"VISIBLE VOTE '08" PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES FORUM SPONSORED BY THE HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN AND THE LOGO NETWORK
MS. CARLSON: For the next two hours, the Democratic candidates running for president will be here to talk directly to you, live and commercial-free, only on LOGO. You'll find a wealth of information about the candidates and their positions on the issues at hrc.org and at the VisibleVote08.com, where this show is also being streamed live.
Finally, before we begin, a word about the order of appearance at tonight's event. The candidates, who will appear one after another, picked their time slots in the order of their confirmation to attend the forum.
And now, with that, it is my pleasure to introduce our first candidate. Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 2004. The senator previously served eight years in the state senate in Illinois. Please welcome Senator Barack Obama. (Cheers, applause.)
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you.
MS. CARLSON: Well, welcome, Senator. You are a rock star, I see. (Chuckles.)
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I don't know about that.
MS. CARLSON: Yeah, I've seen it. It's not quite as hot here as it was in Chicago the other night --
SEN. OBAMA: (Chuckles.)
MS. CARLSON: -- literally and figuratively, perhaps.
SEN. OBAMA: Absolutely.
MS. CARLSON: We'll see.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, it's wonderful to be here. I want to thank, first of all, HRC and LOGO for setting this up. I think it is an historic moment, not just for the LGBT community but for America. And so I'm glad that I'm participating and glad I kind of got the ball rolling.
MS. CARLSON: Yeah. Start-off batter here.
SEN. OBAMA: Absolutely.
MS. CARLSON: Welcome.
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS. CARLSON: I'm going to have some questions for you, but first I'm going to turn it over to Joe.
MR. SOLMONESE: Senator, thank you so much for joining us. It's a real honor to have you here with us tonight. And thank you for being the first to accept our invitation.
You have said in previous debates that it is up to individual religious denominations to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex marriage. And so my question is, what place does the church have in government-sanctioned civil marriages?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, it is my strong belief that the government has to treat all citizens equally. I come from that in part out of personal experience. When you're a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it's like to be on the outside. And so my concern is continually to make sure that the rights that are conferred by the state are equal for all people. That's why I opposed NOMA in 2006 when I ran for the United States Senate. (Applause.) That's why -- that's why I am a strong supporter not of a weak version of civil unions, but of a strong version, in which the rights that are conferred at the federal level to persons of -- you know, who are part of the same sex union are compatible.
Now, as a consequence, I don't think that the church should be making these determinations when it comes to legal rights conferred by the state. I do think that individual denominations have the right to make their own decisions as to whether they recognize same sex couples. My denomination, United Church of Christ, does. Other denominations may make a decision, and obviously, part of keeping a separation of churches and state is also to make sure that churches have the right to exercise their freedom of religion.
But when it comes to federal rights, the over 1,100 rights that right now are not being given to same sex couples, I think that's unacceptable, and as president of the United States, I am going to fight hard to make sure that those rights are available.
MR. SOLOMONESE: So -- (interrupted by applause). So to follow up on your point about the state issue, if you were back in the Illinois legislature where you served and the issue of civil marriage came before you, how would you have voted on that?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I -- you know, my view is that we should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word "marriage," which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples, in terms of hospital visitation, in terms of whether or not they can transfer property or any of the other -- Social Security benefits and so forth. So it depends on how the bill would've come up.
I would've supported and would continue to support a civil union that provides all the benefits that are available for a legally sanctioned marriage. And it is then, as I said, up to religious denominations to make a determination as to whether they want to recognize that as marriage or not.
MR. SOLMONESE: But on the grounds of civil marriage, can you see to our community where it -- that comes across as sounding like separate but equal?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, you know, when my parents got married in 1960, '61, you know, it would have been illegal for them to be married in a number of states in the South.
So obviously, this is something that I understand intimately, it's something that I care about.
But I would also say this, that if I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 about its approach to civil rights, I would have probably said it's less important that we focus on an anti- miscegenation law than we focus on a voting rights law and a non- discrimination and employment law and all the legal rights that are conferred by the state.
Now, it's not for me to suggest that you shouldn't be troubled by these issues. I understand that and I'm sympathetic to it. But my job as president is going to be to make sure that the legal rights that have consequences on a day to day basis for loving same sex couples all across the country, that those rights are recognized and enforced by my White House and by my Justice Department.
MS. CARLSON: You know, before I got to Melissa with her question, I've been working with the Logo people for a couple of days so I have more of a feeling for what troubles them.
