LGBT voters join frontline of Obama campaign
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Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage has invested the LGBT community’s once-waning support with renewed passion. France24.com takes a closer look, from the heart of Southern Florida’s vibrant gay community.
reporting from Florida
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama was greeted as a political rock star by many gay and lesbian Americans. Inspired by his charisma, his only-in-America success story, and his vow to be a “fierce advocate for equality”, the community had high hopes.
Then came the disappointment.
- 3.4% of Americans identify as LGBT
- 92.5% of gay men voted in 2004 election
- 91% of lesbians voted in 2004 election
- 79.4% of LGBT Americans voted for Obama in 2008
- 4.7% of Miami/Miami Beach/ Fort Lauderdale residents identify as LGBT
- Same-sex marriage legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington DC
- 54% of Americans in favour of same-sex marriage
First, Obama chose socially conservative pastor Rick Warren to recite a prayer at his inauguration. Next, he was seen as dragging his feet in ending the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military. Most galling of all was the president’s perceived coyness on gay marriage (his position was “evolving”, he cryptically stated).
“I was among his most vocal critics,” said David Badash, a gay rights activist and founder of The New Civil Rights Movement, a website for LGBT-related news. “It felt like he was taking a long time to be that ‘fierce advocate’ he promised to be.”
The first turning point came as Obama signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010.
But the climactic moment was when, during an interview on May 9 of this year, Obama endorsed same-sex marriage. “It’s important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he said.
That announcement has transformed a once-disillusioned group of Obama voters into a passionately re-energised army of supporters determined to re-elect the only sitting US president to have endorsed same-sex marriage – especially since challenger Mitt Romney opposes it.
‘Doing everything to get Obama re-elected’
“Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage has been a huge catalyst,” explained Nadine Smith, executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida. “This was the hope and change we signed up for.”
Florida, where Smith works and lives with her wife and son, is home to a vibrant gay population, particularly in Miami. Obama is counting on their turnout – and their engagement in his re-election effort -- to boost his chances in the hotly contested battleground state, and all over the country.
Smith, who is also a fundraiser for Obama, noted that the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage resulted in a surge in contributions from LGBT donors, as well as a significant increase in gay and lesbian campaign volunteers. “The community is absolutely fired up,” she said.
69-year-old Len Leritz from Fort Lauderdale, a coastal city north of Miami Beach, has spent the last two months trying to make sure enthusiasm for Obama among gay Floridians translates into turnout at the polls; he has registered voters, made endless phone calls, and reached out to gay bars and restaurants, as well as gay-owned businesses.
The result, he said, is “a huge community of gay volunteers in South Florida”.
“We’re doing everything we can to get this man re-elected,” said the retired psychologist, who has been with his partner for 19 years and hopes to get married when same-sex marriage is federally recognised. “It was risky for Obama to endorse gay marriage. He knew he was sacrificing some votes from white middle-class men and married women. But he did the right thing.”
‘Romney has no respect for me as a homosexual’
At Palace, a gay bar in Miami Beach’s trendy South Beach neighbourhood, revellers spill onto an outdoor terrace while pop music blasts from speakers and drag queens pack the dance floor inside.
Near the bathroom, an “LGBT for Obama” poster hangs prominently.
23-year-old Jackson Wayland, a waiter at the bar, hails from a “conservative Southern Baptist community” in Silver Creek, Georgia, and voted for John McCain in 2008. “Growing up in a small town, you follow in your parents’ footsteps,” he confided in a deep Southern drawl as he served up baskets of chicken wings and generously portioned cocktails. “My parents told me I was going to hell for being gay, and I believed them.”
Once he left Georgia, however, he started to see things differently. And when Obama endorsed gay marriage, Wayland changed his party allegiance. “It was a really big moment for me,” he said. “I’m single now, but I want to get married one day. Obama proved he stands for what I stand for, whereas Romney has no respect for me as a homosexual.”
Of course not all opinions of Obama in the LGBT community are glowing – even among those voting for the president. Jose Cano, a 29-year-old public relations agent, said he will vote for Obama because “he’s pro-gay marriage”. But he is not particularly enthusiastic. “I wish he had been more proactive on marriage, and other things, from the beginning,” Cano said.
Still, according to Badash, that sort of lingering frustration has mostly faded, replaced with mutual understanding. While Obama realised his gay supporters would not wait forever for progress, the activist explained, the gay community learned to be patient and trust the president. “Just because it’s important for you, doesn’t mean it’s the number one priority for the country,” Badash said. “Given the challenges when he walked in, the LGBT community feels extremely proud of Obama for the work he’s done for us.”
Badash cited examples of that work: extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, revising hate crime laws to better protect LGBT victims, lifting a travel ban against people with HIV, and mandating that hospitals offer visitation rights to partners of gay patients.
Floridian Christopher Boykin, aged 40, says he has admired Obama since the start of his term, but admitted that the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage turned him into a diehard supporter. “I have posted something on Facebook every day to promote Obama,” Boykin, who works for the state’s environmental protection agency, said proudly. “He’s one of the best presidents we’ve ever had. And he truly cares about the gay community.”
Boykin has been with his partner for nearly two decades, and they had a “commitment ceremony” 13 years ago. “It’s not legal in Florida yet, but we think of ourselves as married,” he said. “That’s why it felt so great when Obama spoke out for same-sex marriage. I felt acknowledged.”
Fearing a Romney presidency
Renewed excitement among LGBT voters was on display at gay pride parades last spring, where throngs of participants donned Obama t-shirts and buttons, and at the party convention in September, where gay Democrats celebrated the inclusion of same-sex marriage support in the official party platform.
Meanwhile, gay celebrities like TV stars Jane Lynch and Jesse Tyler Ferguson have filmed ads declaring their loyalty to Obama and their distrust of Romney.
The Republican nominee has maintained that he opposes same-sex marriage and -- unlike Obama -- approves of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA): a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, therefore depriving married same-sex couples of federal benefits.
Though they are a minority within a minority, gay Republicans have nevertheless largely resisted LGBT “Obamania”, with the main gay conservative group, Log Cabin Republicans, endorsing Romney. “Romney has a plan to restart our economy -- something that will benefit us all,” said Mimi Planas, co-director of the organisation’s Miami branch. “Many in the LGBT community consider other issues aside from the gay issue in making their decision.”
For gay Obama supporters, however, the contrast couldn’t be clearer. “We have a president who has delivered more tangible improvements in quality of life for LGBT Americans than all of his predecessors combined,” Nadine Smith offered. “And his opponent opposes any legal recognition of same-sex couples, at a time when the country is making quantum leaps forward.”
Badash confirmed that many gay voters are afraid of the “tremendous damage” Romney could cause to the progress they feel has been made. The “biggest danger”, according to the activist, is the possibility that Romney would name a conservative justice to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on same-sex marriage in the coming year.
Still, even if Obama is re-elected, Smith said, “there’s work to be done”.
The advocate and fundraiser, who has met Obama several times, reflected upon what she describes as a unique connection between LGBT Americans and the president – a connection she hopes will continue to evolve in a second term. “Without a doubt, he’s the president the gay community has been closest to. But he campaigned by calling on people to expect greater things,” she noted. “And that’s the relationship we have with him: we celebrate his successes, we thank him for his support, and we push him to do even more.”