Democratic National Chairman’s Latest Gay Gaffe

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, once the darling of the gay community, appeared on Reverend Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network last week to establish some common ground between his party and evangelicals and asserted, “The Democratic Party platform from 2004 says that marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s what it says.”

If Dean were hoping to neutralize the same-sex marriage issue, he only succeeded in drawing attention to it and setting off a firestorm of indignation from LGBT leaders, including some of his most ardent supporters. In bringing to a head gay anger over Dean’s leadership on LGBT issues, some are saying it may lead to improvement.

“Governor Dean is wrong about what the Democratic platform says about marriage equality,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Disturbingly, this is not the first time he has misrepresented this important and affirming plank.”

The Task Force returned a $5,000 donation from the DNC in protest.

The 2004 Democratic platform plank reads, “We support full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and seek equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections for these families.” It continues, “In our country, marriage has been defined at the state level for 200 years, and we believe that it should continue to be defined there.” The platform also rejects President George W. Bush’s push for a federal constitutional to ban same-sex marriage.

In his CBN interview, Dean did add, “Where we may take exception with some religious leaders is we believe in inclusion. That everybody deserves to live with dignity and equal rights under the law is important.”

But this did not placate his critics.

Jeff Soref, co-chair of NGLTF’s board, who resigned from the DNC in frustration with Dean’s handling of LGBT issues, said, “I don’t think what he said was accidental.” Soref called it “blatant pandering” and noted, “I’ve had conversations with him about it many times. He has been called on it before.”

Soref worries that this is a “trial balloon” on the part of “somebody gearing up to insert that language into the 2008 platform”—that marriage is between a man and a woman. While Soref did not specify who might make such a move, Democratic frontrunner Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York opposes same-sex marriage as does New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer. Soref was vice chair of the platform committee in 2004.

“Hillary and Chuck need to understand that civil unions [which they support] are not workable and not what the gay community wants,” Soref said.

Ethan Geto, campaign manager in New York for Dean’s 2004 bid for the White House and a longtime gay activist, had an e-mail exchange with Dean over this flap.

“I told him, ‘You know gay rights issues represent a challenge to the Democratic Party because they are manipulated by the other side. There is no way to neutralize it other than the extent to which we can persuade voters that gay-baiting is a cynical diversion by Republicans to avoid being held to account for their massive failures,’” Geto said. Distancing the party from full equality will “backfire,” he added.

Dean wrote back to Geto, noting his support for inclusion in the CBN interview and adding, “It is unfortunate that some in the community would prefer to attack the Democratic Party—an act which ultimately benefits those who are supporting various anti-gay amendments to the Constitution. Hopefully, this will be resolved and we can move on to the real problems before all our rights are eroded.”

Having worked closely with Dean, Geto said he is “extraordinarily comfortable with gay people” and “surrounded” with gay people at the DNC at all levels.

“His heart is in the right place,” Geto said.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT lobby in Washington, said, “Governor Dean’s comments weren’t a mere slip of the tongue, but a glaring reminder of the governor’s lack of leadership on this issue.” On the brink of a vote June 5 on the federal marriage amendment in the U.S. Senate, Dean “should have used the opportunity to speak out about the lack of values involved in the current constitutional debate.”

Dean issued a statement in response to the flap: “I misstated the Democratic Party’s platform, which does not say that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman.”

Ken Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College and a veteran gay activist, said, “If this was a memory lapse by Dean, it is astounding given the financial support the LGBT community provided to his presidential campaign. I would not expect Howard Dean to forget what the party platform says on issues of concern to the Jewish community,” noting that gays and Jews are two reliable constituencies.

Sherrill warned that since half of LGBT people have Republican parents and many are voting Democratic for the first time in their families, Dean risks alienating them.

“Everyone knows Democrats are nor as bad on LGBT issues as Republicans, but when Dean waffles, all he does is reinforce the image of his party as weak and unprincipled,” he said. “That’s what cost us the election of 2004.”

Foreman said, “We need elected officials to take a stand for us and not just be on the defensive when asked about LGBT issues.” Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, was quick to say, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman” virtually every time he was asked about the issue.

The Republican Party platform in 2004 “vigorously” supports the federal marriage amendment, which Kerry opposed, and would deny the “accompanying benefits” to gay couples as well. It also opposes out gays in the military.

But Foreman still believes in bipartisanship.

“You have to demand better from everyone,” he said. “I truly believe that we will never advance on the backs of one party. We’ve got to make inroads in both parties.”

HRC is also sticking with bipartisanship, despite an acknowledgement from David Smith, vice president of programs, that a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress would benefit LGBT issues.

“We’ve gotten positive indications from the Democratic leadership,” he said, on an agenda that includes hate crimes legislation, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, domestic partnership for federal employees, rights for immigrant partners of American citizens, extension of Social Security to same-sex partners, and domestic partner tax relief. Nevertheless, in Rhode Island where incumbent Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, a same-sex marriage supporter, is opposed by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a former attorney general and also pro-gay marriage, HRC has endorsed the Republican.

John Marble, communications director for National Stonewall Democrats, said, “This situation really presents the DNC with the opportunity to lay out their plans about how they’re going to motivate the LGBT community to vote for Democrats this fall and how they’re going to motivate Democrats to vote against anti-gay ballot initiatives.”

Marble believes the DNC is committed to both those goals, but laments that the Michigan party failed to feature in all its 2004 literature its opposition to the state constitutional amendment that passed that year. He said Stonewall is getting a good response from state parties to the idea of doing better on that score this year.

Marble does not believe that the 2008 platform will include anything about marriage being for a man and a woman only and noted that an attempt to support “civil unions” in the 2004 platform was kept out so as not to preclude support for same-sex marriage. There are six state Democratic parties with platforms supporting gay marriage—California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington.

No leader has criticized Dean for appearing on the Christian Broadcasting Network and Andrew Tobias, the out gay treasurer of the DNC, said, “If by reaching out we can get 37 percent of the evangelical vote, as President Clinton did, instead of 21 percent as Senator Kerry did, we will win elections and get the country back on track.”

Tobias added, “Showing evangelicals that they have a home in the Democratic Party, and that they don’t ‘necessarily’ have to support gay marriage—even our 2004 candidate didn’t—is not unwise and does not work against GLBT interests.”

Damien LaVera, an out gay spokesman for the DNC, said that Brian Bond, the new director of the party’s Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council, put together a conference call this week with state party leaders and HRC in the run-up to the debate on the federal anti-gay marriage amendment. He said that through Dean’s State Partnership Program, directing resources to build state parties even in solid red states, the DNC is “helping these parties fight ballot initiatives and take back state legislatures which have been passing these amendments.”

LaVera noted that Dean is scheduled to address the National Stonewall Democrats on June 3.