Pro-gay legislation may be a harder subject than they expected.
A year ago at this time there were high hopes among gay activists for the new Democratic Congress. They were going to pass legislation expanding gay rights and eliminating discrimination that had long been blocked by the Republicans in power since 1995. Even if Bush vetoed new gay-rights legislation, the Democrats would at least put him on the defensive about it and build momentum for the day when the Democrats took the White House. All of this would be payback for the huge amount of time, energy, and money that gay Americans—their third most loyal voting constituency after blacks and Jews—had given the Democrats.
That was then.
At the midpoint of this Congress, it’s not looking very good. Not one piece of pro-gay legislation has even reached the president’s desk.
Let’s look in more detail at just how far short the Democrats have fallen. In a column one year ago, I proposed a 100-point scorecard based on four key issues and suggested how to evaluate the total:
• 75 – 100 points: Never vote for another Republican.
• 50 – 74 points: Democrats are worth our first-born children.
• 30 – 49 points: Democrats are willing to fight for gay equality, at some political risk.
• 10 – 29 points: Democrats will do the minimum necessary to mollify gays.
• 0 – 9 points: Democrats know they can take gays for granted.
Now here are the four issues and how things are looking so far:
(1) Federal Recognition of gay relationships (worth up to 50 points): Congress has done nothing to eliminate or modify the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It has also done nothing to give spousal benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees. Not only has no vote been taken on proposals to do these things, there have not even been hearings on them. While the Democratic presidential candidates have talked about such things, we learned painfully from the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton that talk is very cheap.
Points for the Democrats: 0.
(2) Gays in the m ilitary (worth up to 30 points): Congress has done nothing to eliminate or modify the ban on gays in the military, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Clinton in 1993. There have been no hearings on the subject, either, despite a stream of military leaders coming out against the policy and a wartime decline in antigay discharges. Again, the Democratic presidential candidates all oppose DADT on paper, but this counts for nothing until something is actually done.
Points for the Democrats: 0.
(3) ENDA (worth up to 15 points): The Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed the House, with 35 Republicans providing the necessary margin for passage. That first-ever triumph for a gay-rights bill was thanks largely to the leadership of Barney Frank, who fended off efforts by left-wing gay groups to kill the bill because it did not include explicit protection for transgendered people. Senator Ted Kennedy has promised to introduce the bill in the Senate, but so far no action has been taken or scheduled. It’s unclear whether the bill will even get a vote in the Senate this year.
Points for the Democrats: 5.
(4) Hate crimes legislation (worth up to 5 points): This is the least important of the four issues. There’s no evidence hate crimes laws actually deter hate crimes, but a federal law would have some symbolic value. Yet even that seems unlikely to come out of this Congress. Both the House and the Senate have passed hate-crimes legislation, but have waffled on how to send the bill to President Bush for his signature or veto. An effort to send the bill to Bush as part of a larger defense spending authorization foundered when anti-war liberal Democrats opposed the spending.
Points for the Democrats: 3.
By my scorecard, the Democrats have earned just eight out of a possible 100 points at mid-term, which means that so far at least they’re taking gay support entirely for granted. While they still have about 10 months to go, it seems unlikely they’ll accomplish much in an election year when they have to worry about reelection and are likely to let gay rights take a seat even further back on the bus.
The Democrats’ anemic performance so far does not necessarily mean you should vote for Republicans this November. If you support the Democrats’ views on taxes, the Iraq war, national healthcare, and other issues, you’re likely to back them even if they get nothing more done on gay rights.
But the Democrats’ failure to produce does liberate other voters—those who intensely support gay rights but disagree with the Democrats on other important issues. Many of these voters, subordinating their strong feelings about non-gay issues, have supported Democrats in the past because they believed the Democrats would actually accomplish something positive for gay rights.
Now these voters will find it harder to support a Democrat they would otherwise oppose just because the candidate says she supports civil unions, employment protection, ending the military ban, and the like. For them, voting Republican is not a strategy to punish the Democrats for their faithlessness on gay issues. It’s a vote of principle.
Soothing words are nice, and the Democrats excel at such kindnesses. But results matter much more. On this, so far at least, they’re failing.
Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.