters—who remember the party’s once popular notion that individual freedom is a good thing. But the problem is, before politicians move out of our bedroom, they first need to level the mattress. You cannot exclude gay citizens by law from civil marriage and call it an even, equitable playing field. So Republicans would need to work with Democrats to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and to support marriage equality on a federal level. Once accomplished, they might honestly boast that they support personal liberty.
Of course, despite significant progress in the Democratic Party, there are still people within its coalition to reach, as former Obama advisor Van Jones pointed out during the election night discussion on CNN. Jones called gay marriage: “a huge civil rights issue and I want to say this as an African American. This is about liberty and justice for all, period. There’s an attempt to turn African Americans against the President and it’s the wrong way on this issue. The problem for the African American community is not that we have too many people who want to have lifelong loving commitments. That’s not the problem. If people want to be able to stand together and not be judged by their race, by their gender, or by their sexuality, the African American community needs to follow—and lead… It’s a civil rights issue and it’s moving forward. People who are against it are on the wrong side of history.”
Jones pointed to increasingly successful efforts by NAACP President Ben Jealous and its former president Julian Bond to bring black ministers into the fold of supporters of gay rights. Attempts this fall by right wingers to persuade black voters to stay away from the polls to protest the Democratic Party’s endorsement of gay marriage failed miserably.
Although most of the gay-progressive election news came from the bluer northern states, there were noteworthy developments in local races in the South. In Florida, for example, openly gay candidate Joe Saunders, an Orlando Democrat, won a landslide victory for a seat in the Republican-dominated state legislature. Saunders, a seven-year employee of the gay-rights lobbying group Equality Florida, survived $1-million in attack ads warning that he was the “special interest” candidate of homosexuals. Saunders joins David Richardson, winner in Miami, in making history as Florida’s first out gay legislators.
How attitudes are changing still boils down to the cliché that “to know us is to love us.” As Bishop Gene Robinson said in declaring the election a “sea change moment” for LGBT Americans, “I think we’re seeing the real mainstreaming of LGBT people…. I think Tammy Baldwin’s election is a vindication that Harvey Milk was right. As [heterosexual] Americans get to know their gay and lesbian neighbors, it is increasingly the case that they want to see them in all levels of our leadership.”