And it seems like you've -- religion owns the word marriage, or you're letting religion have marriage and then civilly you get civil unions. But you got to get married, and I got to get married, but Joe doesn't get to be married. And that really does mean that it's a lesser thing. It looks like a politically feasible thing to do, but --
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, as I've proposed it, it wouldn't be a lesser thing, from my perspective. And look, you know, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested is making sure that those legal rights are available to people.
And if we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognized, people have civil rights under then law, then my sense is that's enormous progress. And that is the kind of progress that I think HRC would be proud of and I would be proud of as president. And that's what I'm going to try to lead.
MS. CARLSON: Okay, thank you.
MS. ETHERIDGE: Thank you very much.
First, I just want to say how incredibly humbled and honored I am to be here. I am not a professional politician. I'm not even a journalist. I'm an incredibly privileged rock star -- (laughter, applause) -- and I'm --
SEN. OBAMA: That's a good enough reason.
MS. ETHERIDGE: I'm very, very grateful and honored here to represent my community and be able to speak for so many people who need to have their government's help.
And with that, thank you. I want to say hello. It's a pleasure to meet you, Senator Obama.
SEN. OBAMA: It's great to meet you.
MS. ETHERIDGE: And you -- you have this reputation -- and not only in my heart and my experience of you -- of being an incredible orator. You speak, you touch many of us, and you have. And we have lots of hope.
And I see you speaking to a very divided America. We have been -- the last eight years we have been subject to a great fear that has divided us all between races, between economic classes, and of course gays and lesbians often feel like we are at the very end of that, the "us and them" role.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MS. ETHERIDGE: If you're elected president, what are you going to do? What are you going to do to bring this country back together?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, it's a great question. Part of the reason that LGBT issues are important to me is because I got into politics in part because I don't like people looking down on other people.
It bothers me. Maybe it's something that my mother instilled in me. Maybe it's the experience of being an African-American and at times being discriminated against. So, the cause that all of you are involved with is part of what prompted me to get into politics.
But part of what prompts me is also this hopefulness, this belief that, you know, there's a core decency to most people, and certainly most Americans, and that our founding documents, I think, have a set of universal truths that are really important. And the key question for the next president is can we tap back into that core decency and can we appeal to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
And part of that involves, I think, when it comes to LGBT issues, acknowledging the reality that people experience every day. That's why when I was at the Democratic Convention in 2004, I said there are no red states, there are now blue states, but I also said, you know, we've got gay friends in the red states and we've got -- you know, we play Little League in the blue states.
Trying to acknowledge that people's experience on a day-to-day basis is they've got gay friends, they've got gay family members that -- they love them and they cherish them, and somehow our politics creates craziness and fear that doesn't match up with people's day-to-day experience. And it's the job of the president, I think, to talk about these issues in ways that encourage people to recognize themselves in each other, and when I talk like this, by the way, you know, sometimes the Washington press corps rolls its eyes and says, "Ugh! It's so naive!"
MS. CARLSON: No eye rolling here yet. (Light laughter.)
SEN. OBAMA: Not yet --
MS. : No, no, no.
SEN. OBAMA: But -- but people do because the sense is, you know, "Obama, he's always talking about hope." It's -- you know, I'm a hope monger -- (laughter) -- but I believe that and -- (interrupted by applause).
MS. ETHERIDGE: I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up believing if you work hard and you're good, then you'll succeed and you can be a good citizen.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MS. ETHERIDGE: I grew up believing in our country, in this great America. This is the greatest country. And I grew up believing in those documents, and those documents say equality to everyone --
SEN. OBAMA: Absolutely.
MS. ETHERIDGE: -- given by our Creator. And my Creator made me what I am --
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MS. ETHERIDGE: -- and I believe that. (Applause.)
And as you lead, don't be afraid. Don't let that fear -- be the first one to make the change, to bring it.
All right, thank you.
MS. CARLSON: Thanks, Melissa. (Applause.)
MR. CAPEHART: Senator Obama, you've gotten some praise for taking to the pulpits of black churches and telling the black community, talking to the black community, about its responsibilities. Now you and I both know that there's a homophobia problem in the black community.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. CAPEHART: So how are you going to talk to the black community about that, both as candidate and if you are elected to the White House as president?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I have already done so. I mean, some of you saw at the Howard debate, a -- Tavis Smiley had organized, I specifically raised the homophobia in our community as an impediment to dealing with AIDS issues. You know, I'm somebody who talks about LGBT issues not just before HRC.
