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Why Libertarians Are Courting Gays and Lesbians

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Aired 7/1/09

Gays and lesbians across the country are pressuring the Obama administration to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. We'll find out why the Libertarian party is coming to the aid of gays and lesbians on this issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Candidate Barack Obama said several things gay and lesbian voters were very happy to hear. While he never lent his support for gay marriage, Obama said he was against the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military and that he would sign legislation repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. So, many gay people were enthusiastic supporters of Barack Obama's campaign, and when he became president they waited for him to make good on his promises. They are still waiting. And while they wait, some in the LGBT community are boycotting Democratic fundraising events and writing about re-examining their political affiliations. It is in this atmosphere that a third political party sees an opportunity. Can the Libertarian Party, with its support of same-sex marriage, become a comfortable place for disappointed gay voters?

KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner is here to discuss the issue, and good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, and quite an issue it is, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us, first of all, what the defense of marriage act is. When did it become law, what does it do?

PENNER: Okay. Let me first tell you that it became law during the Clinton administration. It was signed into law by President Clinton and in congress it passed with a vote of 85-14 in the Senate, and 342-67 in the House of Representatives so you know it was popular. Now, this is what it does: It specifies that no state needs to treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state. And the federal government defines marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman. Does that sound familiar? A little bit like California's Proposition 8. Now, you know, why did it come about in 1996? Well, at the time it was passed it was expected that Hawaii and possibly other states would soon legalize same sex marriage and opponents of such recognition feared that other states would then be required to recognize such marriages under the Full Faith and Credit clause of the United States Constitution, hence the Defense of Marriage Act.

CAVANAUGH: And just recently, a lawsuit is challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, and what (sic) does the Obama administration stand on this challenge to the DOMA?

PENNER: Well, the president says that he wants to see legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act but until congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system. And it was challenged, it was challenged in a case called Smelt and Hammer. This is a married couple from California, a same sex couple, and they seek a ruling on whether, by virtue of their marital status, they are constitutionally entitled to acknowledgement of their union by states that do not recognize same sex marriage and whether they are similarly entitled to certain federal benefits. So there it is, the case is out there, it's being defended by the Justice Department, in essence representing the Obama administration. Obama says that's our job and that if this is going to be changed, it has to be changed in the legislature.

CAVANAUGH: Now is not so much the fact that Obama's Justice Department is defending the Defense of Marriage Act because there's some idea that he has – he has a constitutional requirement to do that, but it's the way that his Justice Department has challenged this lawsuit that has upset many gay voters.

PENNER: Well, absolutely. The problem wasn't so much that the government defended DOMA—DOMA, Defense of Marriage Act—as it was the way in which the government did so. You know, the president may well consider that his oath of office obligates him to mount a legal defense of laws even that he dislikes but he does have a choice on how to mount the defense. And in Smelt—that's the name of the lawsuit…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PENNER: …Obama's lawyers cited as precedent cases pedophilia and incest, which are the same kind of comparisons that some religious conservatives have in the past drawn to argue against gay marriage. All of this has incensed gay and lesbian pundits and activists and, as you said, many of Obama's gay and lesbian supporters have recently pulled out of Democratic fundraisers. I have to tell you, yesterday there was an article, it was a – out of the Washington Post, and Obama realizes the problem he's in here. He's invited a whole bunch of gay and lesbian leaders to the White House but he's got a very careful line he has to tread. It's a question whether he is going to follow through on his campaign practices to instill gay and lesbian rights in this country but he also wants to avoid the appearance of giving in to any one group's demands. So that – it's going to be a tough time for him.

CAVANAUGH: Now you brought to our attention that there's an interesting thing emerging from this and it's that the Libertarian Party—the Libertarian Party—is courting gays and lesbians. Tell us about that and how – and what they're doing about that.

PENNER: Well, first of all, there was a – they found at a fundraiser last Thursday, I believe it was a fundraiser for Joe Biden, that they – they went ahead and they greeted the Democrats who were protesting the Obama administration outside that fundraiser and it was aimed at gay and lesbian donors. And they shared information with these Democrats—these are the Libertarians—basically saying, you know, we advocate for marriage equality. And so at this point now, the Libertarians are sort of taking some pretty proactive steps toward acknowledging where they stand and then sort of persuading the Democrats who are gays and lesbians that maybe they should take another look at the Libertarian Party.

CAVANAUGH: Now you spoke with Jesse Thomas. He's chairman of the Libertarian Party here in San Diego County. So what did he say about how the Libertarian Party is proposing to work with gay rights advocates on the issue of same sex marriage?

