Volume 5, Number 20 | May 18 -24, 2006

Quinn Convenes Amendment Confab

LGBT leaders, Weiner, Democratic congressional staff meet about GOP anti-gay measure

In a May 12 meeting convened by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, top LGBT leaders in the city, Congressman Anthony Weiner, and representatives of three other leading Capitol Hill New York Democrats discussed the impending Senate debate on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would bar same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said will be voted on June 5, would require a two-thirds margin in both houses of Congress and ratification by three quarters of the states. A July 2004 procedural vote in the Senate failed to garner even a simple majority.

The amendment is supported by President George W. Bush, but he has not pushed the issue since he won reelection.

Gay and lesbian participants in last week’s meeting said they told the representatives of New York’s Democratic congressional delegation that their strong stand against the amendment in 2004 was appreciated, but it was critical that the debate this year offer more positive statements about the value of gay and lesbian families rather than rely merely on process critiques of the proposed constitutional change.

In a meeting largely focused on what “messaging” is appropriate for the debate, gay advocates stressed that they expect allies on Capitol Hill to be willing to articulate affirmative statements about the need to treat LGBT families equally.

Referring to the reliance of Democrats in their 2004 arguments on the dangers of tinkering with the Constitution and the political use of the amendment by the Republicans as a wedge issue and a diversion from more pressing concerns, Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “The debate becomes not about our families and the assault on us, but rather the distraction, the wedge issue, mucking with the Constitution. The real issue is missing. [Democrats and Republican allies] need to stop equivocating and not talking about what’s on the table. It’s not about diversion, it’s not about wedge, it’s about marriage.”

Ethan Geto, a longtime gay activist and public relations executive who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 New York State campaign, offered a similar perspective, if somewhat less critical of Democratic allies.

“In terms of the messaging suggested I have some problems. Some of the messaging suggested—and I must say it was tentative—did only half the job, focusing on equity, democracy, etc.,” Geto said. “Putting a human face on the issue is key… It’s almost always more effective when done with a human face.”

Then talking about comments that Senator Clinton made at a March gay fundraiser, Geto added, “She made one of the most heartfelt and compelling statements about gay families and adoption I’ve ever heard from a politician… ‘We have done a human service. Gay families are well adjusted. We have to protect and strengthen gay families.’ That’s the kind of language I would like to hear from Hillary Clinton in the debate.”

In fact, Geto’s summary of Clinton’s March comments stands in sharp contrast to her floor speech during the 2004 debate. Then, she said, “We should not amend the Constitution to decide any issue that can and will be resolved by less drastic means” and affirmed, “I believe that marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Calling herself a defender of marriage, Clinton spoke of the corrosive effect of divorce, but said, “I don’t for the life of me understand how amending the Constitution of the United States with respect to same-gender marriage really gets at the root of the problem of marriage.”

Arguing that the Defense of Marriage Act has never even been challenged in federal court, Clinton said the amendment debate was “taking precious time away from other matters that I worry about.”

Senator Charles Schumer was even less interested in talking about LGBT families during the 2004 Senate discussion on the anti-gay measure. After noting that “we [are] debating an amendment to the Constitution for which there is already a statue that does the same thing,” New York’s senior senator went on to discuss the need for greater attention to gun control.

Still, several attendees were optimistic that the Washington crowd got the message.

“What was refreshing about the meeting was that we had a chance to comment on the messaging that is being used,” said Joe Tarver, who represented the Empire State Pride Agenda at the meeting. “We feel very strongly that we would like our two U.S. senators to be making some affirmative comments about our families… There was a consensus that this needed to be done — it was almost a no-brainer. We were asked to provide messaging like this to Speaker Quinn to provide to our two senators.”

Emily Giske, a vice chair of the state Democratic Party, echoed Tarver’s assessment. “I think everyone agrees on that,” she said.

Upper West Side Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who like his Assembly colleague Deborah Glick of the West Village and Chelsea state Senator Tom Duane, was in attendance, described the meeting as “constructive” and said, “It is important that people know the way I talk about [gay marriage].” Then, speaking of the oral arguments before the state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, in four gay marriage lawsuits, in which he is one of the plaintiffs, O’Donnell said. “I am very hopeful that when we win that Senator Schumer and Senator Clinton will be supportive of my right to get a marriage license.”

Quinn’s own assessment was similarly positive, and also stressed the importance of the way the June debate is framed.

“We laid out tangible steps that will improve the message of our allies when they vote against the amendment,” the speaker told Gay City News. “In their dialogue we want them to offer a message of support for LGBT Americans, even if they are not 100 percent with us on gay marriage. It’s important for the vote and for our long term advocacy effort. And it’s important for House and Senate members to be engaged with the community on our messaging and our issues.”

Quinn also talked about task-oriented outcomes of the meeting, including targeting Republicans such as upstate Representative Sue Kelly, moderates who can be approached in the hope they will stand up against any amendment efforts in the House.

Andrea Minkow, a Clinton representative and a major player in the meeting, did not respond to a request for comment about what she took away from Friday’s event. Minkow, who opened Friday’s meeting with a briefing on the Senate’s planned June debate and vote, is an associate director of the Democratic Senate Steering and Outreach Committee, which Clinton chairs and through whose auspices the senator convened a Washington meeting of LGBT leaders in March. Quinn said that the messaging issue was discussed at that gathering and received well not only by Clinton but also by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The speaker said that both Clinton’s and Schumer’s staff have requested input not only on “overarching themes” for their June floor statements but also “specific language.”

Jennifer Hanley, a Clinton spokeswoman, said that given the fact that the Friday meeting was closed to the press, Minkow would not make specific comment on what took place.

In addition to Minkow and Weiner, representatives of Schumer and West Side Congressman Jerrold Nadler were on hand, but only Minkow made a formal presentation.