Crossposted at Dailykos and OpenLeft

In an age where the LGBT community has been threatened on the federal level by inadequate HIV/AIDS funding and pandering constitutional amendments against basic rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) folk, we see a glimmer of hope emerging after 7 especially hard years of presidential-sponsored demonization. The Human Rights Campaign (Also known as HRC) announced on July 10th that they would be hosting a groundbreaking presidential debate 

Logo, a division of Viacom’s MTV Networks, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation today announced they will co-present a historic televised forum on issues of importance to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community with the leading 2008 Democratic presidential candidates…

The candidates will appear sequentially and engage in conversation with co-panelists Melissa Etheridge, performer and advocate, and Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. The panelists plan to cover a range of issues including relationship recognition, marriage equality, workplace fairness, the military, hate crimes, HIV/AIDS and other important issues…

more over the flip…

HRC (Human Rights Campaign, not Hillary Rodham Clinton) continues to be the sole LGBT organization that can make possible many media catching events such as the upcoming debate. This debate is truly historic and a testament to how far our movement has come thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of our LGBT elders. HRC is a great organization, but I must admit, I do not always find myself pleased with the organization, which I must address before I speak of the debates.


The Event That Made Me Disillusioned With HRC


If anyone has followed my writing from the beginning, you would know that myself, as well as the larger progressive movement, has had a love/hate relationship with the Human Rights Campaign.


Many queer progressive activists, such as Chris Durang, found themselves canceling their HRC memberships after the organization endorsed pro-Iraq War, Pro- Defense of Marriage Act Joe Lieberman instead of either endorsing anti-war, pro- marriage equality Ned Lamont or not endorsing at all. Personally I was too poor to contribute to HRC then, but because of that Lieberman experience I have grown up donating my small amounts to the more progressive, more grassroots National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.


HRC really lost me as an enthusiastic supporter when they made this move, as they no doubt lost hundreds of other admirers. While I still respect them and do still think that they are a great organization, they remain stuck in the D.C. Beltway vortex and they seemed to have lost touch with their grassroots origins. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the debates…


My Reservations


While I indeed look forward to the debate, I remain apprehensive to how HRC will handle this forum. In a field where every major Presidential Candidate (namely Richardson, Obama, Edwards and Clinton) oppose marriage equality, how will they communicate their collective stance on marriage directly in front of LGBT voters viewing this debate and how hard will they be pressed by HRC to expand their support for LGBT rights, namely marriage equality?


It is a question worth asking now. LGBT activists should be paying particular attention to the announced structure of the debate, since HRC is notorious for preferring to cozy up to and please Beltway type politicos rather than authentically challenging candidates and asking hard questions. Indeed, one wonders if HRC may have made any back room deals with the leading Presidential Campaigns in order to convince them just to come to this debate.


Did HRC agree to not press too hard on marriage equality? Will specific transgender, bisexual and lesbian issues be addressed in addition to the usual focus on the G (gay community) (and within the G the usual focus on the white, upper class, moderate gay man)? I ask these questions not to be too hard on HRC, but to address very deep reservations I have about the upcoming debate, even if I am ecstatic that HRC organized such an amazing Presidential get-together.


 One must also give them credit for allowing a live audience for this upcoming debate (which should potentially make the marriage equality section of the debate more interesting, for instance if the crowd gets restless after being told by candidate after candidate that they cannot marry).


In addition to the questions above, I would like to officially submit to HRC (as well as share with any who read this) questions that I think are important to be answered by HRC before the debate:


Question #1 Civil Unions Vs. Marriage Equality


Nearly 4 years ago, former HRC president Cheryl Jacques had this to say Civil Unions vs. Marriage Equality :


Couples in a civil union have no access to the federal laws like Family and Medical Leave Act, to equal immigration rights, to continued health care coverage. Under federal law, same-sex couples are strangers.

Some also feel that civil unions are a necessary compromise, given the public’s struggle with marriage. But civil unions are not the solution. Even if civil unions provided all the same legal protections of marriage – which they don’t – they would still be a separate and unequal system.

Ten years ago, many said that domestic partnerships were unrealistic. Five years ago, civil unions were cutting-edge. We are at a moment in history where marriage is a reality. We must not cede that right just because people are uncomfortable. [Emphasis Added].

Because of HRC’s pointed stance on civil unions vs. marriage equality in the past (coming out on the side of marriage), I was very caught off guard to see how HRC listed the topics that will be addressed in the upcoming debate:

The panelists plan to cover a range of issues including relationship recognition, marriage equality, workplace fairness, the military, hate crimes, HIV/AIDS and other important issues. [emphasis added]


The first listed topic, “Relationship Recognition”, sounds like a very vague way of saying the C word (ahem, civil unions). Furthermore, why would there need to be a separate issue of “relationship recognition” if marriage equality is also listed as being on the agenda? Does a legal marriage no longer qualify as “relationship recognition”? I really would like to ask HRC to clarify the meaning of the category of “relationship recognition”.

Question #2 Peter Pace

If I were a chief consultant for the Hillary or Obama camps, I would see this debate as a distinct opportunity for their respective candidates to make amends after hesitating to say that homosexuality was not “immoral” after the Peter Pace incident earlier this year. In case the candidates have forgotten this lapse the offended LGBT primary voters across the country, HRC should be prepared to ask the Clinton and Obama campaigns why they initially hesitated in condemning Peter Pace’s remarks about homosexuality being “immoral”.

This need not be confrontational. HRC simply need ask both respective campaigns to reflect on the incident. This would offer a much needed opportunity for the two candidates to repair what damages were made to their LGBT base support after the incident. To HRC I must ask, will you address the Peter Pace incident in one form or another during the debate?

Question #3 Time Limit

Big Kudos to HRC for announcing that they were able to extend the debate to 90 minutes. With at least 6 categories however and 6 confirmed Presidential candidates, that boils down to each candidate having 2 and a half minutes per category to make their case. Granted, it is hard to address every issue substantially, and by including some issues and leaving out others, HRC is bound to be criticized.

HRC attempts to limit the number of candidates, such as excluding Mike Gravel was a lose-lose move. If they excluded Gravel, they would have been criticized for silencing a strong voice for complete LGBT rights. Now that they have included Gravel, no doubt they will be criticized eventually for a lack of substantial discussion on the issues during the debate (which might not happen simply because of lack of time).

My question to them is, given that there is universal agreement among Democrats on issues such as workplace discrimination and Hate Crimes legislation, why not place more time on an issue that is A) more high profile and B) Not a category that enjoys universal agreement between the candidates? Yes my friends, I mean Marriage.

We may not have such an opportunity where so many Democratic leaders get together to talk about issues such as marriage equality. Candidates frequently bring up their support for hate crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), let’s use our rare opportunity to hear the candidates speak on the issue they frequently keep in the Presidential campaign closet… MARRIAGE!.

I do welcome readers to add other questions before I submit the ones I currently have. Let me just say that though I am very hard on HRC in this post, I would not have the opportunity to criticize HRC if they didn’t put countless hours of work into making this event go from an idea into a reality. Kudos to everyone at HRC who made this happen.