Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Independence Day

Washington Blade

On Independence Day in Merrimack, New Hampshire, the floats and convertibles and flatbed trucks festooned in red, white and blue are lining up in the parking lot of Zyla’s, a sort of garden shop/hardware store on the Daniel Webster Highway.

There’s another half hour to go before the official start, an excercise the people of Merrimack perform annually, but one I view only every four years. For on the quadrennial, the candidates contending for primacy in the New Hampshire
primary invariably show up, taking their places amid the marching bands, Girl Scout troops, Cub Scout packs and Rotarian floats, hoping to win the hearts of those who populate New Hampshire’s largest single voter precinct.

It isn’t even noon yet, and the temperature has far surpassed the 90-degree mark. “Global wahr-ming,” says my friend Chuck, goofing on a flat-lander’s idea of a New Hampshire accent. A vociferouslly literate institution of civic
activism in that giant precinct, I first met Chuck in ‘95, when the religious right had taken over Merrimack’s school board in order to set the stage for the primary that Patrick J. Buchanan went on to win. I was there to cover the right for a progressive magazine.

During the course of the primary campaign, gay issues took center stage when the Merrimack school board introduced an anti-gay measure that would have prohibited the teaching of any gay-friendly material or, for that matter,
material created by gay and lesbian people. No Tchaikowsky, no Walt Whitman and certainly no “Heather Has Two Mommies”. Under this measure, the high school band would have been prohibited from performing half the songs made famous by the Duke Ellington orchestra, seeing as how Billy Strayhorn, an out gay man, wrote some of the Duke’s best stuff.

Eventually, after the primary ended, Chuck and his wife, Beth, as part of a coalition that included a bunch of pissed-off moderate hetero Republicans, a gay male couple, and the ousted progressive school board president, took back the
school board, ending all talk of creationism replacing the science curriculum, making the world safe for the teaching of “Leaves of Grass”.

Back in ‘95, the onus on the major primary candidates, Republicans all, was to prove their street cred as culture-war righties. Today, I wondered, as Kerry’s flatbed moved into place and the Dean people stood fretting over whether their
guy would make it on time (having marched, like many of the others, in another town’s morning parade) whether the 2004 field of Democratic candidates would feel the need to out-queer each other. After all, only last week, the Senate
majority leader lent his support to a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, a knee-jerk reaction to the Supreme Court’s flabbergasting decision to not only strike down the Texas anti-sodomy law,
but to do so on sweeping constitutional grounds.

Now, alas, dear reader, your intrepid but heat-stricken reporter is simply physically unfit to harass all of the candidates on this tantalizing subject (this would have involved jogging back and forth several miles in temperatures that
reached 101 degrees), delicate flower that she is. So I stick to the top dogs, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and Senator John Kerry. (Also gracing Merrimack’s parade route are Senators Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham.)

As he strides up the shady lane where the parade begins, it is clear that Dean is having a good charisma day. Fit and compact, he moves at a bracing pace, chatty and miraculously sweatless in his long-sleeved blue shirt and grey
dress slacks. Behind him, a brigade of supporters chants their support of their favorite physician, passing out tongue depressors proclaiming “Rx for America: Howard Dean”.

Did he think that the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision would make this election be about gay rights? “This election was going to be about gay rights, anyway, as long as I was in it,” he replies. Points for snappy comeback.

Could this be a problem for the Democrats? “Not a bit. Hey, look, I’m a veteran of these battles, and I know we can win ‘em.,” he says. “And I’m the one who has won them. So, I think we can win again at the national level.”

He goes onto tell a story of man who, after a speaking engagement in Washington, DC, stepped up to thank him for signing Vermont’s civil unions law. The man was 80, says Dean, so he was surprised. “And I asked him, ‘Do you
have a son or a daughter who’s gay or lesbian?’ And he said, ‘No, Governor, I’m a veteran. I was on the beach at D-Day, and a lot of my friends were killed onD-Day. And I’m gay.’ And I thought to myself,” Dean continues, “you know,
here’s a guy who was willing to die for all of the things the Republicans in the White House always talk about--defense of your country, freedom, freedom of the whole Western world...He deserves exactly the same rights as everybody
else does when he gets home. Now, that is a very powerful reason that people should understand that this is about equal rights for all.”

He concludes the interview, cutting loose into the handshaking slalom that defines these events.

Kerry’s parade berth is a few behind Dean’s, so I’m able to catch him--sort of--as he begins to march. He’s tall, handsome and tanned, prepped out in pressed khakis and an oxford cloth shirt. He’s affable and accessibly inaccessible,
allowing me to walk with him, but directing his attention elsewhere every time I ask a question. Finally, I get my moment, asking if the Supreme Court’s decision on sodomy laws throws a monkey wrench into the works for the Democrats, given the hay some Republicans may make of gay issues during the campaign.

“It doesn’t change anything as far as I’m concerned...,” he says. “You know, the Republicans have always been into driving wedges and exploiting people.”

Yeah, but that seems to work, doesn’t it?

“Well, I think it’s time for people to stand up define what’s really important in America, and I intend to do that...,” he replies. “But if they want to try to sideline people into those issues that are not fundamentally affecting people’s
day-to-day lives in terms of jobs, health care, education, we’ll have a good debate.”

That was it.

So, if John Kerry has his way, this election will certainly not be about equal rights for gay people--at all.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade.

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