Political Hay

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Last night's Democratic debate's concerns sure weren't on display last June at Howard University.

By 8.10.07

While watching clips of last night's Logo gay debate, I recalled the considerable trepidation with which I Googled "Joe Biden" + "Wilmington" + "condoms" a little over a month ago seeking some corroborating evidence for Biden's contention during the Democratic Forum at Howard University that he spent last summer "going through the black sections of my town holding rallies in parks, trying to get black men to understand that it's not unmanly to wear a condom." Alas, I found nothing and so the context of these impassioned discussions shall remain, for now, a titillating mystery.

Barack Obama, however, was not content at Howard University to let another of Biden's sleeping dogs lie. The esteemed Senator from Delaware had only barely declared, "I got tested for AIDS. I know Barack got tested for AIDS," when Obama chimed in, "I just got to make clear that I got tested with Michelle when we were in Kenya in Africa, so I don't want any confusion here about what's going on." No word on whether Obama's progressive stance on condoms is the result of hushed discussions on the Senate floor with Joe Biden.

Moderator, audience and candidates had a good chuckle and moved on. Over at the New Republic, though, Alexander Belenky smelled a rat: "So while [Obama's] all for combating homophobia within the African American community, it seems he also doesn't want anyone to get the impression that he's on the down-low."

In a reasonable world, of course, such criticism would be beyond the pale. As Reason's Dave Weigel noted, "To believe that Obama was fending off the charge that he was gay you have to believe he might sleep with Joe Biden." Then again, it isn't as if Obama and Co. are tireless advocates for reason. Democratic candidates spent a good deal of time that June evening on a collective attempt to convince their audience that John Roberts and Samuel Alito had just all but overturned Brown v. Board of Education and were en route to establishing Jim Crow as a federal precedent.

Far be it from me to tell the moonlighting Mayor of Purple America what is and isn't funny, but I wonder where Obama thinks the Belenkys of the world got the idea that even a playful jibe at gays wasn't appropriate? Was it, perchance, his own obligatory press release acknowledging Gay & Lesbian Pride Month -- that's June to you, homophobe -- wherein he wrote it was "time to turn the page on the bitterness and bigotry that fill so much of today's LGBT rights debate"? Or was it from Hillary Clinton, who took the same opportunity to promise a presidency "able to define success by more than the bigotry we stopped," even as Bill Richardson's issued a missive warning, "we are in the midst of a difficult struggle for basic human rights and we have a long way to go"?

Sounds like fairly serious business, no? And since a 2003 Pew study found 60 percent of black Americans have an unfavorable view of gays, one could be forgiven for assuming our fearless crusaders against intolerance might feel obliged to raise the issue -- Tavis Smiley willing -- at a forum specifically designed for "Black America."

It didn't happen. The same candidates who fell over themselves to ingratiate themselves with the gay community Thursday night were not so concerned with defending gay rights during the Howard University forum. Perhaps the candidates did not want to obscure that particular pander with another faction's issues. Perhaps they did not want to make a valued, inexplicably devoted constituency uncomfortable. Perhaps it was Tavis Smiley's fault for not asking the question. Perhaps to John Edwards -- who seems to think he can have his cake and eat it, too, by having his wife endorse gay marriage while he "struggles" with his own opposition -- it is not quite yet "crunch time" for gays. (Time for a gay union?) At the Logo forum Edwards told panelists, including singer Melissa Etheridge -- possibly the only interrogator less qualified than the YouTube snowman for a national forum -- "I think it's absolutely crucial we speak up in a presidential campaign with strength and passion, not quietly and carefully," as if he had not had and let slip by a perfectly good opportunity to do just exactly that not so long ago.

At any rate, Clinton was the only candidate to use the word "gay" during the Howard University debate, and then only as yet another example of how blacks have been shafted -- i.e., the nation needs "to take [AIDS] seriously and address it the way we did back in the '90s when it was primarily a gay men's disease." (Is "gay privilege" destined one day to sit alongside "white privilege" in college course catalogs?) To massive applause she added, "If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, there would be an outraged outcry in this country." Yes, and if young white women engaged in certain behaviors anyone who has sat through our national two decade barrage of public service commercials is well familiar with, they would be dying in those numbers. Let's not obscure our paternalistic pity with reality, though.

A Center for Disease Control report specifically notes the spread of AIDS has been exacerbated in the African-American community by an atmosphere wherein straight men "may not relate to prevention messages crafted for men who identify themselves as homosexual." Research by the National Minority AIDS Council echoes this. Yet when the issue of HIV testing comes up in a debate at a black forum, Obama admirably calls lack of awareness an "aspect sometimes of our homophobia," only to rebound from that audience dud with a laugh line establishing his hetero bona fides.

This is no call for gays to flock to the Republican presidential hopefuls who are hardly giving even the Log Cabin Republicans reason to stand up and cheer. Yet while facing an adoring, attentive black audience, the Illinois "hope-monger," as Obama modestly described himself last night, chose to tell a joke rather than pursue something substantive, meaningful or -- dare we say it? -- audacious. Biden quickly followed suit, loudly interjecting his AIDS test was on account of a blood transfusion. Look ma, no gay! Biden wasn't at the Logo forum -- one can imagine his campaign publicist on bended knee thanking the Lord for small mercies on that one -- so maybe there was no one to get the ball rolling, but the message watching the other candidates in action last night seems to be, Ye shall be pandered to in turn.

On the few pages he addresses sexuality in The Audacity of Hope, Obama sticks mostly to arguing with a liberal mock-up of the Religious Right, which is, admittedly, much smarter politically than challenging potential primary voters during a televised debate. "All too often I have sat in a church and heard a pastor use gay bashing as a cheap parlor trick," Obama writes. "'It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!' he will shout, usually when the sermon is not going so well."

What? Did Obama somehow wander into Fred Phelps's shack of worship? It sounds like these churches are probably in the same neighborhood where Biden spends blissful summer days discussing the manliness of condoms with grateful black men -- which is to say, it is a neighborhood that probably only exist somewhere over the rainbow.

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