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From "Maverick" to Attack Dog

Howard Dean’s Gay Bashing of Ralph Nader

by SHERRY WOLF

Howard Dean gay bashed Ralph Nader on live radio before millions of listeners on NPR and no one chimed in to stop him. How could the Vermont also-ran, shilling for the anti-gay marriage John Kerry, slander the only presidential candidate who is for gay marriage by claiming over and over that Nader had accepted support from anti-gay Republicans?

Nader has not only come out for same-sex marriage–a basic civil right–but he is for ending legal discrimination against gays and lesbians that allows employers to fire someone for their sexual orientation in 36 states. Kerry and Dean oppose same-sex marriage, and both have repeatedly argued to leave it to the states to decideÐreminiscent of the Dixiecrats of old who argued to leave desegregation to the enlightened minds of the Mississippi and Alabama legislators. As a result, segregation remained the de facto law of the land for a century after the Civil War.

Though Dean is often trumpeted as a great advocate of gay and lesbian rights because Vermont was the first state to offer civil unions while he was governor, the reality behind that partial victory exposes Dean’s own opportunistic nod to the homophobes. When the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously ruled that gay couples were due the same legal rights of marriage as heterosexuals and ordered the legislature to pass a law to that effect in 1999, Dean made it clear that he would not sign gay marriage into law and pushed instead for civil unions.

Civil unions do not carry with them any of the 1,049 federal rights and benefits of marriage. When Dean did sign civil unions into law, he did so "in the closet," without the usual cameras flashing and notables in attendance. At the time of signing, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Dean "was going around the state telling folks he was only doing it because the Vermont Supreme Court made him."

Kerry voted against Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996–though 118 Democrats voted for it–but since then he has come out strongly against same-sex marriage and has repeatedly condemned the Massachusetts legislature for granting marriages to gay and lesbian couples.

Though the Democrats theoretically support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would eliminate the right of employers to fire someone for their sexual orientation, they have allowed it to languish on paper for a decade without ever hitting the floor of Congress. According to the Washington Post, Bill Clinton held a closed-door meeting in 1997 with advocates of ENDA–which has been chiseled away at to include notable exemptions for small businesses, the armed forces and religious organizations. Clinton’s "support"for gay civil rights was so half-hearted that he refused to use his influence to even get a vote on ENDA onto the House floor.

The Dean-Nader debate was aired on the very day when Republicans in the Senate were pushing to write discrimination against gays and lesbians into the Constitution via the Federal Marriage Amendment.

While Dean worked himself into a lather trying to slam Nader and prove his party’s credentials as fighters for equal rights, neither Senators Kerry nor Edwards made an issue of this first attempt since slavery to include a denial of rights in the Constitution.

Those concerned with gay issues should remember the lessons from the Clinton years when deciding whom to vote for in November. Clinton’s own Presidential AIDS Panel criticized his administration for failing to show a "coherent plan of action" against AIDS in 1998, despite the abundance of evidence indicating the effectiveness of preventive efforts, including needle exchanges. Though Clinton’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy led to witch-hunts of gays in the military, gay press such as The Advocate, Lambda Legal Defense and most AIDS activists in ACT-UP insisted that gay rights supporters vote for a second Clinton term in 1996 and not mobilize protests that might embarrass Clinton.

The only real substance to Howard Dean’s charges against Nader was in his attack on the endorsement Nader has received from the right-wing Reform Party. And while I find this party of Neanderthal blowhards to be repugnant in its anti-immigrant and homophobic views–they are not the views of Ralph Nader!

Nader’s clumsy handling so far of the Reform Party’s endorsement should be challenged by his supporters, but taking heat from the likes of Democrats who have helped shape anti-gay policies such as "don’t ask, don’t tell" and DOMA is simply nauseating.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, protests against gay bashing and for AIDS drugs and gay rights exploded onto the streets of dozens of cities in response to the reactionary policies of the Reagan and Bush I administrations. These protests gave confidence to millions of gays and forced a bigoted Bush administration to fund AIDS research and back down from the verbal belligerence towards gays that marked previous administrations.

Thousands of workplaces were pressured to provide domestic partner benefits to lesbians and gays. Yet there has been almost no national mobilization for gay rights since the 1993 demonstration of hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., where the incoming Democratic administration was praised for its promise to improve the lives of lesbians and gays.

But the Democrats have reneged on those promises. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have been reported killed in attacks since Matthew Shepard’s murder, though the actual number of deaths is likely higher because many antigay attacks go unreported.

The strategy of electing Democrats to deliver civil rights for lesbians and gays has been a dismal failure.

SHERRY WOLF is a founding member of Equal Marriage NOW! in Chicago and a member of the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She can be reached at sherry@internationalsocialist.org.