Marriage, AIDS Enter Debates

Edwards and Cheney include two crucial gay issues in their sparring

Amidst their sparring about health care, the economy and the war in Iraq, the two vice presidential candidates addressed same-sex marriage and the spread of AIDS, two issues of vital importance to the nation’s gay and lesbian community. The candidates spoke about the issues midway through a rancorous debate on October 5 in which John Edwards, a first-term Democratic senator, sought to portray himself to a national audience as a candidate of presidential timber, while his Republican counterpart, Dick Cheney, the incumbent vice president, needed to urge voters to support the president.

During the portion of the debate dealing with domestic matters, the event’s moderator, Gwen Ifill, a PBS commentator, asked Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, about his oft-repeated remark, “Freedom means freedom for everybody,” when referring to the matter of same-sex marriage which the Bush administration has sought to ban with a constitutional amendment. “You said it again recently when you were asked about legalizing same-sex unions. And you used your family’s experience as a context for your remarks,” said Ifill.

“People ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want,” replied Cheney during his allotted two-minute response. “It’s really no one else’s business.” Cheney then went on to reiterate his preference that states regulate marriage, mentioning the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, as well as California, where last February San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, authorized marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples.

“And the fact is that the president felt it was more important to make clear that that’s the wrong way to go, as far as he’s concerned,” said Cheney, adding that he defers to the president’s policy-setting prerogative.

During his 90-second rebuttal, Edwards first addressed Cheney’s remarks on tax policy, the topic that preceded the marriage question, before making remarks that sought to add a gracious note to the otherwise heated exchanges. “Now, as to this question, let me say first that I think that the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her.”

Edwards concluded by reiterating his belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman,” the same position of his prospective boss, John Kerry. Edwards said that “there should be partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples in long-term, committed relationships,” avoiding endorsing any specific legislation that would recognize such unions, such as the civil unions instituted in Vermont or the domestic partnerships offered in California and New Jersey.

Proponents of same-sex marriage have derided such legal arrangements as nothing more than “separate but equal” concessions that are less than full marriage and therefore unacceptable. Perhaps conscious of the gay and lesbian voters who form a core constituency in the Democratic Party, Edwards’ remarks were meant to avoid committing his ticket to any particular legal recognition of same-sex relationships, while underscoring his opposition to a constitutional amendment, a posture that he long repeated on the stump as a presidential candidate during a year in which same-sex marriage became the nation’s most controversial social issue.

Ifill then asked Edwards if he and Kerry “were trying to have it both ways,” opposing legalization of same-sex marriages while calling for the establishment of other legal recognitions. In his response, Edwards twice repeated that he and Kerry believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, adding that “gays and lesbians and gay and lesbian couples, those who have been in long-term relationships, deserve to be treated respectfully, they deserve to have benefits,” briefly mentioning that gay couples “now have a very difficult time, one, visiting the other when they are in the hospital,” or in making funeral arrangements.

Edwards, a successful trial attorney, then took a legal approach, as well as seeking to perhaps reassure gay and lesbian voters with a partisan swipe at Bush. “I want to make sure people understand that the president is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that is completely unnecessary,” citing states’ constitutional prerogatives to establish their own marriage laws and the amendment proposal as a Bush political tool to divert the electorate from other important issues like jobs.

In what was one of the evening’s most unexpected turns, Cheney declined to utilize his 90-second rebuttal time other than to thank Edwards for the “kind words he said about my family and our daughter.”

“That’s it?” asked Ifill, to which Cheney replied, “That’s it.”

As for another matter of extreme importance to gay voters, AIDS spending, Ifill asked Cheney about the administration’s commitment to fighting the disease’s spread among young African-American women, whose leading cause of death is AIDS. Ifill said that black women between the ages of 25 and 44 “are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts.”

Despite Ifill’s clear intent to discuss domestic AIDS spending, Cheney noted that the Bush administration has committed to spending $15 billion “to help in the international effort,” before adding, “Here in the United States we’ve made significant progress. I have not heard those numbers in respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was—that they’re in epidemic there, because we have made progress. . .”

On Wednesday, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus called a tele-conference call with reporters, in which one Democrat, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, called Cheney’s seeming ignorance of the AIDS statistics for African-American women “disgusting.”

Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, said he was “astounded the vice president doesn’t have knowledge of this epidemic.”

In his rebuttal of Cheney’s AIDS remarks, Edwards also commented about the disease’s impact on African nations, where millions of Sub-Saharans are infected with the disease and unable to afford or procure life-saving medicines. Without offering a specific strategy for halting the disease’s spread among African-American women, Edwards seemed to suggest that the lack of health coverage for 45 million Americans was the cause of the alarming statistic. “If kids and adults don’t have access to preventative car,” said Edwards, they risk the possibility of “not only developing AIDS,” but also getting other diseases.

Asked on Wednesday if she was comfortable with Edwards’ reply to Cheney’s answer, Lee expressed her confidence in John Kerry’s commitment to adequately fund federal programs like the Ryan White Act and the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program to combat the disease within the African-American community.

Lee said that as a senator Kerry has shown a deep commitment to fighting AIDS and would do so even more as president.

Perhaps seeking to stem any erosion in support among LGBT voters for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, a spokesman for the Democratic National Party, Brian Richardson, said in a separate interview that both Democrats have steadfastly opposed the constitutional amendment. “Edwards has a real conviction in opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment,” said Richardson, adding that Edwards and Kerry “have been consistently against the campaign of bigotry.”

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