As of his open letter this week to the LGBT communities, Barack Obama is the candidate expressing the clearest, strongest message for homosexualist and transgender rights.
Still, I am troubled by Obama's rhetoric--precisely the quality that has the public and media so starstruck. It appropriates the language of Christian faith ("believe," "hope") for political ends, a strategy Obama unabashedly espouses, beginning with his 2006 opening address for Call to Renewal, a Christian ministry based in Washington, DC, that advocates for the social messages implicit in Jesus's teachings--help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick.
I don't doubt that such a synthesis may be harmless--and even do a great deal of good--the civil rights movement was enriched by the evangelistic zeal and mountain-top oratory of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson.
But its play upon people's values and emotions is not rational and will be hard to translate into helpful, enforceable legislation.
Even though most Christians consider homosexuality an abomination, Obama is not evidently of that opinion--and he claims his goal is to find the common ground between socially conservative Christians and the LGBT communities.
However, his recent actions--giving a platform to ex-gay minister Donnie McClurkin and refusing to be photographed with pro-gay San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom--seem to indicate that Obama still treads more softly around the homophobes than the LGBT voters he's calling out to now.
It's worth remembering that, all through 2007, support for Obama was mainly white and male--with a higher percentage of blacks and women supporting Clinton. That has changed, of course. At the end of the year, Obama conducted a strong campaign in SC to win the African American vote, and the higher visibility of Michelle Obama nowadays may be a strategy designed to appeal to female voters.
Still, for the most part, Obama has done relatively little, apart from this week's open letter, to directly appeal to gays.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has marched in gay pride parades--for years now. She granted an interview last year to The Advocate, the national gay-lesbian news biweekly. Her public perception as gay-friendly seems to have even fueled rumors that she's lesbian.
However, like Obama, she stops short of endorsing gay marriage, claiming in the Advocate interview that her age (60) impedes her acceptance of the concept--next month Elton John will be 61 and Barney Frank, 68--so clearly age alone cannot be the issue. (Obama claims his religious faith is an impediment to his acceptance of equal marriage. Both candidates support civil unions that grant all the benefits of marriage.)
The Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, continues to be a formidable weapon against gay rights. Barack Obama wants to repeal the law. Hillary Clinton wants to alter it.
While Barack Obama's appeal to voters is his inspirational oratory, I think Hillary Clinton appeals to many gays because she is a strong, outspoken woman, which has always been the stuff of gay diva-worship. Her semi-tragic past, born stoically during the worst of times during his husband's impeachment, also is alluring. Even her visual presentation and attitude--which cross genders in their effects--like Martha Stewart and Jodie Foster--seem to signify more solidarity for gay causes than Obama's unmistakably straight, Boy Scout-variety do-goodism.
I think that gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women perceive Hillary as a friend. The perception, right or wrong, is comparable to the much repeated comment that George W. Bush was the type of guy you could have a beer with--all the more remarkable since supposedly Bush hasn't touched alcohol since 1986. Hillary appears to be the type of person who could be comfortable in a gay setting.
On the other hand, Barack's outreach to gays seems one part political and one part evangelistic. It's hard to fully endorse a candidate that speaks on acceptance and tolerance and yet has an image, right or wrong, of being uptight and guarded around gay people and on the issue of homosexuality. In many ways, he seems to lump us gays with the poor, the hungry, and the sick that Jesus commands him to love, however personally repugnant he finds us.
Of the two Democratic candidates, Obama promises more. Of the two, Clinton seems the more capable of getting things done in Washington.
Clinton's advantage with LGBT voters boils down to the perception that she is "one of us." The question remains Is that a legitimate, valid, and safe perception?