The Appearance of a One-Issue Agenda: a Critique of the HRC/Logo Presidential Forum

by Justin Patrick Jones on August 16, 2007

On Thursday, August 9, the HRC/Logo Democratic Presidential Forum presented an unprecedented opportunity for the LGBT community to voice our concerns to Presidential candidates on a national scale. It was an exciting night, filled with possibilities. Presidential candidates want our votes, months before the first caucuses and primary elections. On that night, I gathered around the television with my partner to watch this momentous occasion, only to be disappointed. More than disappointed, I found myself almost in tears by the end of the Forum. The individuals chosen to represent my community have become so inwardly focused on one issue – gay marriage – that they failed to question candidates on a number of social ills that negatively impact the LGBT community.

Marriage equality has been on the national stage for about 15 years, ever since Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide a compelling reason why or why not gays and lesbians could not marry. Both progressives and conservatives have been on the defensive and offensive as initiatives and court battles have become pervasive in our national ethos. Marriage equality is an important issue, and it should be addressed. Our march towards full marriage rights for LGBT couples should not be abated. However, the nearly singular focus on marriage managed to compromise the Forum. Panelists and the moderator failed to ask poignant questions on subjects that impact LGBT Americans everyday. Nearly every line of questioning led to a discussion of how it related to marriage. This article addresses the vacuum of issues that the panelists failed to cover adequately.

Duty, Honor and Service:

Panelists exhaustively questioned candidates about the elimination of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy implemented in 1993. Panelists failed, however, to pierce through the rhetoric about military service. Citizens of this country have been inundated with the message that the only way to serve this country is through military service. The rhetoric of the American military-industrial complex provides a disservice to our nation, and it discounts the contributions of other Americans who honestly and peacefully serve in all niches of American life. Panelists successfully communicated their desire for LGBT Americans to serve openly and honorably in the American military – an important goal towards equality – but they failed to ask any candidates about their stance on what it means to serve one’s country.

Military supporters argue that putting their lives on the line for the freedoms of Americans qualifies armed service members to higher respect. What about the hundreds of thousands of lives of gay and bisexual men lost to AIDS? What about the transgender people killed because they did not fit into a heternormative gender construct? What about the lesbians assaulted and murdered in the march towards equality? I am an HIV+ man, and a week never passes that I do not think and honor those fallen queer heroes who died so that I may live and enjoy the freedoms and the health I have today. If we are to have a real discussion about the military and American values, which are intrinsically linked and replete with references to duty, honor, and service, then should we not be talking about the overwhelming numbers of our brothers and sisters who fell, without our militaristic culture’s concept of distinction, so that we may live better lives?

Immigration and Foreign Policy:

Immigration arose in the panelists’ discussion with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. The panel managed to steer the discussion away from all substantive discussion around immigration in favor of talking about rights for American/non-American LGBT couples who are separated due to immigration laws that favor heterosexual relationships. Important, but let us not forget that conversations about immigration should focus on more than one social justice issue.

For example, when was the last time you were pulled out of your home, beaten, imprisoned, and/or killed by state sponsored authorities? Did you know that many countries have laws on the books that make it illegal, sometimes punishable by severe prison sentences or even death, to be LGBT? Bill Richardson introduced the topic in his discussion of Iraq and the atrocities being committed against LGBT people in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. Perhaps we could have a serious discussion in this country about accepting more asylum seekers from countries where it is illegal for a LGBT person even to exist. Many of our allies have laws that criminalize homosexuality and gender variance. Why did no panelist ask candidates how they as President would bring pressure on our allies to reform their laws?

Health Disparities:

It is extremely important that LGBT partners be allowed the same health care rights afforded to heterosexual married couples. Marriage equality would address these issues most adequately and precisely. However, most if not all states offer some contractual means, such as Power of Attorneys and Living Wills, that enable couples of all sexual orientations and gender identities to access these rights. The marriage equality argument does not help the single LGBT person – and often the partnered LGBT person – against whom discrimination is leveraged in health care. Health disparities experienced by many LGBT people are rooted in homophobia and heterosexism, not in the fight for two members of a couple to access each other personally.

One panelist managed to ask questions related to health care not in terms of marriage equality. Melissa Etheridge added a cadre of questions related to disability and health disparities as it relates to both LGBT Americans and the population as a whole. We should thank Melissa Etheridge for broadening the conversation in these instances; however, it could have gone a lot further. Both quantitative and qualitative research studies over the past 30 years indicate a heightened presence of heterosexism and homophobia in all facets of the American socio-medical construct. While the majority of providers in medicine, psychology, and ancillary services exhibit positive attitudes towards LGBT individuals, a significant percentage show negative attitudes towards LGBT people. No panelists asked candidates about what policies will be implemented by the executive branch to address LGBT health disparities and healthcare discrimination. No candidates were vetted on how spending priorities through the Department of Health and Human Services would be changed to address training of socio-medical providers towards more equitable care of all LGBT persons, not just the lucky ones in relationships.

