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Real Citizens & Real Leaders

I admit, I haven't been watching the Democratic debates. Like I've said before, none of the candidates really excite me much. Sure, they're all light years better than any of the Republican candidates, but there isn't one from among the Democratic field that I can see myself getting excited about or supporting with much enthusiasm.

As usual, it's the marriage issue that throws cold water on any chance me supporting the eventual Democratic nominee with any degree of passion. Don't get me wrong, I'll probably support whoever gets the nomination, by at least casting a vote if nothing else, since I'm closer to agreeing with their positions on any number of issues than I am with whoever the Republicans elect. Pluls, from everything I've read, almost all the Democratic candidates are going out of their way to attract LGBT support, and that's great. But it's where they stop short — and leave our families to come up short — that still bothers me.

Sure, Barrack Obama issued a statement in support of Pride month. So did Hillary, and she's got a lot of gay support. John Edwards won endorsements from 25 “national LGBT leaders.” Not wanting to be left out, Bill Richardson has gone so far as to declare himself the most pro-gay candidate in the election.

That's all very nice, and almost enough to make one swoon. In fact, it reminds me of how I felt back in '92 when another tall, handsome presidential candidate said to gay & lesbian Americans “I have a vision for America, and it includes you.” For those of us who spent our youth being closeted, pretending to be something we weren't, always cognizant of the potential for being rejected and ostracized, and always longing for acceptance … well, it was the equivalent of being asked to the prom by the high school quarterback (or cheerleading captain depending on your gender, etc.). Of course you're so thrilled to be asked that there's no question you'll put out, even before you get to the prom. Problem is, once you get there, you get dumped and you get a reputation. At least that's what I learned from the last presidential candidate I wholeheartedly supported.

In 2004, Newsweek reported, without a named source, that Bill Clinton had suggested Kerry “to back local bans on gay marriage.”

Shrum has more, and different, detail:

“Clinton, Kerry reported at the time, did suggest blunting Bush's appeal to cultural conservatives with a reprise of Clinton's Sister Souljah moment in 1992 when he'd denounced her call for violence against whites — and done it as conspicuously as possible in front of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.

“Kerry, Clinton ventured, should consider defying Democratic interest groups by endorsing the Bush proposal for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.”

Shrum reports that “this was a flip-flop too far for Kerry.”

It's also worse in Shrum's version — the federal amendment, versus state amendments — than in Newsweek's telling. And Bill Clinton does, reportedly, continue to play a small role in Hillary's campaign.

To be fair, as Pam noted earlier, most of the Democratic candidates don't support marriage equality, at least not fully or openly, with the exception of Mike Gravel or Dennis Kucinich, neither of whom are serious contenders for the nomination. (Oh, and Chris Dodd says if his daughters turn out to be lesbians he hopes they enjoy “marriage-like rights.”) And, as I've said before, I don't expect them to, for any number of reasons. I've given up on that. But it doesn't win them any points with me that most of them do support civil unions because, as I've pointed out before, civil unions fall short of equality. They don't mean anything outside of the states where they're valid.  That's true of any legal status created separately from marriage. And even once an alternate (and unequal) legal status is created, it's subject to being amended, reduced in scope or repealed altogether. So, the few rights you win that are only recognized in they state where your union is ratified can be snatched out from under you.

And that's what's at the core of my discomfort with the Democrats; the willingness of Democratic front runners to leave the civil rights of our families up to a majority vote. To a person, the all support the general idea of equality for same-sex couples. Privately, I'm willing to bet, most of them support same-sex marriage. But the closest most of them comes to saying supporting it is Biden saying it's “inevitable.”

Inevitable? If that's the case, it hasn't occurred to most them that when the history books are written on same-sex marriage, they won't be recorded as being on the right side of history. They won't be remembered as being on the wrong side either, but for just not taking a side. And they're alright with that because, as Pat Buchanan rightly pointed out (on another issue, but applicable here), they lack the courage of their convictions.

It's not surprising, from a Democratic field in which one candidate was “not comfortable around those people” back in 1998, two candidates couldn't answer whether or not they think we're immoral, and one decided to leave it “for others to conclude — the same one whose spouse advised Kerry to support the FMA in 2004. But it is disturbing, especially when you examine one candidate's often repeated refrain that the whole matter should be “left for the states to decide.”

On the questionnaire for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization, Mrs. Clinton said she supported repealing the part of the law that would prohibit the federal government from recognizing same-sex relationships.

This is new for Mrs. Clinton: She has previously supported DOMA without exception.

Crucially, though, she still would not force one state to recognize gay marriages from another state (Massachusetts now being the only one that allows gays to marry.)

Here’s why Mrs. Clinton’s shift in DOMA matters: She is stepping away from any federal role in gay marriage, reinforcing her long-held position that marriage and civil unions are a matter for states.

Boil it all down to gravy, and what you get is that marriage equality is not a civil rights issue (or a progressive issue for that matter) but a state's rights issue.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. As an African American male from the South, every time I hear “let the states decide” I start looking for the nearest exit. I know my history. The last couple of times that “states rights” — is what we're really talking about here — have been invoked in this country it wasn't in support of equal rights, etc., but in opposition to equality.

Let me put it another way. Citizens, real citizens, have the same rights from one state to the next. They're as married in Maryland as they are in Maine or Mississippi, and for the most part they don't have to wonder what they're rights are, and they certainly don't have to carry marriage licenses or other papers “proving” their relationship.

When my family travels, though, we don't go anywhere without copies of our wills, advance directives, medical powers of attorney and our son's adoption decree and re-issued birth certificate naming both of us as his legal parents. I've insisted on that since the day I listened to a friend of ours tell his story of being turned away at the hospital because he was not next of kin; how he rushed to the hospital when he learned that his husband had collapsed at work and was in a coma, only to be told at the emergency room door that the hospital couldn't give him any information or let him see his husband unless he had “legal proof” of their relationship.

