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Democratic Convention sends powerful LGBT signal
Democratic Convention sends powerful LGBT signal
by Lisa Keen - Keen News Service

The 2008 Democratic National Convention boasted the largest ever LGBT caucus and the greatest number of mentions of LGBT by speakers during prime time television coverage. But it was, ironically enough, a convention in which little was actually seen of LGBT people.

The closing speech by nominee Barack Obama was the most-watched political speech in the history of the United States and, in that speech, the first African American nominee for president by a major political party called on Americans to agree that "our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters deserve & to live lives free of discrimination."

"I know there are differences on same-sex marriage," said U.S. Senator Barack Obama, "but surely we can agree that our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination."

The 84,000 people gathered for the closing night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention at a football stadium in Denver cheered loudly - loudly enough to be noticed by the estimated 40 million watching on numerous network and national cable news programs broadcasting the event.

And for LGBT people, it was the most powerful signal ever by a major party candidate that he considers LGBT people to be an important constituency and is willing to expend political capital on its behalf.

"I was pretty much stunned that, while giving the speech that could very well make or break his run for the presidency, Barack actually brought up the issue," said blogger Michael Jensen on AfterElton.com.

Pam Spaulding, a commentator at pamshouseblend.com, noted that Obama's statement was not everything some LGBT activists might want politically, but it was like "red meat" to right-wing Republicans and "one that he could have easily left out."

In fact, Obama acknowledged the "red meat" aspect of his remarks, saying he expects some people will "dismiss" his ideas as "happy talk" and "the abandonment of traditional values." But he preemptively rebuffed such criticisms, saying they come from people who "don't have any fresh ideas" and rely on "stale tactics to scare the voters."

Spaulding said Obama's call for a measure of acceptance on Gay marriage and non-discrimination for Gays and Lesbians was "a statement that will tick off those [in the LGBT community] who want it all, and want it now - after all, separate is not equal," wrote Spaulding, "but the reality is that, on this national stage, a call for equality in this way is groundbreaking because it was purposefully present - and the crowd responded - and a nation watched a presidential candidate in a close race & put himself out there."

Four other Democratic National Convention prime-time speakers referred to LGBT people during their remarks this week. U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, Obama's chief campaign rival Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore. Previous conventions have included no more than two prime-time speakers who have mentioned Gays, usually while listing forms of discrimination which the party should oppose.

Most LGBT visibility at Democratic conventions in the past had been generated by the LGBT caucus itself, by hosting a long line of high-profile politicians and celebrities at its caucus meetings, hoisting placards on the convention floor, and having Gay issues mentioned by openly Gay speakers during non-prime-time speaking slots at the podium.

This year, the LGBT caucus entertained very few visitors and made no efforts to identify themselves as LGBT delegates on the floor of the convention. The platform, while stating explicit support on a record-number of LGBT issues, did not once use the words "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender."

But Human Rights Campaign official David Smith, as well as many others in and out of the caucus, said they were convinced the party and the campaign are committed to "true inclusivity."

"We strongly believe that this is the most supportive platform we've ever seen," said Smith.

This year's LGBT caucus was by far the largest in size - at least 255 voting members, which represented a 41 percent increase over 2004 - and a size larger than all but the state delegations of California, New York, and Texas. While most LGBT caucuses in the past have been predominantly white, this year's was 40 percent people of color.

The nominee's wife, Michelle Obama, spoke before a luncheon of LGBT caucus members and Democratic activists Tuesday, eliciting several rousing standing ovations.

"Five years after Lawrence v. Texas and 40 years after Stonewall," said Obama, "we've still got work to do before we achieve equality." She offered a long list of work to do, including repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy, full funding for Ryan White CARE Act and development of a national strategy to defeat HIV, support for legislation to end workplace discrimination and opposition to efforts to pass a federal constitutional ban on Gay marriage.

Only two openly Gay speakers were given podium time this year - the Democratic Party's National Treasurer Andy Tobias and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin - but neither mentioned Gay issues. Lesbian rock star Melissa Etheridge provided musical entertainment Wednesday afternoon, singing a medley of patriotic songs.

Steve Hildebrand, an openly Gay man who serves as the Obama campaign's deputy director, spoke to the caucus on Wednesday and, without prompting, said he believes the campaign has "not done the effective job it needs to do to convince LGBT people that Obama will fight for us." Alexander Robinson, head of the National Black Justice Coalition, said that while he believes that is true, he also feels LGBT Obama supporters have moved quickly, following Hillary Clinton's concession of the nomination, to make up ground.

LGBT caucus members also expressed optimism over Obama's choice for a vice presidential running mate - U.S. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. While Biden's voting record on LGBT issues in the Senate has seen a downward trend in recent years, he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to meet with a group of Gays - Connections, in Iowa City - and he vigorously denounced then Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace for clinging to the "Don't Ask Don't Tell policy."

Next issue: Gay Republican group rallies at Republican Convention around John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

2008 Keen News Service

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