GLBT issues quiet, but powerful in presidential campaign

(Photo/Bob Vitaletti)
(Photo/Bob Vitaletti)

Bob Vitaletti has made volunteering as a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community representative for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign a second full-time job.

A volunteer since March 2007, he expects to be paid in civil rights.

Gay rights, or opposition to them, have been overshadowed on the presidential campaign trail and the statewide level by stump speeches on the economy and a laundry list of ballot issues going before Colorado voters, but GLBT activists say that doesn’t mean the stakes are any lower in this election cycle.

“Barack Obama will finally give us the opportunity to openly be who we really are and to live our lives more freely than we thought we ever could in America,” said Vitaletti, who is gay.

While “Dr. Bob,” who is a psychologist, spends hours each day talking to voters about Obama’s qualifications and record on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, he’s actually pleased that his candidate, and this year’s presidential campaign, haven’t publicly focused on GLBT issues.

“[Obama] never gets up and says gay people are going to have a fighter in the White House. You just know he stands for those rights by his many statements,” said Vitaletti, pointing to Obama’s background in constitutional law, his own struggles with discrimination and the Illinois senator’s call for the repeal of 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to ignore marriage licenses granted to same-sex couples in other states. “He doesn’t want to make it an issue to fight over because he knows we get hurt by [that wedge issue].”

The GLBT rights record for Obama’s opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is mixed.

While the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest GLBT rights advocacy group, gave McCain a 33 percent rating in 2006, HRC has given Obama an 89 percent rating and his vice presidential running mate Joe Biden a 78 percent score. The scores are based on the politicians’ legislative voting records, with a score of 70 or less indicating mixed support for gay rights, and a score of 20 percent or less indicating the legislator’s opposition to gay rights.

McCain has stated his support of a proposition to ban same-sex marriage that will go before California voters this fall as a state’s rights issue while Obama has called the proposition discriminatory.

McCain has also said he’d like to keep the Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy that forbids U.S. soldiers from being openly gay and the military from inquiring about their sexuality.

McCain has also stated his opposition to a federal marriage amendment, which would define marriage as between one man and one woman and trump any state decisions to recognize same-sex marriage. But GLBT rights supporters fear that McCain would make conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could eventually rule against gay marriage, effectively implementing the amendment.

McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, belongs to a church that believes gay Americans can be converted to heterosexuality through prayer. The view that being gay can essentially be willed away or is in some way a choice rather than biological could act as a mobilizing force for the GLBT community during this presidential election, Vitaletti said.

“I think many people are [thinking ahead], and I think often people just need a reminder,” said Vitaletti, adding that as a grassroots organizer in the GLBT community, he often gets more positive responses from his peers than any stump speech could generate.

The Colorado Log Cabin Republicans, a group of Republican gay rights advocates who have endorsed John McCain, and McCain’s Colorado campaign headquarters did not respond to requests for information or for interviews for this article.

The statewide issues on the 2008 ballot that directly affect the GLBT community are about as low profile as GLBT issues in the presidential campaign.

Two years ago, Colorado voters rejected Referendum I, which would have granted the state’s same-sex couples the right to form civil unions, and approved an amendment to the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

While the dueling ballot questions mobilized the GLBT community, they also provided conservative voters who oppose gay rights an extra incentive to get to the polls.

GLBT-friendly voters might have to sift through the nuances of this year’s ballot issues to understand their potential impacts on GLBT rights.

Mindy Barton, legal director for Equal Rights Colorado, said the nonpartisan GLBT advocacy group has come out against proposed state Amendment 46, which would eliminate affirmative-action programs, and Amendment 48, or the “Egg as a Person” Amendment.

“This year the strongest issues on the ballot for the GLBT community are Amendment 46 and Amendment 48 — each of which would have a direct impact. Amendment 46, deceptively titled ‘Colorado Civil Rights Initiative,’ is directly aimed at ending programs that combat the effects of discrimination,” Barton said. “Amendment 48 would have an impact on the use of assisted reproductive technologies. Many same-sex couples have used in-vitro fertilization techniques to start their families, but this technique may become unavailable in our state if Amendment 48 is the law.”

With talk of both campaigns courting Latino voters, black voters and the youth vote, some GLBT advocates say this is the year minorities feel they can make their voices heard.

“This election is definitely a time of motivation for youth, racial and ethnic minorities, women, religious activists,” Barton said. “I believe people have recognized that every voice is important and has a right to be heard, including the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

Many GLBT advocates agree that the stakes, on both a statewide and national level, are high, even if the campaign and media attention are not.

“I think it’s huge frankly. I think if we don’t get basic equality in this presidential election then I will never see it in my lifetime,” Vitaletti said.