A Very Cautious Convention

Voices for Gay Rights Are Muted in Boston

Gay rights advocates have spent the primary season parsing every word spoken by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry for signals about his leanings on a variety of nuanced gay rights issues. Sometimes, they haven’t liked what they gleaned.

But on Wednesday afternoon, the would-be president’s partner in the East Wing, Teresa Heinz Kerry, strode into a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) caucus meeting at the party convention in Boston, reached out from the podium toward the packed house of about 500 political activists, and gave the whole group a great big hug.

“You will have a mom in the White House,” said the 65-year-old woman in a lilting European accent.

“Sometimes if things are difficult, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to happen… they will,” she quietly assured them. Ultimately gay rights will be embraced by America, because, she said, of the “generosity of spirit that’s always been a great American trait.”

Mrs. Kerry told them that if her sons were gay, she would share the joy of their love, just as if they were straight.

“The parents of this country deserve that,” she said. “The mothers of this country deserve pride and joy for all their children.”

The audience roared.

Does this mean that gay rights would have a home in a Kerry White House? Mary Breslauer, who works for the campaign doing LGBT outreach, introduced the candidate’s wife as “the co-chair of an incredible Heinz Kerry family,” but Washington Post correspondent Evelyn Nieves, who has reported extensively on Mrs. Kerry, thinks that “having a mom in the White House,” doesn’t mean she will advocate for gay marriage.

“She’s not prejudiced, that’s what she’s saying,” Nieves said. “But she’s not going to make gay marriage her issue. That’s not what that means. But here again, she’s showing her independence. She speaks her mind. She’s not just being nice.”

When she heard of Mrs. Kerry’s statement, Cheryl Jacques, the head of the country’s largest gay rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said, “It’s not just Teresa, it’s John too.”

But the Kerry campaign has been careful to take a measured stance, officially, on gay rights—and avoid specifics at the convention. The party’s platform, largely the work of the campaign, simply says that the party supports “full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and seeks equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections for these families.”

While Kerry has always been against a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he said gay unions should remain a matter for the states to decide, and then, in February, said he would support an amendment to Massachusetts’ Constitution to stop the gay marriages in his home state. A few weeks later, hearing sharp criticism from gays and lesbians who have been among his most loyal and generous supporters, he promised that if elected, he would back a federal gay civil unions bill—but that promise hasn’t been mentioned in months.

“He’s not exactly where I’d like him to be… but George Bush isn’t even in the same room,” Jacques said later in the same conversation, just after Mrs. Kerry spoke. The HRC has strongly endorsed Kerry, because, said Jacques, for the LGBT community “there isn’t even a question” who would be the best choice, in what California Senator Dianne Feinstein, among many others, called “the most important election of my lifetime.”

Outside the convention hall, Republicans, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have warned of looming terrorist attacks. Democrats have accused them of trying to create an atmosphere of fear. Security, or at least signs of security abound. Helicopters hover above the new convention center. Cadres of motorcycle police roar through the streets, their sirens screaming.

In the convention hall, when one of the tens of thousands of balloons hovering in nets above the hall pops, heads nod skyward. And Democrats have their own message of fear too. “Today, we say the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush,” said Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy in his address on Tuesday.  

But as Republicans have tried to make gay marriage a wedge issue—Democrats have been very careful, in prime time at least, to keep gay rights in perspective on the convention floor.

Prime-time podium speeches have been modulated in their calls for gay rights. Even Jacques, who spoke on Wednesday evening, talked in general terms. She forcefully called for gay marriage. “We’re working for marriage equality—so we can do what families do best—care for each other in sickness and in health,” she said. She also spoke out against hate crimes, called for “a fully fortified battle against HIV and AIDS,” talked about how, in 36 states—“it is legal to fire the star employee simply because the boss thinks he or she is gay.” But, clearly considering her national audience, she stopped short of mentioning specific legislation.

Tammy Baldwin, one of three openly gay members of Congress, and co-chair of the convention, called the prime-time placement of her speech “a tribute to the place of our community,” but she did not mention to the national TV audience that she is a lesbian.

Some gay analysts found it significant that a new star of the party, Barack Obama, who is a black candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois who delivered the convention’s keynote address on Tuesday, mentioned gays in his widely praised speech. In talk keyed to the them of unity, he said that “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” and then went on to talk about how we have “gay friends”—even in states dominated by Republicans.

Some observers have called the convention’s measured tone—on gay issues, among many—the graying-out of the convention, and indeed the lack of real news or surprises emanating from modern day political conventions has led the broadcast television networks to cut their coverage to a bare minimum—to the irritation of Democrats.

But party insiders defend the cautious tone enforced on the gathering.

“If you were putting on a $250 million party, would you want someone to crash it?” one said. “Think of it this way. You’re a business owner and one of your employees started speaking out against you in public? What would you do?”

The only sign of the more than 250 LGBT delegates on the floor that might be visible to the television audience is a floppy “Cat-in-the-Hat” bright rainbow stovepipe hat that delegate Gregg Gallo brought with him from Washington State. At the first of the LGBT caucus meetings on Monday, some delegates asked when they would be getting rainbow signs to carry on the convention floor. Caucus chair Jeff Soref, a longtime co-chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, told the group, “We’ll get back to you on that. Every indication we have is that they’ll be provided.” Soref then went on to talk about how it is important for the convention to present a “consistent message.” As of Wednesday, the rainbow signs hadn’t materialized.

