Forum Focused on Gay Issues Marks Changing Tide The Democratic presidential candidates will participate in a first-ever forum designed primarily for gay voters. A few years ago, such a forum would have been seen as a political liability — even political suicide in some states.
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Forum Focused on Gay Issues Marks Changing Tide

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Forum Focused on Gay Issues Marks Changing Tide

Forum Focused on Gay Issues Marks Changing Tide

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.


And I'm Michele Norris.

And presidential politics is where we're going to begin this hour. We've got a number of stories to tell you about.

SEABROOK: First, there's word that the primary election calendar may be shifting again. And in California, an effort is underway to change the way the state electoral votes are divvied up. That could change the campaign significantly.

NORRIS: We're going to begin, however, with a forum that's taking place tomorrow in Los Angeles. Democratic candidates will participate in a televised event that will deal exclusively with issues affecting the gay community. It will be broadcast on Logo, a gay-oriented cable channel.

And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, it's a sign that some voters and candidates are becoming more comfortable with homosexuality. And it also highlights the growing divide between the two parties on gay rights.

INA JAFFE: It's not that Republican candidates weren't invited to tomorrow's forum.

Mr. JOE SOLMONESE (President, Human Rights Campaign): We got a very polite response from Governor Romney. It was a no.

JAFFE: Says Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the gay rights organization that's sponsoring the forum. He'd hope to hear back from other Republican candidates.

Mr. SOLMONESE: But we got a combination of either no's or just no response.

JAFFE: The stark divide between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on issues affecting gays and lesbians has been evident in earlier televised debates.

This was a Republican forum on CNN in June, Wolf Blitzer moderating.

(Soundbite of CNN Republican debate)

Mr. WOLF BLITZER (Moderator, CNN-YouTube debate): Is there anyone here who believes gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the United States military? If you do, speak up now.

JAFFE: After a couple of seconds of silence, the debate moved on. At another CNN debate that month, Democratic candidates were asked the same question about the policy known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell. All of them sounded pretty much like New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

(Soundbite of CNN Democratic debate)

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico; Presidential candidate): I would get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I voted against it as a congressman.

JAFFE: Clearly, Democrats have decided that there is something to be gained from a public alliance with the gay community, says Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the non-partisan political newsletter, The Rothenberg Report.

Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (Publisher, The Rothenberg Political Report): The gay community has become a significant political force in terms of fundraising, in terms of voters, in terms of all level of activism.

JAFFE: And Democrats have been the recipients of most of those votes and most of that fundraising. Just one example: the Human Rights Campaign - the sponsor of tomorrow's forum - gives roughly 90 percent of its political donations to Democrats.

Republicans get so little because they vote against what gay rights advocates want, such as inclusions in hate-crime laws. Republicans have also pushed for federal and state measures to ban same sex-marriage. But this gulf between the parties on gay rights issues is a relatively recent development says Congressman Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Thirty years ago or so, there was no difference in the parties, essentially, on gay rights. I mean, actually, there's virtually no difference between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on 1976 on gay rights.

JAFFE: Frank came out 20 years ago and in the past couple of decades so have a lot of people, he says, and that's been the key to changing attitudes towards homosexuality.

Rep. FRANK: As people have learned that so many of the people they are related to and love and care for and work with and sell to and buy from and play ball with, et cetera, that we are who we are, the prejudice diminished. So the fact, as I said, that this debate is happening is a very good sign about the diminution of prejudice.

JAFFE: In fact, one recent poll found that 90 percent of Americans think gays and lesbians should not face discrimination in employment. Another found that 70 percent think that gays and lesbians should not be kicked out of the military. So the Democratic candidates are in sync with most of the voters on these issues. They're also in sync with them on same sex-marriage. Most Americans are against it, so are most of the Democratic candidates, though they support government-sanctioned domestic partnerships.

Nevertheless, speaking at length about gay rights issues in a televised forum devoted to them is not without its risks for Democrats, says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Mr. ROTHENBERG: Republicans will attempt to use it. Sure, I mean, there are going to be an effort to document what you say to be used against you. So that's what not to sway them from talking to their voters. I mean, they're going to need support in the gay community. You know, they're going to love that. And they're just going to have to live with what the other side does.

JAFFE: And hope that most voters next year will be thinking more about the war and national security and health care.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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