He drove home — leaving his husband in the hospital, not knowing what his husband's condition or whether his husband would be alive when he got back to the hospital. Fortunately, he retrieved his legal documents and his husband was still alive when he returned to the hospital. I've read of one couple that was not so lucky. In that story the surviving partner returned to the hospital with his legal documents in hand, only to find a priest and a doctor waiting to speak to him.

In the mountain home he designed and built with Tartaglia, John Crisci takes a moment to collect himself, his eyes welling up with tears, as he recalls once more the events of Jan. 8, 2004.

“It doesn't get any easier no matter how many times you say it,” he manages, his voice wavering. This is a story Crisci has told to the Colorado legislature, to newspaper reporters and to various groups throughout the state.

When Tartaglia collapsed at the gym on his 70th birthday, Crisci was with him. But the legal papers documenting the couple's relationship were at their home, 15 minutes away by car. So while an ambulance rushed Tartaglia to Denver's St. Anthony Central Hospital, Crisci could not be with him, as any spouse would expect to be. “They just weren't going to allow it,” Crisci said of the paramedics. Instead, he rushed home to retrieve his documents, then drove 30 minutes to the hospital, only to find his worst fears confirmed. Tartaglia was already dead.

Facing the same situation, married couples are treated very differently. While Colorado law grants a spouse rights to make medical and end-of-life decisions by default, Crisci knew he needed in hand both Tartaglia's medical power of attorney (a document that expires upon death), and his will for the worst outcome.

By contrast, a few weeks ago we had some neighbors — a married heterosexual couple — over for dinner. They were horrified when I told them the story above, and the wife mentioned that when she arrived at the hospital after her husband had been rushed there and admitted for a health problem, all she had to say was “I'm his wife,” and she was waived right through. No questions asked.

The same cannot be said for same-sex couples, in almost any state. Maybe heterosexuals are required to present a marriage license in order to be admitted to the their spouse's hospital bedside, but I haven't heard of it. Maybe they're required to present some proof of their relationship — like a jointly filed tax return or a joint checking account — but it would be news to me. Meanwhile conservatives in Minnesota are actively opposing a bill granting hospital visitation to same-sex couples. It's not, mind you, that they're opposed to us being able to see one another in the hospital. They're just opposed to a law recognizing that right. For married heterosexual couples hospital visitation is a right. For us it's a privilege, and one that can be taken away as easily as it can be granting.  That goes for civil unions, domestic partnerships, reciprocal beneficiaries, or anything else that isn't marriage.

Even with the marriage title — available only in Massachusetts — same-sex couples do not have the same rights as different-sex couples because the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act bars them from receiving some 1,100 federal rights, including married-couple tax breaks and transfer of Social Security benefits.

''Civil unions are nothing like marriage,'' New Jersey gay rights activist Steven Goldstein said. ''The cockamamie contraption simply doesn't work. If civil unions were a person, they would be arrested for fraud,'' said Goldstein, director of Garden State Equality, a gay-rights advocacy group.

But Democrats are playing it safe, even after an election that brought them into the majority, by not taking positions that might frighten off moderate-to-conservative voters. They're playing it safe even in a climate where support for equality is at a high-water mark, and support for marriage equality is approaching a “tipping point,” with 46% of Americans supporting it and 53% opposing it. Yet another state, New Hampshire, has at least taken a small step forward by recognizing civil unions. In California, gay inmates have even been granted conjugal visits. (Not marriage equality, mind you, but consider that marriage is considered such a basic right that even condemned criminals on death row can get married — Mason family member Tex Watson and “Night Stalker”  Richard Ramirez were both allowed to get married to women though they were in prison, for example, while the hubby and I can't marry despite being law-abiding citizens.)

That's because they're politicians, not real leaders. I know because we're not real citizens either.

LIke I said, I know my history, personally. I traced one part of my family tree back to slavery, back to the days when black people couldn't roam freely unless they carried papers with them everywhere they went; papers saying who they belonged to and who gave them the right to be out and about. My family carries our papers everywhere too. I have copies in my office, and the hubby has copies in his. There's a copy in the car, and when we go on vacation next month we'll carry them with us because in the event that our relationship and rights as a family are questions, they may be our only hope that we'll be recognized as a family and treated as such. Maybe.

I know this much. Real citizens can roam freely and take their rights with them, instead having them drift in and out of existence, and having to prove their personhood with pieces of paper.

Leaders, real ones, at some point have values — like fairness and equality — that they don't dodge, deny, or dissemble about, but that they stand by and speak up for even when unpopular. Let alone with those values are popular or are gaining in popularity. In the latter case, real leaders see that momentum and help move it forward rather than standing aside and waiting until it's “safe” to do so, or — as I've heard from among the netroots — telling us that it's “our job” to change public opinion and make it safe for them to stand up for what's right.

(To “make the case” for our “pet issue” of equality, as it were. So not only are we required to persuade our fellow citizens that we're worthy of human dignity, but we much also persuade our fellow progressives that they should care about our “pet issue.”)

Well. Just a couple of weeks ago, we learned that four out of ten Americans knows someone gay. And given that we know people who know someone gay are more likely to support equality, I think we can safely say that we've been doing “our job” and doing it effectively for quite some time to produce the shift in opinion that we've seen on gay issues in the past few decades.

And we'll continue doing it, apparently without much meaningful support from Democratic leadership.

Without real leaders, that is. I guess that's as it should be. Real leaders, after all, are for real citizens.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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