Youth:

John Edwards initiated a conversation about LGBT homeless youth. He was slammed by an audience member following the Forum for being condescending on the topic. In my opinion, he was not condescending. We should thank John Edwards for being courageous, forward thinking, and forthright enough to discuss the topic of LGBT homeless youth and the parents who evicted them from their lives.

Preferring to keep the topic on marriage, the panelists moved through the discussion they planned, not the discussion that needed to happen. No panelists asked John Edwards about possible funding into research on gay and lesbian youth, nor did any of them ask about possible federal funding to encourage LGBT and heterosexual-allied families to adopt displaced queer youth. No panelists questioned candidates about their feelings on states that prohibit LGBT couples (and sometimes singles) to adopt children, including Florida, Nebraska, Utah, and Mississippi. Asking candidates if they would lobby state governors and legislative leaders on behalf of potential LGBT parents would have added tremendously to the conversation.

Violence:

The issue of violence against LGBT Americans received time from the panel only in passing. Both passive and active violence are perpetrated against queer Americans everyday. One of the great tragedies of our culture is that a person cannot feel safe in his or her personhood simply because that person does not fit some pre-defined set of rules created by hegemonic, heteronormative society. The panel paid little attention to a problem that infects every city, suburb, and rural area of this country. How is it that they could miss that?

Every candidate should have been asked pointed questions about how they plan to address the violence perpetrated against LGBT Americans. No panelist asked about federal funding for research into violence prevention and education, and no panelist even broached the concept of gun control. Additionally, the issue of violence in school systems against LGBT youth was never even considered.

Education:

The panelists briefly discussed education with candidates, and we should thank and praise them for doing so. However, it is troubling how fruitless the discussion proved to be.

The education of our country’s citizenry should be of paramount importance to LGBT Americans. Panelists did not adequately ask candidates about broader, science-based, age-appropriate sex education for public school students; although, they momentarily discussed the possibility of teaching children positive messages about LGBT people. No panelist asked how candidates would proceed with educating adults about LGBT issues. Children do not pull their misgivings and hatred of homosexuals out of thin air. They learn it at home. Teaching everyone in the country about the lives and impact of discrimination and marginalization against homosexuals is the only way we will achieve the goals of our movement.

Conclusion:

The issue of marriage equality deserves ample stage time with candidates at the highest levels of government, and we should not overlook the significance of the first ever LGBT-focused Presidential Forum. As such, however, those lucky few allowed to ask questions of candidates should have paid more attention to issues not related to marriage equality. Our community crosses all gender, racial, ethnic, national origin, religious, and socio-economic boundaries. The panelists could never have made everyone happy, but focusing almost solely on marriage equality did our community a grave disservice. The panelists represented our community and communicated to the rest of the world that we care about only one thing. This makes us all look short-sighted, narrow-minded, and, frankly, uncaring.

The tragedy lies in the fact that our community has shown greater compassion over these past few decades than any other on earth. We protected each other through the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. We stood in solidarity as state authorities restricted our movement and freedoms in the 1960s and 1970s. We cared for one another through AIDS, through physical attacks, through attacks from policy makers, and through a myriad of other affronts that sought to eradicate our self-respect, self-esteem, and self-preservation. We need to take a step back and realize that none of the problems have disappeared. As a community, we need to examine these issues further and reexamine what response we want from ourselves and our government. All candidates should have been asked about their stances on marriage equality, but the failure to address other issues in a substantive manner prompted the writing of this article.

This write-up does not exhaustively list all possible lines of questioning or provide every avenue of discussion for separate topics. Rather, it is an analysis of the themes that arose in the Forum, some ways panelists could have gone further with them, and the comparatively over-enriched discussion on marriage equality.

Finally, please do not misunderstand me. I am proud of the panelists and the candidates for their bravery in tackling some very important, difficult issues. Additionally, I am in a committed, loving relationship. If we chose to do so, we would love the right to marry, but we also understand that the LGBT community faces many challenges. I leave you with one request. When we have another opportunity to put forth our concerns and agenda on a national scale, please expand the questions to include the fullest breadth possible of the needs of the LGBT community. Privileging marriage and the experiences of committed couples over everyone else in our community will divide us. We will leave a multitude of our brothers and sisters on the outside looking in, and that is something that we simply cannot afford.

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