When are some people's equal rights less equal than others'? Judging by the race for the Democratic nomination for president, equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans--for which all nine candidates express some level of support--don't usually include access to civil matrimony. In fact, only three candidates back equal marriage rights, and they are the three with the least money and the least support in national polls: Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, former U.S. senator from Illinois and former ambassador to New Zealand Carol Moseley Braun; and activist minister Al Sharpton from New York City.
The chicken-mid-egg question in this race is, Can tong-shot candidates garner more support from gay voters by supporting full equality? Or do they trail in the race in part because voters fear they will be unable to win broader support?
The candidates themselves explain their support for same-sex marriage in moral rather than political terms. "1 simply see it as a civil rights issue," Kucinich tells The Advocate [see facing page]. "It's important for all couples who want to marry to have access to the advantages that the legal status of marriage provides, which includes over 1,000 legal benefits. And couples should not be denied those benefits simply because they happen to be of the same sex."
"I support full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples because I support full civil rights for gays and lesbians," Moseley Braun says in a telephone interview from the campaign trail [see page 34]. "Marriage is a civil rights issue. It is fundamental for the individual to choose his or her relationship. And to make a distinction that some Americans can choose their relationships and others can't is antithetical to the fundamental ideals of our Constitution."
Sharpton, whose campaign declined to set up an interview with The Advocate, went even further during a debate in Iowa in November. "Are we prepared to say that gays and lesbians are less than human? If we're not prepared to say that, then how do we say that they should not have the same human rights and human choices as anyone else?" Sharpton said in response to a question from moderator Tom Brokaw. "Even if you have a disagreement with it ... you cannot limit the humanity of others unless you're prepared to say they are less than human."
The debate isn't just about equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, Kucinich argues. It's also about what the Democratic Party should be seen to represent. "I think it's important for Democrats to be fearless about this issue. Either we agree that each person who enters into a marriage ought to have the full protection of law, or we don't. And if we do agree, then we ought to take a stand. This is where Democrats make a big mistake, because failing to take a stand is saying that we don't believe what we are saying."
Moseley Braun equates gay equality with racial equality by pointing out that it wasn't that long ago that interracial marriages were illegal. "I have made the analogy over time between same-sex marriage and interracial marriage," she says. "I had an aunt who was married in the 1950s to a German fellow, and their marriage was illegal in half the states in this country. The rhetoric around interracial marriage ... is the same used against same-sex marriage today."
Despite the passion of these three candidates' rhetoric, however, election observers don't see a significant portion of the gay vote swinging in their direction. "There is a large pragmatic streak in the gay community," says Hastings Wyman, writer of Capital Letters, a weekly political column syndicated to many gay and lesbian publications around the country. Wyman contends that since all nine candidates support, some form of legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples, most gay and lesbian Democrats are going to look instead for the candidate they view as best able to beat George W. Bush in November.
Dave Noble, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, agrees that gay primary voters are not likely to pick a candidate based on whether the candidate supports marriage rights over civil unions. …