Queer Eye for the Straight Voter

Editor's Note: This piece is an excerpt from 'Loud and Clear in an Election Year: Amplifying the Voices of Community Advocates,' published by the SPIN Project. The book is designed to be a resource for non-profits that are doing election-related work and need information on how 501(c)(3) organizations can use communications tools to get their word out without overstepping legal boundaries. The SPIN Project is a sister project to AlterNet, under the aegis of the Independent Media Institute. More information on the book, including how to order, is available at the SPIN website.

Wedding bells could dominate the 2004 elections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans. Same-sex marriage has ascended to the level of a major political issue, with President Bush highlighting it in his 2004 State of the Union speech, the Democratic candidates carefully stepping into the fray, the social conservatives rallying their troops with it, and queers wondering if it's too early to pop the champagne and cut the cake.

Gay marriage surely is the most prominent issue in this year's elections for LGBT people. But there are other issues that activists -- gay or straight -- who believe in equality should be aware of. The 2004 election cycle present the opportunity -- and heightened media attention -- to educate the public about pressing issues of fairness and equality for gay Americans. Following is a brief checklist of a few of the key issues likely to see increased exposure and debate this election year.

Marriage

Three recent landmark court decisions pushed this issue to the forefront: the June 2003 ruling by Ontario, Canada's high court that same-sex couples should have the right to marry; the U.S. Supreme Court ruling the following week that anti-gay sodomy laws violate the U.S. Constitution's right to privacy; and the November 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that to deny marriage to same-sex couples violates that state's equal protection and due process guarantees. Then came San Francisco's decision to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, which touched off a firestorm of national media coverage and debate.

These events set in motion a feeding frenzy among anti-gay activists, mobilizing the rank and file as never before and pushing the topic right into prime time. (By the way, Boston will be the site of the Democratic Convention this year, making it a handy target for anti-gay forces because of the Massachusetts marriage ruling.) Religious conservatives are expected to put their faith in the preemptive Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, designed to protect the "sanctity of heterosexual marriage."

Then there is the current Administration's $1.5 billion "healthy [read straight] marriage" initiative to promote marriage, particularly among poor people, attached as a rider to the welfare reauthorization bill. The measure would spend millions on teaching low-income people the skills to enter and maintain "healthy marriages." (For an excellent analysis of the measure, read Traci Hukill's piece, "Who Wants to Marry a Marriage Initiative?")

"Marriage is the vocabulary and frame by which the anti-gay 'family' movement wants to talk about Gay Americans," says Sean Cahill, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. "It is a hook to get people to pay attention to their analysis of what is wrong with America, and that includes homosexuality. It's designed to divide people."

Cahill notes that the Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would ban not only gay marriage but basically any form of family protection or recognition for gay and lesbian couples, from health insurance for domestic partners and hospital visitation rights to civil unions.

The gay marriage battle didn't just erupt spontaneously on the national political scene, despite the recent court rulings. It percolated up from the grassroots for more than a decade with statewide "Defense of Marriage" acts. More than a dozen measures banning gay marriage, in some cases through the amendment of state constitutions, are in the works. These measures, like the federal Constitutional amendment, galvanize conservative voters at the polls.

"The same groups that are making gay marriage such a wedge issue are those that oppose affirmative action, scapegoat immigrants, and want to ban divorce," says Cahill. "Gay and non-gay social change activists have a shared interest and a shared risk in this battle."

Adoption and LGBT Families

Equal treatment of gay and lesbian parents has not yet come up as an election issue as much as gay marriage, but activists caution that it might. "I predict this could become a campaign issue by the time the elections roll around," says NGLTF's Cahill. "Typically, attacks on gay marriage are connected to attacks on gay adoption and parenting. It's a family issue, and the far right wants to stake that terrain out."

HIV/AIDS Prevention and Treatment

AIDS/HIV has not made as big a splash in the current campaign as it has in previous election years, but AIDS activists say it could become more of a political factor.

Candidates may be grilled on whether they support sex education programs that stress condom use. "Abstinence-only" educational campaigns have been the hallmark of the current Administration, with a surge in funding for such programs and "audits" of programs and services that teach otherwise. Even the headline-making 2003 State of the Union commitment of funds to Africa to fight AIDS was couched in sex education based on abstinence-only tenets.

AIDS funding continues to be a concern. Many states are reeling from budget cuts that could disastrously affect AIDS/HIV care and prevention. For example, in California and other states, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides life-saving medications to low-income people with AIDS, is slated for serious cuts. Federal support and reauthorizations at acceptable levels are critical, so watch for AIDS activists to hound candidates on this issue along the campaign trail.

Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation

Another issue likely to see the spotlight this year is discrimination against LGBT people. Many queer voters and their friends will be watching the candidate's positions on the Employment Anti-Discrimination Act (ENDA), now in Congress.

Gays in the Military

Lifting the military ban on gays and lesbians in the Armed Forces has been a perennial political hot potato, going back to President Clinton's first race in 1992. The current policy, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," is on the books and hasn't stopped the tide of discharges of out gay and lesbian service members. As the war in Iraq drags through the election season, we may see this issue in the spotlight again.

Challenge Intolerance

Once again, queers find themselves in the political crosshairs this election year. But despite the intensified attacks on gay marriage, this battle offers all social change activists -- gay or not -- an opportunity to challenge intolerance and bigotry. For more information on LGBT issues in the 2004 spotlight, visit the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, or the Human Rights Campaign.

Robert Bray is Founding Director and Senior Consultant at the SPIN Project, a nonprofit group of communications specialists who provide capacity-building to nonprofit public-interest organizations across the nation.

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