Gay supporters of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton were quick to the mat after the senator used the word 'choice' in reference to sexual orientation during a Sept. 26 debate in Hanover, N.H.
'She did not mean sexual orientation is a choice,' said Jin Chon, a spokesperson for the Clinton campaign on gay-related issues. She doesn't think sexual orientation is a choice.'
The question—posed during the Democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Wednesday night—was not about the origins of sexual orientation. It was whether the candidates would be 'comfortable' having a story about same-sex marriage between two princes 'read to your children as part of their school curriculum?' The issue is the focus of a federal lawsuit in Massachusetts, where parents of a second grader in Lexington have challenged their school's inclusion of the book among those to be read out loud to children.
The question was tossed first to John Edwards and Barack Obama, both of whom have young children.
Edwards said he would 'absolutely' be comfortable with it, and added that he wants his children to understand 'everything about the difficulty that gay and lesbian couples are faced with every day.'
It's not clear why Edwards assumed the book would talk about the difficulties gay couples face. The person who posed the question, New England Cable News reporter Allison, did not mention its content—only that parents of a second grader filed a lawsuit seeking to have it taken out of the classroom.
Edwards continued with a long rambling discourse in which he said he 'suspects' his two younger children 'will reach the same conclusion' as his eldest daughter Cate who 'doesn't understand why her dad is not in favor of same-sex marriage.'
'I don't want to make that decision on behalf of my children,' said Edwards, not clarifying what 'that decision' was. 'I want my children to be able to make that decision on behalf of themselves. And I want them to be exposed to all the information even in—did you say second grade? Second grade might be a little tough—but even in second grade, to be exposed to all those possibilities. Because I don't get to impose my view. Nobody made me god. I don't get to decide on behalf of my family and my children—as my wife Elizabeth has spoken her own mind on this issue—I don't get to impose on them what it is that I believe is right.'
'But what I would do as president of the Untied States,' said Edwards, winding up, 'is I would lead an effort to make sure' that same-sex couples get the same benefits as heterosexual married couples and that the military end the 'don't' ask/don't tell policy.'
'I will be a president,' said Edwards, 'that leads a serious effort to deal with the discrimination that exists today.
King tossed the question next to Barack Obama, noting that he, too, has two young children at home.
Although Obama said, 'I feel very similar to John,' his demeanor was decidedly more comfortable than that of Edwards and his answer more enlightened and to the point.
'The fact is,' said Obama, 'my nine-year-old and six-year-old, I think, are already aware there are same sex couples. And my wife and I have talked about it,' although he later clarified that only his wife has talked to the girls about the subject.
While Edwards wanted to make sure his children understand the difficulties and discrimination gay couples face, Obama said, 'one of the things I want to communicate to my children is not to be afraid of people who are different. Because there have been times in our history where I was considered different, or Bill Richardson was considered different.'
'And one of the things the next president has to do,' said Obama, 'is to stop fanning people's fears. If we spend all our time feeding the American people fear and conflict and divisiveness, they become fearful and conflicted and divided. And if we feed them hope and we feed them reason and tolerance, then they'll become tolerant and reasonable and hopeful. And that is one of the most important things that the next president can do is to try and bring us together and to stop trying to fan the flames of division that have become so standard in our politics in Washington.'
Then came Clinton's turn. She said she respected what Edwards and Obama said and reiterated Obama's point that differences have been exploited for political purposes.
'I think everyone of us on this stage are really personally opposed to that and will do everything we can to prevent it,' said Clinton.
'With respect to your individual children,' she said, 'that is such a matter of parental discretion. I think that, obviously, it is better to try to work with children, to help your children to understand there are many differences that are in the world and to really respect other people and the choices that other people make and that goes far beyond sexual orientation.'
The answer appeared to walk a very delicate line between what gays would want to hear and what parents who might be among the 'fearful' would want to hear. She didn't say whether she'd be comfortable with such a book being read to a child and appeared to side with those who would prefer, at the very least, to be able to opt out their child from exposure to any positive discussion of gay people in the schools.
Very few gay activists contacted to react to the debate watched it and even fewer returned this reporter's calls for comment.
Mark Leno, the openly gay state assemblyman representing San Francisco, didn't see the debate, but after hearing Clinton's response played back to him, he said, 'There were some shades of ambiguity to it.'
'It brings me back to the issue of marriage equality and why the issue and why the words are so important,' said Leno. 'Because once we get over that hurdle, these questions won't even be asked anymore. And once it is recognized legally that there is no difference in way people love, this debate goes away. But until we get there,' he said, 'there will be questions such as this and candidates will be parsing answers to questions and we'll be parsing the words to their answers.'
One of the more touchy parsings for the Clinton campaign might have been her use of the word 'choice.' New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was strongly criticized from various parts of the gay community when, at the Human Rights Campaign-LOGO gay presidential forum in August, he said he thought sexual orientation was a choice. ( He subsequently said he does not think so. )
Hilary Rosen, a longtime gay Democratic activist and friend and supporter of Clinton, said the senator was not talking about sexual orientation when she said 'choice.'
'I think it was a backward phrasing —as in the issue isn't sexual orientation, the issue is that we need to educate kids about all the many choices that people make about how to have a family together,' said Rosen. 'She meant the choice to have a family, not the choice to be gay. She supports education programs that are inclusive. And that is exactly what she said in this answer.'
Richardson got a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of many Wednesday night when he said—in response to a question from lead questioner Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press—that he would not, as president, accept the traditional honorary chairmanship of the Boy Scouts of America.
'I wouldn't,' said Richardson, the only one asked that question, 'because I think, as president, I would commit myself—that I will be a leader that prevents discrimination based on race, gender and, sexual orientation.'