The election in 2000 will be the first in which gay, lesbian, and bisexual voters can do what groups traditionally do in America: use the presidential nominating process to maximize support for their issues.
We have not until now had the same role in presidential politics as African-Americans, feminists, gun control opponents, or religious conservatives. First, we weren't prepared. Second, we weren't fully welcomed. Both aspects of this have substantially changed in recent years. Indeed, we would have been able to play this role in 1996 if there had been a Democratic nomination contest then.
Now we are ready to become full-fledged players in the presidential nominating process. Cultural self-expression has a place, but it's not a substitute for political activity. It is now widely understood in the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community that political organizing is an important weapon we have used insufficiently.
At the same time--in part because so many of us are living honestly in this country as openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people--the political perception that it is dangerous to be our friend has changed. Unfortunately, partisan factors become relevant here. Within the Republican Party it is still a liability to be too pro-gay, which in part accounts for the dearth of Republican support for Bill Weld's ambassadorial nomination. But on the Democratic side, outside of a few pockets of resistance in the Deep South, homophobia is no longer considered a necessary component for a would-be officeholder.
Two trends have been at work over the past 20 years. Homophobia has substantially diminished. The relevant fact is that most Americans are far less homophobic than they thought they were supposed to be, and now they realize this. Countervailing this direction is the mobilization of a very angry right wing, and thus we have the paradox of both a more generally favorable trend in the country as a whole and more virulent opposition in some quarters. The consequence of this has been a Democratic Party that has moved closer to full support for the rights of gay men and lesbians, while the Republican Party, buffeted by contradictory trends, is no more supportive of our right to be free of prejudice than it was 15 years ago.
Confirmation of these facts comes from the 1996 elections. No senator running for reelection in 1996 who voted for the gay and lesbian rights bill suffered any electoral damage because of this. Sixty House members who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act ran for reelection; none was defeated. The lesson of this for 2000 is that we need to start now to participate in the nomination.
The American system that evolved after 1968 is the most open in the world for selecting a chief executive. People who complain about the "Democratic" or "Republican" party choices for presidential nominees are talking about nonexistent entities. For nomination purposes the Democratic and Republican parties are those citizens who participate in the Iowa and subsequent caucuses and in the New Hampshire and subsequent primaries--no more and no less. …