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VIEWS Michelangelo Signorile
2004-01-14

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Straight From Vermont

Whoever among the current contenders becomes the Democratic presidential candidate will most certainly be portrayed by Republican operatives, conservative pundits and religious zealots as hailing from Sodom and/or Gomorrah. That's true even if the candidate is orthodox and pious Joe Lieberman, who supports antidiscrimination laws and hate-crimes legislation for gays and lesbians, and thus is light years away from George W. Bush on gay rights. (The president, let's not forget, is still on record as supporting sodomy laws.)

But now that the Washington Post has shown how Howard Dean's base of his support grew from the gay community outward, the Vermont governor, should he get the nomination, is going to be targeted by fundamentalists even more than previously imagined. These attacks, we can be sure, will then be quietly exploited by Karl Rove.

That's not necessarily a bad thing this time around. I've maintained that the push for a federal marriage amendment in the wake of the Massachusetts decision could hurt Bush more than the Democrats, as the issue continues to split the Republican Party and conservative pundits. (And, yes, I still believe this, despite a recent New York Times poll—criticized even by the Times' own public editor Daniel Okrent—that contradicted every other poll, claiming that the majority of Americans would favor an amendment.) Dean himself seems to agree, noting on his Web site that he 'can't wait to ask the President of the United States ... to repudiate the GOP-authored Defense of Marriage Act [which was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996], an unconstitutional, mean-spirited law that stoked fears of homosexuality.'

'Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's record-setting fundraising first took off in large part because of an outpouring of support from the gay community,' wrote Thomas Edsall in the Post. He went on to note that some Democratic fundraisers estimate that 'at least' 10 percent of the money now coming into the party and its presidential nominees is from gays and lesbians. (Gays accounted for four percent of the overall 2000 presidential electorate, the equivalent of the Jewish vote.)

'With just one exception,' the article continued, 'every fundraiser Dean attended outside Vermont in 2002 was organized by gay men and lesbians, as were more than half the events in the first quarter of 2003, according to Dean advisers ... . This early backing provided a foundation for Dean to expand his core support to include voters opposed to the Iraq war, angry at President Bush, embittered by the outcome of the 2000 election and discontented with what they saw as a Democratic Party establishment without backbone.'

Though he has a 100 percent scorecard from the NRA and a moderate to conservative record on some other issues, Dean has been portrayed as a staunch liberal in part for being the first governor to sign a civil-unions law for gays. Articles like the one in the Post are only going to put more pressure on Bush to call for sending homosexuals to the depths of hell. No doubt Pat Robertson, who recently said that God told him that W. is 'blessed' and destined to win, will eventually announce that Dean is the antichrist.

The reasons for Dean's huge support among gays and lesbians—one survey showed him having a 33 percent lead among gays over his opponents—are more complicated than they appear. And unpacking them is instructive in understanding Dean's appeal across a broad swath of voters, as well as why the pundits and the pollsters continue to underestimate him. Even after the pummeling Dean has taken in recent weeks from John Kerry, Wesley Clark and Lieberman—all hitting below the belt and giving ammunition to the Republicans—the latest CNN poll shows him doing better than any of them against Bush, whom he now trails by only five points.

Dean enjoys wide support among gays even though he is opposed to same-sex marriage, while some of the other Democratic candidates—Carol Mosley Braun, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich—support marriage rights for gays. Some gay activists have even chided Dean for taking credit in leading the way on civil unions, when in fact he was just following through on a state supreme court decision to give gay couples equal rights and later declined to back same-sex marriage. Most activists see his stance as inadequate and have no intention of settling for civil unions.

'It is our demand for, and the debate around, the freedom to marry that tugs the center toward equality,' Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, has said. 'We must never lower our sights, even as we advance step by step past 'separate' to equal.'

Gay voters, in the end, are rather pragmatic and moderate. Republicans are mistaken to interpret support by gays as evidence that Dean is a far-left candidate bolstered by radical elements in the Democratic Party, or that he can't beat Bush in a general election. (A recent cover of the National Review depicts a photo of an angry Dean with the headline, 'Please Nominate This Man.') Gays and lesbians—and certainly the mainstream gay groups and the monied gays who contribute big sums to Democratic candidates—tend to support centrists, often to the chagrin of gay activists on the left.

In the 2000 primary in California, for example, gays and lesbians voted for Bill Bradley in only slightly higher numbers than the rest of Democratic voters, this despite Bradley's startling, bold promise to change the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment to include gays, as well as his early support of domestic partnerships, which Gore backed only after Bradley's announcement. (No one was calling for civil unions at that time, let alone same-sex marriage, which shows you how far we've come in only four years.) Similarly, support for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general election was only slightly higher among gays, 25 percent of whom voted for Bush.

Dean's popularity among gays and lesbians has less to do with his support for civil unions and gay rights than it does with the simple fact that a majority of Democratic voters in national polls support him: He's giving Bush a good, swift kick in the butt on a variety of issues, from the war to the economy—something few of the other viable candidates have done with passion. The latest CNN poll has Bush beating Kerry, 54-43 percent, but only beating Dean 51-46, meaning that some people who favored Bush against Kerry switched when Dean is put up against Bush. The idea that even a small percentage of people who would vote for Bush might move over to Dean—a candidate portrayed as a leftist firebrand pushing gay rights—is quite interesting. It's something the Bushies might think about before stoking homophobia next November.

Michelangelo Signorile hosts a daily satellite radio show on Sirius OutQ, 149. He can be reached at www.signorile.com .


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