By Jeff Fecke | April 10, 2008
ve just come from the Politico site, where I see that you have been ducking interviews with the LGBT press. And frankly, it bothers me in about a dozen different ways, and makes me wonder if you really are serious about this “wanting to be president” thing, and indeed, whether any of us should be serious about this “wanting you to be president” thing.
I could go off on an extended rant full of invective and analogies, but frankly, when I did that to your opponent…well, I got my analogy a mite overblown. Like, way, way, way overblown, to the point that it obscured my point and made me look like an idiot — which, let me say, I was. And while there’d be justice in me drawing an overblown analogy between what you’re doing and St. Peter denying his friendship with Jesus, just to balance the scales, it would probably be to you what my analogy of yesterday was to Sen. Clinton — overly hostile, and completely unfair.
So instead of doing that, Senator Obama, I’d like to tell you a story.
In 1996, then-Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., a progressive icon and rightly so, came out in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act.
To say this was not a popular position with LGBT DFLers and their allies is a gross understatement. The word “betrayal” was not used, at least not much, but it was thought. Often. Wellstone’s announcement, which came shortly before the DFL state convention, was a dent in otherwise pristine progressive credentials.
It was a dent that Wellstone could have ignored, had he wanted to.
After all, a more cynical politician could have taken a look at the lay of the land in 1996 and figured that Democrats couldn’t be too picky. Less than two years removed from Newt’s insurrection, Democrats had precious few loud-and-proud leaders left. Wellstone could have used his hesitancy to support marriage rights for everyone as proof that he wasn’t that liberal after all. He could have let the LGBT caucus grumble to the media, and used their grumbling as proof that he wasn’t always a lefty. Might have been good for a few hundred votes from Lacrosse Dads. Besides, who were liberals going to vote for? Former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minn.? Future Sen. Dean Barkley, Ref-Minn.? Fat chance. Neither of them would even go as far on LGBT rights as Wellstone. He didn’t have to placate the left. We were stuck with him.
But Paul Wellstone didn’t take that path. Instead, on the second day of the state convention, the day he was going before his fellow Democrats to seek their endorsement, Wellstone went into a morning meeting with the LGBT caucus to explain himself.
From what I’ve been told, it wasn’t always a cordial meeting, and people didn’t pretend they agreed with Wellstone. But Wellstone was honest and direct, explained why he believed he couldn’t sign on for marriage equality — and apologized to the group that he simply couldn’t square same-sex marriage with his religious and ethical beliefs, and pledged to continue working on other fronts for LGBT rights, including the possibility of civil unions.
It wasn’t perfect, and to this day I wish Wellstone had felt differently; indeed, I like to believe that if Sen. Wellstone was running for re-election this year, he would have come to feel very differently indeed. But even though Wellstone wasn’t perfect, he was up front, he was respectful, and he was vociferous in saying that he wanted to be an ally to the LGBT community, and that he was in no way allying with those who would push them back into the shadows. And not just in that meeting, but afterward, when questioned by the media, and throughout his next six years in office.
And because Paul Wellstone showed the LGBT caucus respect, they showed him respect, unanimously endorsing him for senate. The state convention did so by acclimation later that morning. Wellstone easily defeated Boschwitz, and went back to the senate, where he’d still be if not for a tragic plane crash. Wellstone is today remembered as a strong supporter of gay rights and progressive issues. As he should be.
Barack Obama, I knew Paul Wellstone. My best friend worked a summer for him as an intern. I voted for Wellstone once, volunteered for him during three different campaigns — one where I was too young to vote, one where I proudly voted for him, and one where I wish I could have voted for him. I shook his hand after his acceptance speech that morning, twelve years ago.
Sen. Obama, you’re no Paul Wellstone.
I know, I know, you doubtless are trying to claim already that you just don’t have time to meet with every media outlet, and you met with the Advocate, and you’ve given some nice speeches and written a nice letter saying you support LGBT issues, so what’s the big deal?
The big deal, Senator, is that you started off this campaign hanging around with Donnie McClurkin. And you never did adequately explain or account for what was an incredibly insulting decision to anyone who believes in equal rights. You still aren’t willing to embrace full marriage equality. Quite bluntly, I know a number of LGBT voters and their allies who really don’t trust you on this issue, who really fear that you’re going to treat voters who support equal rights as a source of money and votes, but not a constituency that deserves much respect.
Quite bluntly, I don’t trust you to deliver on LGBT rights. The only thing that has allowed me to support you thus far is that I don’t fully trust your opponent on LGBT rights either.
But at least she had the grace to, like Wellstone, sit down and explain herself. She talked to the Philadelphia Gay News, and gave a strong, sincere, and ringing endorsement of equality for the LGBT community. And she didn’t need to — Hillary Clinton has done far less during this campaign to make me question her commitment to LGBT rights than you have.
You are not owed the votes and support of your partisans. Paul Wellstone knew that, Senator, and that’s why he didn’t take his friends in the LGBT community for granted. He didn’t agree with them on everything, but he agreed with them on the vast majority of issues, and more important, he was willing to stand up, repeatedly, and stand on the side of LGBT folks, of women, of minorities, of trade unionists, of students, of immigrants, of the poor, the downtrodden, the people who were struggling to make it in the world. Paul Wellstone never forgot who he was working for, and he never asked us to feel like we were compromising our principles when we supported him.
And because of that, we loved him, and moderates loved him, and conservatives loved him, because at least they knew he knew what he believed.
Senator Obama, I know I’m not going to get you to reconsider your stance on same-sex marriage, and I know that you can’t un-invite Donnie McClurkin from rallies that are already over. But it’s not asking too much to say that you need to demonstrate that you understand the LGBT community is not some annoying interest group that you need to minimally placate. You need to demonstrate that you know that you’re trying to become the person who is fighting for them, and women, and the downtrodden, and the poor, and the irreligious, and everyone else here in the progressive movement. I’m not asking that you agree with everything everyone in this movement believes — that’s impossible, as we don’t all agree on everything — but I am demanding that you respect people who have been a vital part of the progressive movement, people whose only request is that they be treated by their government the same as everyone else.
In the next few weeks, you have time to sit down with the Philadelphia Gay News. And you’ll have time to sit down with the LGBT press in Charlotte and Portland and Indianapolis and San Juan and Mizzoula and Pierre between now and June. And if you don’t have time, make time, because quite frankly, Senator, how much you’re willing to fight for the people I am allied with is going to determine how much I’m willing to fight for you. And right now, quite frankly, I’m inclined to let you fight your battles without me.