PENNER: Well, I'm going to let Jesse speak for himself. This is what he had to say.

JESSE THOMAS (Chairman, Libertarian Party, San Diego County): Well, the approach we would take would be that we believe that you, as an individual, should live your life the way you see fit, so you can marry whoever you want to marry and live with whoever you want to live with as individuals with individual rights. And we are the party that would support you best with that goal, with that endeavor, more…

PENNER: Well…

THOMAS: …than any other party.

PENNER: …you know, I wanted specifically for Jesse Thomas, who, by the way, has only been chair of the Libertarian Party of San Diego County for just a few months, and the party does have 300 active members in it, although there are 7,000 registered Libertarian voters in San Diego, which is more than I thought. So I pursued him a little bit on the Defense of Marriage Act and I asked them, so you are not really saying that the federal government should recognize same sex marriage? He said:

THOMAS: Well, I actually say that government doesn't belong in the business of relationships in the first place but they do because they are involved with what I like to call social engineering, taxing people based on how they live, how many children do they have, whether they're married or single, sex, their tax rates and how they're treated by the government, the benefits that they get, that type of thing. So public policies that affect people's lives based on how they live their lives is sort of a way of socially engineering society and, as such, government should not ever be doing that. And so I'm – we are in support of the individual living their lives the way they see fit without some central government authority deciding or affecting that person's life.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Gloria, where did the Libertarian Party stand on Prop. 8?

PENNER: Well, on August second of last year, the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Party of California unanimously endorsed a vote of 'no' on Proposition 8, which would have amended the California Constitution to eliminate same sex marriages and these were just a couple of the ballot arguments: equality, freedom and fairness for all; they would deny lesbian and gay couples the same dignity and respect; it's just not fair; and only marriage provides the certainty and the security that people know they can count on in their times of greatest need. So they were – Prop 8, they were no on Prop 8.

CAVANAUGH: It's interesting. Now just to move this a little farther down the road. President Obama also has a problem with his stance on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and that is he's said one thing during the campaign and so far that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is still in effect.

PENNER: Well, the Obama administration again claims to be awaiting congressional action on this issue and a number of issues including repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But, meanwhile, apparently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is waiting for Obama to act and so is the House of Representatives, so this whole thing has become a hot potato and at this point the Democrats, they won't touch it until they get some kind of a signal from the president and they haven't gotten the signal yet. And actually the Libertarian Party says that they need to end the Defense Department's practice of discharging Armed Forces personnel for sexual orientation. So that means that, once again, the Libertarian Party is on the side of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community.

CAVANAUGH: It's very interesting. I don't want to leave this discussion, Gloria, without going on and just spending a few minute – a moment or two, actually, on another story and that is, yesterday, a significant political development for Democrats on Capitol Hill involving the long-awaited resolution of the Minnesota Senate race. Tell us about that.

PENNER: Well, of course, Democrats are cheering. They have the 60th vote for ending filibusters they think. I mean, that could change depending on how people vote. But Republicans are not happy campers. And some of the statements that they issued gives you a really good idea about that. They – For example, Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he said I'm deeply disappointed in the decision made by this Supreme Court. I share the frustration of Minnesota's voters. At the core of our democracy lies two concrete principles: No valid vote should go uncounted, and all votes should be treated equally. Sadly, those principles were not adhered to during this election. Well, you know, he's a Republican, I guess he can say that due to feeling pretty threatened but it could be sour grapes or interpreted that way. And the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he says the implications of the Senate race are particularly significant because of that 60 votes that the Democrats now have. With their super-majority the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over, and so he's laying it right back in the Democrats' court, saying, okay, you got your 60 votes, let's see what you're going to do with it. But there are two people who are probably not very happy. One has to be Rush Limbaugh because one of Al Franken's bestselling books was – let's see, what was it called? "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations." And the other has to be Bill O'Reilly because his other bestselling book was "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look At the Right," and that included a cover photo of Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly.

CAVANAUGH: And I read, too, this morning on his way to Washington, Senator Al Franken…

PENNER: Senator-elect.

CAVANAUGH: …Senator-elect Al Franken is saying that he will be serious when he gets to Capitol Hill but he will not lose his sense of humor.

PENNER: I can't imagine he would. It would not be the Al that we've all come to know.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much, Gloria Penner…

PENNER: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: …for being here this morning.

PENNER: It was fun.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is, of course, our political correspondent. Listen for the "Editors Roundtable" at 9:00 a.m. on Friday and next week, not this week but next week, "San Diego Week," 7:00 p.m. on KPBS Television, Friday nights.

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