The Real Problem Alan Van Capelle Identified

The queer community should be proud to have a leader like the Empire State Pride Agenda’s Alan Van Capelle, who urged an end to donations to Democrats who won’t speak up for our community. He is surely correct that the community faces a concerted attack. The 2003 Massachusetts court decision permitting marriage equality there has spurred a backlash that has placed queers on the defensive. Encoding heterosexual marriage into our legal system would sanctify discrimination just as surely as the “separate but equal” doctrine sanctioned by the Jim Crow laws that swept the South when Reconstruction petered out.

Democratic caution on marriage equality is perplexing given Republicans weaknesses. The GOP is being dragged down by President George W. Bush’s repeated failures and an interminable and unpopular war. Yet the Democrats seem to be holding back. In part, this is a natural reaction to years of nasty Republican attacks. Criticize the war, and you are giving comfort to the enemy; defend social welfare programs, and you are a liberal high taxer; support gay marriage and you are an enemy of the family. Critical components of the GOP noise machine are made up of partisans who shouldn’t be; Fox News will not give Democrats a fair shake.

But other media outlets are disenchanted with this Republican administration. The war demonstrates the need for an independent press, and the constant attacks on reporters by Team Bush are making publishers anxious. Vigorous Democratic attacks on the Republicans are likely to find favorable coverage in wide swaths of the media.

Van Capelle’s warning that caution can bring disenchantment is widely echoed in Washington. There is hope Democrats will make big gains in Congress. In New York, it’s a big election year, with the governor’s mansion and the State Legislature up for grabs. Democrats have for several election cycles been gaining in the State Senate where Republicans have long held a majority. A strong showing by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in the governor’s race could make the difference in the Senate.

Thus Van Capelle, the executive director of the statewide LGBT lobbying group, correctly asks Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton why she is so cautious. At the risk of stating the obvious, timidity does not reflect well on a leader; neither of course does recklessness. In the end, good judgment and clarity are essential. Clinton is opting for cultural conservatism, on issues including the family and Hollywood. She favors tradition.

How she chooses to position herself is her call.

But she will not fend off personal attacks by running to the center on these issues. Bill Clinton has been traveling with Bush’s father on a variety of international missions, but the Republican national chairman still calls Senator Clinton “too angry.” When she runs for president in 2008, she is unlikely to benefit from any discussions that focus on the family, warns Hunter College political science professor Ken Sherrill. One way or another, the Republicans will find a way to use Bill Clinton against her. It’s more than likely in 2008, in fact, that her GOP opponent will allow the spread of rumors that she is bisexual.

Therefore it must be asked what she gains by soft-pedaling her pro-gay positions. Sherrill told me that the senator faces a critical dilemma by following the “triangulation” strategy made famous by her husband. Van Capelle’s confidential email to his board members at ESPA, the source material for news of his criticism, received national attention, and that may seem to have provided support for the senator’s claim to be independent of “special interest” groups like the LGBT community. Clearly, in so far as her political strategy is based on the assumption that the queer community has no option but to vote Democratic, it is deplorable. But it’s also not clear that such a strategy is the most effective approach in any event.

Sherrill for one argues otherwise. He thinks strong candidates mobilize their bases. The current president Bush and President Ronald Reagan followed this strategy successfully. Sherrill also believes that queers are not guaranteed to vote Democratic. Many LGBT people who vote Democratic chose that party affiliation as adults. They come from families who are just as likely to be Republican as Democrat, and they can revert to their traditional family alliances without sufficient reason to remain where they currently are. Sherrill argues that over the long run political allegiance is fluid in the LGBT community. Without a compelling attraction to a Democratic candidate, queer voters could be persuaded to go the other way.

Sherrill advises candidates to state their values and positions clearly because voters are trying to understand how they will perform in office once elected. If a voter learns that Clinton supports the queer community, the question becomes whether her compassion extends to other groups. The Republicans became a majority party in large part by persuading white voters that limousine liberal Democrats cared more for blacks, browns, and queers than they did for working white people. Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, in The New York Times, recently warned his party not to lose its “voice when it comes to the basic things people worry about.’’

It is not fatal for politicians to support the LGBT cause, it is fatal to support that cause and not respond to the widespread anxiety that globalization will force people out of middle class life into poverty.

It is also fatal, Sherrill says, to fail to define your position. That is what leads voters to conclude you are weak. And that is the nature of the problem that dogged Senator John Kerry while running for president in 2004. Similarly, convenient nostrums like supporting civil unions, but not marriage equality can create the appearance of waffling, of not really saying what you believe. Plant that suspicion and voters start to doubt a candidate’s honesty. Republicans are currently playing with this suspicion by pointing to Clinton’s moves to the right, claiming she’s a closeted liberal, and thereby framing the larger message that you can’t believe a word she says.

It is possible Republicans will misfire and come across as so harsh in their attacks on Clinton that she will gain public support. But the queer community shouldn’t sit by and accept her support for discriminatory legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act any more than it would have made any sense to ask African Americans to let politicians slide on the separate but equal question. And given long-fueled Republican whispers about her sexuality, the senator runs a grave risk by running away from gay issues.

Time will tell if Clinton has chosen the right strategy, but it is clear that Alan Van Capelle has pointed to a real problem—the inherent difficulties of her strategy of hewing unconvincingly to the center. Van Capelle did so firmly, but without personal vituperation. In fact, in his Progress Report essay in last week’s Gay City News, he made it abundantly clear that his view is based on a matter of principle involving all elected officials and not just Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. For that, we should be grateful.