San Francisco Bay area activist Rick Oates privately paid for rainbow-colored “LGBT 4Kerry” stickers for the delegates.

Democratic mayors from all over the country, including Los Angeles, Trenton, Akron and Columbus, have all spoken to the convention, but the country’s most famous Democratic mayor, San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom, who started America’s gay marriages in February, hasn’t been invited to talk.

Newsom is in Boston for the week, “trying to get stuff for San Francisco,” he said. But when asked how he felt about being left off the podium lineup, he was philosophical. He wasn’t asked to speak, unlike his friend Roberta Achtenberg, who worked in the Clinton administration at HUD and is now a lobbyist for San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m very happy for her,” Newsom said “She was a mentor for me.”

New York State Assemblymember Deborah Glick defended the strategy over the convention’s tone at her delegation’s breakfast meeting on Tuesday.

“In 2000, we knew we would be nominating Al Gore,” she said. We had had eight years of Bill Clinton…we were sanguine and soft. We had the luxury of debates with ourselves. And we lost.”

 So why go to the convention?

“To get revved up,” she said. “There’s a lot that can wait.”

 But the lack of dissent has moved down into the caucus meetings themselves as well. When the delegates arrived here, most of the substantive decisions were already made. At the first of the LGBT Caucuses on Monday, California gay rights leader and “superdelegate” Carole Migden, who will almost certainly go to the state Senate in January, sat in the first row, looking slightly bored—and a little frustrated.

“This has all been a lot of routine, and we’re not getting to the reason for being here,” Migden said. “There’s a measure of containment,” but, she quickly added, “That’s not altogether terrible. But it’s ironic that we’re convening in the one state in the union you can get married. There are efforts to quell that issue… and keep this as more of a presentation.”

She went on to praise Kerry: “He’s always been there unshakably.”

Migden said she would organize 10,000 volunteers from California to go to battleground states to campaign.

The party platform was finalized at a meeting in Hollywood, Florida in early July, but it was drafted at least several weeks before. It was adopted without any minority reports, which typically include dissenting voices. Even party loyalists like Sam Farr, a congressman from Santa Cruz, California, called it “pretty bland.”

“But we’re out there drowning,” he said. “We’ll deal with the direction the boat is going to go once we get on it.”

Transgender activists like Mara Keisling, who heads the Washington- based National Center for Transgender Equality, had hoped to include language covering gender identity in the very short section which committed the party to legislation barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the activists withdrew the amendment when it was clear it would not pass. Keisling said that the gay advocates who had helped put the amendment forward were “just outraged.” Then she corrected herself. “Disappointed. That’s a better word,” she said. “They’re not really serious about trans-inclusiveness,” she said.

But even so, there are seven transgender delegates to the convention this year, including New York’s Melissa Sklarz. In 2000, there was one, and many advocates are satisfied they are making progress.

But there are some rumblings of dissent.

The HRC threw a party at Boston’s Avalon nightclub on the opening night of the convention. Just outside the velvet ropes in front of the VIP entrance three nervous Human Rights Campaign staffers jumped for the doors of the taxi bearing C. Dixon Osburn, a lawyer and head of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, California’s gay Assemblymember Mark Leno and Todd Dickinson, a Clinton-era undersecretary of commerce. They were late. The party in the cavernous club had started, rockily, hours before and the HRC staffers, mainly from its press department, quickly handed the trio their credentials from a bundle hanging from the ropes—bright yellow lanyards with a plastic pouch enclosing a gray tag printed with a braying donkey, “VIP Access,” and the theme of this year’s Democratic confab, “Unity ’04.”

As they ascended the stairs, the men found a VIP room housing the gliteratti of the event—lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Dick Gephardt’s lesbian daughter Chrissy, “Queer as Folk” star Robert Gant, and HRC’s Jacques. They grabbed one drink at the bar—and moved out into the sparsely-populated main room. But the party was mostly known for who wasn’t there.

The HRC had invited comedienne Margaret Cho to perform, and she had agreed—gratis.

But last week HRC press spokesperson Mark Shields called Cho’s manager Karen Taussig and told Cho not to come. Shields said the cancellation was because Cho wanted an hour and HRC had 20 minutes, and because Taussig, according to Shields, said the show would be “brutal.” It was to include excerpts from her new “State of Emergency” Bush-bashing stand up routine. Many suppose that HRC got cold feet after comedienne Whoopi Goldberg’s now-infamous Bush and Dick routine at a Kerry fundraiser got national attention.

The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force pulled out of the event, protesters from the Massachusetts-based “Don’t Amend” pro-marriage group picketed in front, and veteran AIDS activist Larry Kramer blasted Jacques in an open letter.

 “This Margaret Cho stuff stinks and you smell the most,” Kramer wrote. “How can you look like such cowards and expect people to support you? … One lesson I learned long ago in activism is to never run away from a fight, or from what you think others might think. To submit in advance to what you think they’re going to think is to be a loser, indeed to have lost.”

 Phil Kotzan was at the party. He’s a recent college graduate from Kalamazoo, Michigan. How did he like it?

“There was nobody there, but, hey,” he said. “Free drinks.”

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