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Volume 35
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Democratic presidential nominees favor an end to military ban on Gays
Democratic presidential nominees favor an end to military ban on Gays
by Lisa Keen - SGN Contributing Writer

When it came to Gay issues, the surprise sluggers in Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate were not among the top three polling Democrats. They were U.S. Senator Joseph Biden and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Biden called the military's "don't ask/don't tell" policy of excluding Gays "ridiculous" and said General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is "flat wrong" for his recent comments in support of the policy. Richardson said he would not only get rid of the military's exclusionary policy, he would "initiate laws that practice non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" and allow civil unions and domestic partnerships.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama was not asked a question or given a chance to speak on Gay-related issues, and though U.S. Senator John Edwards appeared to take a step closer to supporting Gay marriage, a campaign spokesperson said afterwards that his opposition has not changed.

Gay issues came near the end of the first hour of the two-hour debate, staged by CNN in a college auditorium in Manchester, New Hampshire. A panelist chosen by CNN posed this question to U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton: "You've said that it's time to allow Gays and Lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military and end the "don't ask/don't tell policy" that was implemented when your husband was president. "Was President Clinton's policy of don't ask/don't tell a mistake?"

"It was a transition policy," said Clinton, who seemed to ramble cautiously to get around the obvious intent of the question --to see whether she would publicly criticize her husband. During that ramble, however, she noted that the policy has been implemented in a discriminatory fashion (discharging many Gays only after they finished serving in the first Gulf War) and to the detriment of the military mission (discharging Gay service members with Arabic language skills needed for the current Gulf War). She said that Gays have served with "distinction and honor" since the beginning of the U.S. military, and that they should be allowed to serve now.

"If there were conduct problems," said Clinton, "then the conduct problems would be looked at" under the same military law that is applied to conduct problems with heterosexual service members. Moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed her again to say whether she believes her "husband's decision to allow the "don't ask/don't tell" policy to go forward & a mistake?"

"No, it was an important first step, Wolf," said Clinton, with a laugh that was apparently directed at Blitzer's side comment that President Clinton "could have changed" the policy if he wanted to. (In fact, President Clinton initially sought to change the military's policy to enable Gays to serve, but an overwhelming majority in Congress opposed that plan. "Don't ask/don't tell" was seen as a compromise.) "Talking about this as if there's a reality out there that a president or a Congress can change with the snap of a finger does a grave disservice to the American people. We have a political process; there are checks and balances&.Congress was adamantly opposed at the time to letting Gays and Lesbians serve openly."

Gay Democratic activist David Mixner, who was largely responsible for President Clinton's initial focus on ending the military's discriminatory policy, seemed bewildered by Senator Clinton's response.

"That has to be one of the longest and most damaging 'transition policies' in quite some time," said Mixner, in an email from London, when told of the senator's response. "It never was explained as such a [transition] policy&."

Keith Boykin, a Gay Democratic activist who has worked on many presidential campaigns and served in the Clinton White House, said that while the "don't ask/don't tell" policy was never expressly described as a transition step, "I don't think anybody thought it would stay in place forever, including Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. We all expected it would change because society would become more tolerant."

Boykin and Democratic activist Andrew Tobias both also noted that this is not the first year that the entire Democratic field has supported repealing the military policy.

"During the course of the campaign 15 years ago, every candidate said he would lift the ban," said Boykin.

Senator Clinton's comments, while opposing the policy, came across as guarded after Biden was given a chance to weigh in. Blitzer turned to Biden on the issue, after Clinton referred to the Congressional opposition to Gays in the military in 1993. That year, the only current Democratic presidential candidates who were in the Senate were Biden and Senator Chris Dodd, and both of them voted against "don't ask/don't tell."

Blitzer noted to Biden that "there are still a lot of military commanders out there, including the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who say, 'Keep the current policy'&."

"Peter Pace is flat wrong," said Biden emphatically. "I've been to Afghanistan, I've been to Iraq seven times, I've been in the Balkans, I've been in the foxholes with these kids, literally, in bunkers with them. Let me tell you something: Nobody asks anybody else whether they're Gay in those foxholes." Biden also noted that "all our major allies" allow Gays to serve.

"I don't the last time an American soldier asked a back-up& 'Hey, let me check: Are you Gay, are you straight?' This is ridiculous," he asserted. "And by the way, we've got a war on our hands we're trying to end and in the meantime, we're breaking the military. Nine thousand of these people have been kicked out. This is not a rational policy."

Blitzer then asked for a show of hands to see which candidates believe the policy should be repealed: All eight raised their hands and the New Hampshire studio audience applauded. Former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel called out, "It should have been gotten rid of 20 years ago!"

That's when Richardson asked to speak.

"Here's what I would do," said Richardson. "One, I would move in the Congress for a hate crimes law. I would have domestic partnerships. I would have civil unions. I would initiate laws that practice non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I would get rid of 'don't ask/don't tell.' I voted against it as a Congressman."

(In fact, Richardson voted pro-Gay in two out of three votes on the issue.)

Blitzer then moved to the issue of civil unions, noting that the governor of New Hampshire, Democrat John Lynch, had signed a law just that week to establish civil unions for Gay couples in the state, beginning January 1. The audience applauded.

"Is it time to move beyond that and let Gays and Lesbians get married?" Blitzer asked Senator John Edwards.

"I think what the governor did and what New Hampshire's done is a great example for the rest of the country," said Edwards. "Not only civil unions but all the partnership benefits, including -as Senator Clinton talked about, getting rid of this don't ask/don't tell policy.

"I don't think the federal government has a role in telling either states or religious institutions-churches-what marriages they can bless and can't bless. I think the state of New Hampshire ought to be able to make that decision for itself, like every other state in the country, like every church ought to be able to make that decision for itself. And I think it's very important that we stand up against intolerance and against discrimination."

While previously, Edwards has supported civil unions and said he was not comfortable with the idea of Gay marriage, in Sunday's debate he added that he thinks it is "important to stand up against intolerance and against discrimination" and that it should be left to the states and to religious institutions to decide "what marriages they can bless and can't bless." That seemed, at least to some Gay viewers, like a subtle shift toward a greater acceptance of marriage for same-sex couples. But Colleen Murray, deputy national press secretary for the Edwards campaign, said it did not represent a change in position.

Boykin said he was pleased with Biden and Richardson's responses.

"That's what we need," he said of Biden's response to the military policy. "We need people to be clear, to speak out forcefully from the beginning." And, he applauded Richardson for going beyond the military.

"He made clear his concern wasn't simply on one issue," said Boykin. "I thought that was a good move."

But Boykin, Tobias, and other Gay activists contacted for their reaction to Sunday night's debate say they still haven't decided who to support in the Democratic primary.

"I'm not on any list of supporters," said Boykin. "I'm going to support a Democratic candidate&but they all need to be pushed right now."



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