When Massachusetts' gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich surprised and delighted the crowd at Boston's gay pride celebration in June by stating publicly that he was endorsing full gay marriage, he became the first...and so far the only...gubernatorial candidate in the country to come out in favor of full-fledged marriage rights for gays and lesbians. In fact, he's one of few politicians on any level to make such a bold statement.
If Reich does win the Democratic nomination for the governor's race in the primary this September, his candidacy and courage on gay marriage could set a new standard for gay-friendly political candidates across the country. If he wins, the defeatist notion that gays and lesbians have to settle for second-class status in their relationships can be put to rest, where it belongs.
While traveling on the road between campaign appearances, Reich spoke to me on a cell phone from his car. I was inspired not only by what he did in coming out for full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, but also in why he did it.
Conventional wisdom, even among candidates considered gay-friendly, is that endorsing full gay marriage is political suicide. As a result, even the most gay-friendly candidates stop well short of marriage, at most giving their backing to domestic-partnership or civil-union legislation.
"Politicians follow the polls," says Reich. "And most political advisers will tell you the majority of Americans are dubious about gay marriage. So you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the reluctance."
Originally, Reich was one of those candidates who supported civil unions but stopped short of endorsing full marriage benefits. He admits that he, too, was at one time timid to go all the way on gay and lesbian marriage. "I was concerned it would create a backlash," he says, making it more difficult both for his candidacy and for any kind of civil union or domestic-partnership laws to pass.
But soon after Reich came out in support of extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians, a poll showed that he was dead even with his biggest challenger for the Democratic nomination this fall. Previously, polls showed Reich lagging in second place. Reich doesn't attribute his bump in the polls to his support for gay marriage. But what it may point to, he says, is that a candidate can in fact support marriage rights for gays and lesbians and not suffer politically.
Reich says there were several factors that lead him to eventually adopt the courage of his convictions and publicly endorse marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.
Personal friends partly played into that decision. "I know many gay couples, and they've expressed to me the importance of marriage on a personal level," he says. "And I've always seen it as grossly unfair that my gay friends were denied the same benefits and protections for their relationships that my heterosexual friends have. I think denying people the right to marry is not only violating a basic human right, but a basic human need."
In addition, Reich says he is no stranger to what it feels like to be treated differently and feel like an outsider.
"You know, I've always been unusually short," says the 4-feet, 10-inch candidate. "As a child, I was bullied and taunted and beat up," he says. While he is quick to add that he is not equating that with the discrimination faced by gays and lesbians, he does feel his experiences "have made me sensitive to other people's perspectives. On some level, I can understand what it means to be seen as different, and an outsider."
While Reich's familiarity with being an outsider and his gay and lesbian friendships certainly helped give him the foundation for understanding the importance of marriage for gays and lesbians, there was one other factor that helped move him to speak out publicly as a candidate about his principles. And that factor was a young man named Corey Johnson.
Johnson received national media attention when he came out publicly as gay while starring as his high school's quarterback on the football team. Since graduating from high school, Johnson has become a political activist, and is currently involved in several political campaigns, including supporting Reich.
After several conversations with Johnson, Reich says he knew he had to make a public stand on gay and lesbian marriage. "Ultimately, Corey was the one person who moved me to that decision," he says.
Several times, Reich says, he and Johnson had the debate about whether or not supporting full marriage rights for gays and lesbians might backfire, making it even more difficult to establish some form of civil-unions or domestic-partnership law in the face of a possible conservative backlash.
Johnson, says Reich, made the argument that it was more important to stand up for what you believed in and thus, in the long run, help legitimize the issue. It was, of course, an argument that Reich had heard before.
But coming from a young man like Corey Johnson, so full of zest and idealism, it made Reich stop and think. More accurately, he made him stop and remember.
"When talking to Corey, I was reminded of my involvement in the civil-rights movement when I was his age," explains Reich. He remembered having private conversations with people and politicians who supported the Black civil-rights movement in principle, but were afraid to do so publicly for political reasons. "I remembered how badly at the time I wanted real political leadership...people who stood up and would boldly say what they believed in," says Reich. And he remembers so many politicians disappointing him.
He didn't want to be one of those politicians.
"Corey reminded me why it was so important to take a stand."