In an exclusive interview conducted Sept. 16, Obama spoke about his personal security, going to a commitment ceremony, no short cuts for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't tell, and the possibility of court action on the Defense of Marriage Act. as well as speaking with world leaders regarding human rights.
In this election season, the Gay History Project attempted to bring you the views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president —just as we attempted to bring you the views of the top two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination for the spring primary. The format for both candidates was to be the same: the same questions, with no follow-up questions and the same time limit. And since April, we have repeatedly reached out to Republican Sen. John McCain's press representative Jill Hazelbaker by phone, letter and e-mail.
Once it became clear that McCain would not participate, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign put no conditions on the interview. Obama spoke to Mark Segal by phone Sept. 16; an audio version of the interview will be posted at www.epgn.com . In his first interview with the gay press since he officially took the Democratic nomination, here's what Obama had to say.
Mark Segal: You are the most LGBT-friendly candidate running for president in history. Are you concerned that John McCain and the Republicans might use this as a divisive issue as they did in 2004?
Barack Obama: No. I think they can try, but I don't think it will work for a couple of reasons. Number one, I think that the American peoples' attitudes with respect to LGBT issues are continuing to evolve. I think people are becoming more and more aware of the need to treat all people equally regardless of sexual orientation. There are some people who disagree with that, but frankly those folks—many of them—probably have already made their minds up about this election earlier.
Segal: You've talked about your many gay friends. Would you and Michelle be comfortable attending their commitment ceremonies?
Obama: We would. But I'll be honest with you that, these days, I can't go anywhere.
Segal: The current President Bush has used signing orders to change military rules and regulations. If White House counsel advised you that you could end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' by attaching a signing order to a military appropriations bill, would you?
Obama: I would not do it that way. The reason is because I want to make sure that when we reverse 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' it's gone through a process and we've built a consensus or, at least, a clarity of that—of what my expectations are—so that it works. My first obligation as the president is to make sure that I keep the American people safe and that our military is functioning effectively. Although I have consistently said I would repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' I believe that the way to do it is make sure that we are working through a process, getting the Joint Chiefs of Staff clear in terms of what our priorities are going to be. That's how we were able to integrate the armed services to get women more actively involved in the armed services. At some point, you got to make a decision that that's the right thing to do, but you always want to make sure that you are doing it in a way that maintains our core mission in our military.
Segal: Many lawyers contend that the Defense of Marriage Act [ DOMA ] passed by Congress is unconstitutional. It takes away over 1,100 rights, including IRS joint filings. If a suit is filed in federal court, would you expect or instruct your attorney general to join in that suit with an amicus brief questioning its legality?
Obama: I would want to review carefully any lawsuit that was filed. This is probably my carryover from being a constitutional lawyer. Here's where I can tell you [ what ] my principle is: DOMA was an unnecessary encroachment by the federal government in an area traditionally reserved for the state. I think that it was primarily sent as a message to score political points instead of work through these difficult issues. I recognize why it was done. I'm sympathetic to the political pressures involved, but I think that we need to bring it to a close, and my preference would be to work through a legislative solution. I would also point out that if it's going before this court, I'm not sure what chances it would have to be overturned. I think we're going to have to take a different approach, but I am absolutely committed to the concept it is not necessary.
Segal: In last year's [ Gay ] History Project, Elaine Noble, who was one of the first elected [ gay ] officials in the country, referring to her discussions with Harvey Milk, said 'I think we both knew that one of us was going to die.' Milk, of course, was killed. As the first African-American president, have you and Michelle discussed this?
Obama: We don't spend time worrying about security issues. We have Secret Service protection, which is the best in the world. Obviously we take precautions and listen to them, but what I spend the day thinking about is how do I get my message out that we need to change this country to make it more just and more fair, to make sure the economy is growing on behalf of middle-class Americans, make sure kids can go to college and bringing this war in Iraq to an end. That's what I spend my time thinking about.
Segal: In the wake of the torture murder of Matthew Shepard [ in 1998 ] , Sen. McCain voted against adding sexual orientation to the definition of hate crimes and says he'll vote against it again. Isn't this inconsistent for a man who knows torture?
Obama: You'll have to ask Sen. McCain that. Here's what I can say: There is no doubt that hate crimes based on sexual orientation are all too prevalent. It is something that we have to hit back hard against and identify these vicious crimes for what they are: hate crimes. This is something that I believe in and will continue to believe in when I am president.
Segal: President Reagan, President Bush and President Clinton, when meeting world leaders, have raised human-rights questions. Amnesty International has documented countries that imprison, torture and kill gay men, some of which are very close U.S. allies. Would you be willing to raise that question when meeting with those leaders?
Obama: I think that the treatment of gays, lesbians and transgender persons is part of this broader human-rights discussion. I think it is not acceptable that we would in any way carve out exceptions for our broader human-rights advocacy to exclude violations of human rights based on sexual orientation. I think that has to be part and parcel of any conversations we have about human rights.
Mark Segal is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. He can be reached at email@example.com .