Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards (right) thanks panelists Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge at the Visible Vote '08 Presidential Forum in Los Angeles. The event focused on gay issues.
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards (right) thanks panelists Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge at the Visible Vote '08 Presidential Forum in Los Angeles. The event focused on gay issues. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly all of the Democratic candidates for president appeared Thursday night in Los Angeles for a debate-style forum on gay rights.
The event - a first for a national-level campaign – was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and carried on the LOGO cable television channel, which has programming geared toward a gay audience.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio, had a big advantage with the studio audience, because they are the only candidates who believe that gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry.
Former Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Hillary Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson were not willing to go that far. Neither was Sen. Barack Obama.
"I am a strong supporter of civil unions. Not weak civil unions, but a strong version," Obama said. Panelist Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, challenged Obama's answer, suggesting it was a policy of separate but equal.
The candidates appeared one at a time and the issue of same sex marriage dominated the event. On other issues, there was virtually unanimous agreement: repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military; include gays, lesbians and transgendered people in hate crimes laws; and protect gays, lesbians and transgendered people form discrimination in jobs and housing.
Clinton promised a change, not just in the policies of the Bush administration, but in attitudes she said they had inspired.
"It was demeaning. It was degrading. It was mean spirited. That will end. That is over," Clinton said to applause.
The only candidate who may have done himself some damage with gay viewers was Richardson with his answer to a question from panelist – and rock star - Melissa Etheridge on whether he thought homosexuality is a choice or biological.
It is an important issue to gays and lesbians who believe that calling homosexuality a choice has been used to argue for discrimination and to promote programs that claim to offer "cures." Richarson did not seem to know that.
"I don't like to answer definitions like that that are grounded in science or something else that I don't understand," he said.
In fact, Richardson's campaign quickly sent out a clarification Thursday night saying that the candidate did not believe homosexuality was a choice and touting his record on gay rights issues.
But when all was said and done, Jeffrey Prang, a city councilmember from West Hollywood, thought the very fact that the forum took place represented real progress for the gay and lesbian community.
"It's extremely disappointing to gay and lesbian people that they aren't with us on (gay) marriage, but when you think about it, they're with us on everything else. Years ago, we were just hoping they would show up at the pride parade," he said.