HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- In a presidential primary forum designed to deal with gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual issues, White House hopefuls Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, gay marriage foes, argued Thursday that strong civil union laws are as good as a wedding.
Rival former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), also opposed to gay marriage, disagreed that a civil union is equal to marriage because without a ceremony, it is a "stop short of real equality." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) did not try to equate civil unions with gay marriage, saying only " I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions.
Richardson sided with Obama. "It's the same thing.'' Richardson made the major stumble of the evening when he said homosexuality was a choice, an answer that is not a popular position within the gay community. After the event, his campaign issued a clarifying statement that "we are all equal."
Questions dealing with gay marriage dominated the two-hour forum -- sequential 15-minute conversations with four questioners, including gay rock star Melissa Etheridge -- co-sponsored by LOGO, a gay-oriented cable channel, and the Democratic-leaning Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
Only two of the Democrats in the 2008 race, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), support same-sex marriage. Six of the eight Democrats participated, with Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) stumping in other states on Thursday. Gay Democrats -- many who are also active political donors and fund-raisers -- are an important component of the Democratic base.
Obama, Edwards and Clinton all booked Thursday fund-raisers in this Democratic political cash area to take advantage of being in town. Invited to a similar forum, all the Republicans declined.
Bigger issues, Obama says
Kucinich was so in step with the gay rights agenda that his questioners were stumped over what to ask him. "I send you great love," said Kucinich.
Edwards said an account in a new book by consultant Bob Shrum that he was uncomfortable with gay people "was not true." He also said it was a "mistake" to blame his faith on his opposition to same-sex marriage.
For Obama, who is courting the progressive Democratic vote, gay marriage has been a delicate issue. Obama said he supports strong civil union laws that provide the same rights as a marriage. He also suggested that there were larger matters for the LGBT community to deal with than gay marriage.
In the 2004 presidential contest, after Massachusetts and San Francisco legalized gay marriage, Republicans capitalized on the divisive hot-button social issue to divide and demonize the Democrats.
Pressed over whether his civil union approach was a de facto separate-but-equal position, Obama bristled. "As I've proposed it, it wouldn't be a lesser thing, from my perspective," he said. "And look, you know, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested in is making sure that those legal rights are available to people. And if we have a situation in which civil unions are fully enforced, are widely recognized, people have civil rights under the law, then my sense is that's enormous progress.''
Etheridge, who came out during the 1992 inauguration of President Clinton, hit Sen. Clinton for gay rights promises not kept during the Clinton administration. "We were thrown under the bus," she said.
Said Clinton, "Well, you know, obviously, Melissa, I don't see it quite the way that you describe, but I respect your feeling about it."