METRO WEEKLY: From your — or your organization’s — perspective, what is the most immediate effect of the presidential election on the LGBT community?
PATRICK SAMMON: Well I think it remains to be seen. From Log Cabin’s perspective, I think out of the ashes of what is now the Republican Party there is a real opportunity to help rebuild the party in a way that is more inclusive and in a way that makes it a party of the future rather than a party of the past.
What remains to be seen is what President-elect Obama and the Democrats actually deliver on in terms of promises they’ve made.
MW: Since the 1990s, a small number of LGBT issues have consistently emerged at federal legislative level: gays in the military, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, partner immigration, hate crimes and marriage equality. With a Democratic congress and president, which of those issues do you believe should be prioritized?
SAMMON: Obviously, we’re not going to be the ones setting the strategy here, we’re going to be trying to get Republican support on whatever is put forward. My advice is throw out the old playbook. There’s a whole range of legislation that would benefit LGBT people — let’s stop looking through the prism of ENDA, hate crimes and ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Maybe immigration equality will move forward, maybe domestic-partner benefits for federal employees. My concern is that the Democrats are going to essentially treat the gays likes a constituency, that we’re going to get one bone thrown our way, one little reward, and then they expect us to be quiet. I hope that reward isn’t hate crimes. While that’s good legislation, I don’t think anyone believes that passing the hate-crimes bill as it’s currently written is going to have this transformative effect on the lives of gay and lesbian people.
The second thing is, I think there’s going to continue to be a fight over ”T” inclusion of ENDA, so maybe that’s not the first thing to move forward. Let’s get something passed. Maybe that is federal tax equity on domestic partner benefits. I would encourage people to reexamine what the list of priorities should be. I don’t think there’s any appetite from Obama’s people to spend time on ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I would be surprised if it was in the first two years. Maybe I’m wrong.
MW: Will Congress be able to pass a trans-inclusive ENDA?
SAMMON: I still think that the whole ”T” issue was manufactured by Rahm Emanuel two years ago because they didn’t want the freshmen Democrats to make a vote on the ”T” inclusion. All I know is that Republican members that we met with never mentioned the ”T” issue until Barney Frank said that we don’t have the votes because of the ”T” issue. Social conservatives will get mad at Republicans for voting for a pro-gay bill — they’re not going to get any more or less angry if there’s a ”T” in the bill or not. So all along I said that Republicans were willing to vote for ”T” inclusive legislation. That was certainly the case with hate crimes. Of course, after the attention that was brought to the issue, quite frankly I don’t know. I would like to think that it would. If you look at the make-up of the Senate, we’re going to have probably four or five Republican votes even with the ”T” in it, so the question will be can they corral up conservative Democrats to do it. I would like to think they can pass it, but I’m no well enough versed on the Democratic vote count to know that.
Here’s what I do know: Thirty-five Republicans voted for ENDA in 2007, almost all of them were re-elected and I think that’s a good sign for the Republicans that they can make pro-gay votes and they can benefit from it politically.
MW: Protections for and recognition of LGBT federal employees have often been attacked under the Bush administration. How do you believe the landscape will change for LGBT federal workers under the new administration? Will Obama’s pledge to extend domestic partner benefits come through?
SAMMON: Probably. I’m not well enough versed on the specifics, but I know that Bush kept in place the executive order that [President Bill] Clinton had signed that provided non-discrimination protection based on sexual orientation for federal employees, and I’m sure the new president will keep that in place and probably look for other ways to expand it. I think probably that Obama will try to do some things that don’t require congressional action, so I would think some progress would be seen there.
[Domestic partner benefits] would take legislation, and I don’t know where on the pecking order that’s going to fall compared to the rest of the priorities.
MW: The Bush administration has been lauded for its work in Africa on HIV/AIDS. How do you think an Obama administration will influence HIV/AIDS policy in the U.S.?
SAMMON: It’s clear we need to do more. We’ve had an aggressive international effort, which was important and necessary, but at the same time we need to redouble our efforts domestically. During the campaign, both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama advocated for the development of a national AIDS strategy so that we would have a blueprint where you’re coordinating efforts between state, local, federal, health care providers, AIDS advocacy organizations all working together on the same page to develop a battle plan on confronting the challenges around this disease. So, I hope and expect that will now move ahead.
The challenge that’s going to happen is just a fiscal reality, where the $700 billion that was spent on the stabilization plan is obviously going to have huge budget implications. Democrats, who took control of Congress in 2006, didn’t really increase domestic AIDS spending at all. I’m a little skeptical about what’s going to happen with that going forward.
MW: What does the loss on same-sex marriage in California — as well as Arizona and Florida — plus the barring of adoption rights in Arkansas say about the state of GLBT issues in America?
SAMMON: It was incredibly disappointing, particularly from my perspective. I was hoping that California was going to be the only silver lining of the election, so it was bad across all fronts for me. But it’s certainly a wake-up call to the community that they need to keep working one person at a time to move people in the right direction. It was frustrating all summer long as I traveled out to California, and we made a lot of effort and investment to try to help defeat Prop. 8 with our ”Republicans Against 8” campaign that was meant to complement the broader ”No on 8” campaign.
But there was this complacency that somehow victory was assured in California. What was the number I saw, that as of a few weeks before the campaign, only 30,000 people had given money to the ”No on 8” campaign, and 15,000 out of a million gay people in California is pathetic, frankly. I know we didn’t lose because of money — we certainly have a lot of generous people who stepped up and we ended up out-raising the other side. But that’s symbolic of the fact that I don’t think enough gay and lesbian people understood the threat from this, and I don’t think enough people did all that they could. And I’m not just talking about financially. I don’t think enough gay and lesbian people did all that they could to defeat Prop. 8. That’s number one.
Number two, we need to understand our enemies. The Mormon Church came in and essentially bought that election. I saw a poll that 84 percent of weekly churchgoers voted in favor of Prop. 8. It illustrates the work that’s out there [to be done]. On the bright side, eight years ago with lost with the other side at 61 percent, this time there was only 52 percent. And certainly there’s a ton of work that clearly needs to be done with African-American folks and certainly among Republicans — huge numbers of Republicans voted ”yes” as well.
But the number that struck me, 38 percent of the ”yes” votes came from Obama supporters. Two million people who voted ”yes” on 8, also voted for Sen. Obama. That just shows that this isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. We need allies for equality from Republicans, Democrats and independents. At the end of the day, momentum is on our side and we’re continuing to make progress. But there’s no question it’s a devastating defeat. We need to pick ourselves, learn why we lost and move ahead.
MW: A number of rationales have emerged for the California loss — minority voters supporting both Obama and Prop. 8, low turnout in some areas such as San Francisco, ”No on 8” messages that avoided being too ”gay,” etc. — what do you think needs to be addressed among those in order to move forward in that state?
SAMMON: It doesn’t mean we’re pointing fingers at anyone, but you have to acknowledge the numbers. The fact is Sen. Obama’s presence on the ballot increased turnout — four years ago, African Americans were 6 percent of the electorate in California, this year they were 10 percent and they voted in huge margins [for Proposition 8]. So let’s figure out as a community how we can do better to engage people of color and really have a comprehensive strategy to gain allies for equality among African Americans.