Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Richard Gephardt expressed support for homosexual "civil unions" but dodged specific questions about homosexual "marriage" during a forum July 15 hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest homosexual organization in the country.
Kerry, who said he's opposed to "homosexual marriage," implied that if the cultural attitude on the issue changes, he would, too.
Seven of the nine Democratic candidates appeared at the forum, which showcased the candidates' stances on a host of homosexual issues, with three long-shot candidates voicing support for homosexual "marriage" during the event.
According to the HRC, it marked the first time a group of presidential contenders spoke specifically to a group of homosexuals.
While candidates John Edwards and Bob Graham did not appear, their answers on a Human Rights Campaign questionnaire generally were supportive of homosexual issues. Of the nine candidates, only Graham said he would not work to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuals.
Prior to the forum, Elizabeth Birch, HRC executive director, announced that all nine candidates had come out in opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would add language to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as solely between one man and one woman.
While President Bush has yet to declare his position on the amendment, his support of it would provide a sharp cultural contrast with the Democratic candidate during the 2004 presidential campaign. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has declared his support for the amendment in the past, although an Associated Press story July 16 reported that he has backed off that position, saying it is now "one alternative" if Massachusetts' highest court rules for homosexual "marriage."
ABC News' Sam Donaldson served as moderator, peppering the candidates with questions about civil unions, homosexual "marriage," and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The format allowed the candidates to appear one by one, instead of simultaneously, on stage.
Kerry boasted of his longstanding support of homosexual issues, saying he supported homosexual-friendly legislation "before Ellen DeGeneres, before Will and Grace, before anyone knew who Melissa Etheridge was."
Saying he supports a federal law enacting homosexual civil unions, Kerry said he opposes homosexual "marriage" because of "how I view the world culturally, historically, religiously." He added that civil unions would grant homosexuals all the rights of marriage.
Pressed by Donaldson for reasons why he doesn't support homosexual "marriage," Kerry said that "we need to achieve what we can, and then we will see where we are." He added that it "may well be that if we achieve civil unions" and make progress like "we have progressed in the last fifteen years" then there may be "a different understanding of it."
"But at this particular moment in time, I don't believe that [support] exists," Kerry said, adding that he wants to work to pass other legislation, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Dean and Gephardt both dodged questions seeking further explanations of their views on homosexual "marriage."
"Civil unions is something that can be accomplished," Gephardt said when asked why he did not support homosexual "marriage."
"If you think of where we were three, four, five years ago, it's almost amazing that this discussion goes on today, but it's going on," he added, reflecting on homosexual-friendly legislation of recent years. "Progress is being made every day. Minds are being changed."
Trying to further define Gephardt's position, Donaldson then asked, "Practically, if you thought the American public would accept it today [would you be for homosexual 'marriage'] or do you have a deeper reason for feeling that you don't want to endorse it?"
Gephardt responded: "I simply feel and have felt that civil unions is the way to go."
Gephardt told how his daughter divorced her husband of four years and declared that she is a homosexual. He said that he and his wife are proud of their daughter's courage and as a sign of support they joined "PFLAG" — the acronym for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Dean, considered to be the most homosexual-friendly of the major candidates, said the issue of homosexual "marriage" is a state, not federal, issue. As governor of Vermont he signed into law the country's first civil unions law.
Responding to a question, Dean said he has "never said" he's against homosexual "marriage." But when questioned by Donaldson, Dean also refused to say he's for it.
"We chose to do civil unions in Vermont because we believe that marriage should be left to the churches, and equal rights under the law was what the state owes everybody," he said.
Reflecting on the history of marriage, Dean said that "marriage, when the rule of law developed, became a civil and a religious institution and people have a lot of trouble telling the difference."
Donaldson noted that some couples choose to be married with a justice of the peace or a judge presiding. "These are all secular individuals that have nothing to do with the religious ceremony," he said.
"That's true," Dean responded, to which Donaldson asked, "Then why say that it's a religious institution?"
"Because it is," Dean answered.
Still trying to get a clear response, Donaldson said, "Except for those who are married by a justice of the peace."
Refusing to be baited into the discussion, Dean said, to laughter, "Do you want to keep talking about this or do you want to go on to the military question?"
Perhaps further clouding his position on homosexual "marriage," Dean said he would work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents states from having to recognize another state's homosexual "marriage" laws.
A fourth major candidate, Joseph Lieberman, said that he would leave civil union legislation up to individual states and that he opposed homosexual "marriage."
"Marriage has a special status in our culture, our society, history," he said. "Yet I have worked very aggressively to protect not only gay and lesbian individuals but gay and lesbian couples …."
Lieberman said he supports legislation that would provide benefits to homosexual domestic partners who are federal employees.
Asked if he would nominate "openly gay" people to the Supreme Court and to his administration, Lieberman said, "absolutely." Gephardt said an "openly gay" person on the Supreme Court would be a "good thing."
Three long-shot candidates, Carol Moseley Braun, Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton, all expressed their support of homosexual "marriage."
Sharpton said being asked if he supports homosexual "marriage" is like being asked whether he supports "black marriage or white marriage." The issue, he added, is "about human beings having the right to marry who they choose."
"Church leaders ought to lead the fight against what Bill Frist is trying to do," he said. "It is nothing short of discriminatory and biased. If they can do it to any of us, they'll do it to all of us."
In their HRC questionnaire, the two non-attendees, John Edwards and Bob Graham, said they oppose homosexual "marriage" but support giving homosexual couples the benefits of marriage.
Edwards said he supports "partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples in committed long-term relationships," while Graham said he supports "federal laws to provide equal benefits" of marriage "for committed same-sex partners."