I was with Harold Ford. He organized a forum of black ministers in Tennessee. And I specifically talked about the degree to which the notion of gay marriage in black churches has been used to divide, has been used to distract. I specifically pointed out that if there's any pastor here who can point out a marriage that has been broken up as a consequence of seeing two men or two women holding hands, then we -- you should tell me, because I haven't seen any evidence of it. And -- (applause).
And what I've also said -- and what I've also said is, if you think that issue is more important to the black family, which is under siege -- if you think that's more important than the fact that black men don't have any jobs and are struggling in the inner cities, then I profoundly disagree with you. So this goes to the earlier point that we were talking about, Melissa. I think when there's truth-telling involved, people respond, as long as you don't come at people in a heavy-handed way but rather you approach them based on their own experience and their own truth.
And the black community, I think, has a diversity of opinion, as you and I both know. There are people who recognize that if we're going to talk about justice and civil rights and fairness, that should apply to all people, not just some. And there are some folks who, coming out of the church, have, you know, elevated one line in Romans above the Sermon in the Mount.
And so my job as a leader, not just of African-Americans but hopefully as a leader of Americans, is to tell the truth, which is this has been a political football that's been used. It is unfortunate. It's got to stop. And when it stops, we will then be able to address the legitimate and serious concerns that face the black family.
MR. SOLMONESE: Senator, real quickly, a recent poll of The New York Times and MTV of Americans ages 17 to 20 show that 44 percent of them favor same-sex marriage compared to 28 percent of the public. Now, you're 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?
SEN. OBAMA: Oh, come on, now. (Laughter.) I mean, look, guys, you know, I mean, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes. But there's a reason why I was here first. It's because I've got a track record of working on these issues.
If people are interested at the federal level, they can look at who was the chief co-sponsor of Illinois' version of ENDA, which we passed. If people are interested in my stance on these issues, I've got a track record of working with the LGBT community.
What I have focused on and what I will continue to focus on is making sure that the rights that are provided by the federal government and the state governments and local governments are ones that are provided to everybody. And that's a standard that I think can meet, and I don't make promises I can't keep. And on this issue, I have been at the forefront of any of the presidential candidates.
MS. CARLSON: Senator, I want to do a viewer-generated question. I want to do a Margaret-generated question very quickly.
SEN. OBAMA: Go ahead.
MS. CARLSON: Would you put the fight among gays and lesbians for civil rights on a par with the civil rights movement for African- Americans?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, my attitude is if people are being treated unfairly and unequally, then they're being treated unfairly and unequally and it needs to be fixed. So I'm always very cautious about getting into comparisons of victimology. You know, the issues that gays and lesbians face today are different from the issues that were faced by African-Americans under Jim Crow.
That doesn't mean, though, that there aren't parallels in the sense that legal status is not equal. And that has to be fixed. But -- but I think it's important not to -- not to look at the black candidate and wonder, you know, whether or not he's going to be more sympathetic or less sympathetic to these issues. I'm going to be more sympathetic not because I'm black. I'm going to be more sympathetic because this has been the cause of my life and will continue to be the cause of my life, making sure that everybody's treated fairly and that we've got an expansive view of America, where everybody's invited in and we are all working together to create the kind of America that we want for the next generation. (Applause.)
MS. CARLSON: I had great viewer-generated question here for you. You're never going to know what it is.
But now you get to sum up for 30 seconds or a minute.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, listen. It's a pleasure. This went too quick. I want more time -- (laughter) -- but I don't have it.
MS. CARLSON: We'd like to give it to you.
SEN. OBAMA: But -- but the only thing I want to say is this. All the candidates in this race are going to be terrific on these issues compared to, certainly, the candidates in the other party right now. And that's unfortunate because this shouldn't be a partisan issue.
The one thing I guess I would say about my candidacy, and something you should think about, is I don't just talk about these issues where it's convenient.
I mean, there's a reason that I spoke about the importance of gay and lesbian issues in a -- the most important speech of my life. I didn't have to. There's a reason why, in my announcement, I talked about these issues. There's a reason why I talk about gays and lesbians and transgender people in my stump speeches. I'm somebody who I think is willing to talk about these issues, even when it's hard, in front of black ministers. I'm willing to talk about AIDS at Saddleback Church to evangelicals and talk about why we need to have condom distribution to deal with the scourge of AIDS.
So that's the kind of political courage that I hope all of you recognize is going to be necessary in order for us to create the kind of America that we all want.
And I appreciate your time. (Applause.) Thank you.
MS. CARLSON: And we're happy you came here.
SEN. OBAMA: I had a great time. (Applause continues at length.)
MS. CARLSON: Nice to see you.
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you. Thanks. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.