Democrats Woo Gays and Lesbians at Hollywood Forum

Gay marriage topped the conversation at a Democratic presidential forum in Hollywood Thursday night. It was the first ever live TV forum devoted to gay and lesbian issues. The leading Candidates walked a fine line, showing their support for civil rights while refusing to endorse gay marriage.

Frank Stoltze: Illinois Senator Barack Obama was the first to face questions from the panel. As do other leading Democratic candidates, he opposes gay marriage. Instead, he supports civil unions that would offer similar legal rights to gay and lesbian couples.

Senator Barack Obama: As I've proposed it, it wouldn't be a lesser thing. And look, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested in is that those legal rights are available to people.

Stoltze: Jonathan Capehart, an editorial writer for the Washington Post, questioned the candidate from his seat on last night's panel.

Jonathan Capehart: You are running as a candidate of change. But how can you run as a candidate of change when your stance on same-sex marriage is decidedly old school?

Obama: Oh, come on now. Look guys, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes.

Stoltze: New York Senator Hillary Clinton faced similar scrutiny as panelists asked about what motivates her opposition to same-sex marriage.

Senator Hillary Clinton: I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions. [Laughter] Ya know, it's a personal position.

Stoltze: Clinton said she sympathizes with the desire for full marriage rights.

Clinton: How we get to full equality is the debate we are having, and I am absolutely in favor of civil unions with full equality.

Stoltze: Each of the candidates appeared separately before the panel for about 15 minutes. All support federal legislation that would protect gays and lesbians in the workplace, and all endorse a bill that would add sexuality to federal hate crime laws. Every one of them also supports the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Singer Melissa Etheridge was one of the panelists. Her question to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson led to one of the more tense moments during the two-hour forum that aired live on the gay-oriented cable channel LOGO.

Melissa Etheridge: Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?

Governor Bill Richardson: It's a choice.

Stoltze: It's a hot button issue for many gays and lesbians who believe they are born gay. Etheridge asked Richardson to clarify his response.

Richardson: Ya know, I'm not a scientist. I see gays and lesbians as people, as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship.

Stoltze: Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards also found himself in an awkward moment during the forum.

Etheridge: I have heard that you have said in the past that you feel uncomfortable around gay people. Are you okay right now?

[Laughter]

Senator John Edwards: I'm perfectly comfortable. Can I just tell you, that's not true. What you just said.

Stoltze: Six candidates attended the forum. Two supported gay marriage: former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich: I can't imagine what it would be like to have met the love of my life, and then be told that you just can't be married because there is a certain rule or law that won't let that happen.

Stoltze: Gay rights leaders called the event an important step forward for their movement. Jeffrey Prang is a West Hollywood City Councilman.

Councilman Jeffrey Prang: They are there standing before the entire country on national television embracing the gay and lesbian civil rights agenda, pledging their support for that agenda. There's people in parts of this country who just virulently hate us.

Stoltze: Still, some in the audience, like actor Alec Mapa, were frustrated that the top candidates refused to endorse gay marriage. He referred to a history of discrimination in America.

Alec Mapa: In 1967, Obama's parents' marriage wasn't even legal in 50 states. So what side of history do they want to be on? I mean, let's face it, we've been used as a wedge issue to win.

Stoltze: Mapa conceded Republicans wooing conservative Christian voters may use gays as a wedge again. USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said endorsing gay marriage may be political suicide in the presidential election.

The California Democratic Party estimates as much as 12 percent of Democratic voters in the state are gay. Bebitch Jeffe said those numbers point to an unspoken subtext at the forum.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe: This was all about the money that the gay community contributes to Democrats. They're strong, active Democratic contributors.

Stoltze:The forum's organizers invited Republican presidential candidates to a similar forum. They declined.

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