Obama’s Gay Backers

Hillary Clinton has long been a gay ally. Who could forget how the former First Lady invited gays into the White House, tried to set up gay administration staffers and marched in New York City’s gay pride parade? No wonder so many gay people are throwing their vote behind the Senator from New York.

What would possess a gay person, then, to vote for Barack Obama, a fairly unknown candidate from Illinois? Our editor recently sat down with three of Obama’s key gay campaigners to figure out what makes them tick and tock for Obama’s presidential clock.

Read all about them – and so much more – after the jump.

Tobias Wolff got his political feet wet advising Democrat John Kerry during the 2004 election. Now, four years on, the University of Pennsylvania professor’s the Chair of Obama’s National LGBT Policy Committee. Despite his electoral track record, Wolff describes himself as “no political player”.

It’s his experience as a civil rights lawyer, he says, that landed him in the political game: “My job and my calling as a scholar and a lawyer is to understand our constitution and our legal system. I care about it very deeply and I am very passionate about it.”

Wolff’s especially enthusiastic about marriage equality and issued briefs in the California and Hawaii cases. He also plans to file one in Iowa.

The lawyer’s activist past clashes a bit with Obama, who endorses civil unions, but not gay marriage. So, how does Wolff reconcile this political difference? He doesn’t.

Andrew Belonsky: How did you get involved in Barack Obama’s campaign?

Tobias Wolff: The campaign called me in the late spring and asked me to be the Chair of the LGBT policy group. I had known a couple of people on the Obama campaign from the work that I did in the Kerry campaign. They knew my work as a scholar and a civil rights lawyer…

AB: Okay, so why did you agree to get involved with the campaign?

TW: He’s the first national politician in my adult life who has inspired me and makes me feel genuinely excited about being involved in national politics.

AB: What’s so inspiring?

TW: For starters, he is a really principled and committed progressive. He exhibits not just an understanding of the lives and the interests of ordinary people, but also an integrity in representing their interests and fighting for their interests. He has an ability to speak in a way that transcends the vocabulary that we’ve gotten used to hearing at a national political level. I think that for far too long, really since Watergate, frankly, it’s been difficult to get an audience for a progressive message on a national level. Barack Obama really represents values that are broadly shared values, values that large majorities of the American public really embrace, but haven’t had an effective voice at the national level. It is stirring.

AB: What happened in California? I mean, California is indicative of the way a lot of gay people vote. They feel indebted to the Clintons in a lot of ways.

TW: Sure.

AB: They recognize the Clintons. I think that people probably aren’t considering policies and things like that. So, why is Obama not gaining traction among gay people?

TW: I think there are a few things to say about what happened in California. The first is that Barack had extraordinary success in California compared to where the polling numbers were a month before the election. But, bottom line, she won the state and she should be commended for that. Where the gay vote is concerned, I think that the Clintons enjoy the benefit of a lot of affection for something real that they did. The Clinton presidency was the first occasion gay people were invited to participate in national politics and were formally recognized as part of the American community, that the White House would be speaking to and the White House would take pictures with and invite to parties. That was largely symbolic, but just as important. That was an enormous step forward and the Clintons are to be commended for that. That’s the good story to tell about the Clinton presidency and LGBT Americans.

AB: Okay.

TW: The bad story, of course, is the actual result that the presidency produced: the only two occasions in American history when anti-gay policies were written into the statutes of the United States. I think the story of the gay vote in this election, once again, has been the story of a familiar name, a familiar brand and then gay and lesbian voters having to learn about somebody new. I think the more LGBT people learn about Barack”s record on LGBT equality and HIV/AIDS and the way that he talks about LGBT equality to general audiences, the more excited they become and the more they switch over to his side.

AB: Let’s talk hypothetical: what if Obama doesn’t win the nomination? What if Hillary gets it? Do you back her?

TW: I’ll tell you what I’ve always said – both of these are very good candidates. They both have good records of accomplishment and they’re both candidates that I’d much rather see in the White House than John McCain. I will certainly vote for Hillary Clinton if she is the nominee. Will I publicly endorse her and lend my efforts to her campaign? That’s a decision that I’ll make after things play out.

AB: What about her stance on DOMA?

TW: I find her position on DOMA quite unacceptable. It is incomprehensible to me that she continues to support vicious anti-gay legislation. When Representative Lewis spoke on the House floor against DOMA when it was enacted and, invoking the full authority of his experience in the civil rights movement, he said, “I know what bigotry looks like and this is bigotry, pure and simple”. I cannot understand why Senator Clinton will not endorse a full repeal of that statute. It’s incomprehensible to me.

AB: And you do not endorse civil unions?

TW: No. The one issue pretty much in the entire LGBT arena that I disagree with Barack on is the marriage equality issue. When the campaign brought on to fulfill this role, they knew very well that I’m a quite prominent gay marriage advocate. I made clear from that start that when this issue comes up, it would be a very simple, “Yeah, this is an issue that I disagree with Barack on”. The campaign has never been skittish about that. I hold very strongly the view that if we can get civil unions in every state in the nation, then that would be an immense step forward, but I’m also of the view that we deserve to be treated equally under the law. That means if straight have access to civil marriage, then gay couples should as well.