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In Finale, Gay Dems Emerge From Shadows
by Melissa Bailey | Sep 7, 2012 7:57 am
Posted to: Politics, Presidential Campaign
Charlotte, N.C. When he heard President Obama plug gay marriage before a thundering audience at the Democratic National Convention, Kevin Lembo jumped to his feet and applauded—suddenly surrounded by a party that now treats him as an honored member.
What a difference four years can make.
Lembo, Connecticut’s first openly gay candidate elected to statewide office, sat in the audience Thursday with his husband, Charles Frey, to watch Obama accept his party’s nomination for reelection on DNC’s closing night here.
Lembo, who serves as Connecticut’s comptroller, was one of 88 state delegates to the DNC. The 49-year-old is one of just a handful of openly gay politicians nationwide who have been elected to statewide office.
Openly gay for decades, Lembo found himself this week in a new political landscape. After a marked turnaround over the past year, his party now openly embraces gays instead of treating them as allies in the shadows.
Lembo was one of over 500 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) delegates to the convention, an increase of 150 over 2004. Over the three-day convention in the Time Warner Cable Arena, speakers touted the party’s new gay rights cred: Its support for gay marriage; President Obama’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the Matthew Shepard Act protecting LGBT victims of hate crimes; and Obama’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, through which the federal government refuses to recognize gay marriage.
“It’s never been like this,” recalled Lembo, who attended three Democratic conventions before this year’s.
“For a long time, the belief was, ‘You can’t say this aloud,’” he observed. If you were a politician, let alone a president, you would not “dare say that you favor gay marriage.”
“You wonder when the party you care about and support is going to recognize you,” he said.
“Now, I think we’re there,” Lembo said.
The picture didn’t look as rosy just four months ago.
When it chose a site for the convention early last year, Democratic Party overlooked North Carolina’s anti-labor and socially conservative tendencies and gambled on a bet to sway a swing state.
On May 8, the territory became more hostile: North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.
Lembo called the gay marriage ban a “violent use of the Constitution.” The vote moved him to pen a letter to his national party.
“What are we doing here?” Lembo paraphrased his letter as asking. “How can we bring our party to a state that just did this thing?”
His concerns were answered the next day when President Obama came out in support of gay marriage after holding back on the issue for years.
Then the national party followed his lead and wrote support for gay marriage into its platform, a first for a major political party. As the movement for gay rights and gay marriage has grown in popularity nationwide, the Democrats have decided to embrace it.
“A lot has happened in a short period of time,” Lembo said Thursday.
Lembo and fellow members of the LGBT community found themselves treated as honored guests when they arrived in Charlotte. Lembo attended three invite-only LGBT-focused affairs.
At one of them, First Lady Michelle Obama dropped by to issue a personal show of support. She pledged her husband has “and always will” commit himself to equal rights for LGBT people.
On Tuesday, Lembo showed up to a meeting of the LGBT Caucus, which now drew a crowd of attendees from across the country. He heard tell of the caucus’s beginnings, when 14 people waved homemade signs on the convention floor. Now 450 people filled the meeting room, sporting mass-produced pins, stickers and signs.
At the LGBT Caucus meeting Thursday, veterans celebrated the repeal last year of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the military policy mandating gays and lesbians not discuss their sexual orientation.
In the convention hall, speakers hung their gay pride high. Speaker after speaker touted the freedom to marry whom you love, and to serve in the military without hiding sexual orientation.
They proclaimed a stark contrast to the Republican Party platform, which opposes same-sex marriage as detrimental to families.
Rainbow flags abounded in the convention floor. Democrats found many occasions to wave them. They waved them for LGBT hero U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, the longest-serving openly gay U.S. Congressman, who recently got married. They waved them for U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who’s now running to be the nation’s first openly gay U.S. senator.
They waved them as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chair of the DNC platform committee, declared: “For the first time, a major party platform recognizes marriage equality as a basic human right.”
Lembo and his husband rose to their feet and clapped.
Then they watched Zach Wahls, an Iowan Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian moms, take the stage. Wahls became an Internet star for pleading with his state legislature on behalf of same-sex marriage. On Thursday he challenged Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for maintaining that “every child deserves a mother and a father.”
“I think every child deserves a family as loving and committed as mine,” Wahls said.
Lembo and Frey, who have raised three sons together, rose again and applauded.
After a virtual parade of pro-gay statements, Obama delivered the message himself in an infomercial about gay rights: “I’m proud of the work we’ve done for the LGBT community.”
In his closing speech Thursday night, Obama plugged his repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And he outlined what’s at stake in the Nov. 6 election: If voters give up on the path Obama is promoting, “Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry” will take control.
While the remarks this week represent “tremendous” progress, Lembo said, the Democratic Party still has work to do. For starters, he said, it needs to support LGBT candidates seeking office across the country. Each state that has passed legislation affirming gay rights has done so with an openly gay elected official in place, he said. His theory: It’s harder to vote down an equality bill when you’re staring in the face of a gay colleague.
Despite the president’s endorsement of gay marriage, Lembo’s union still does not exist in the eyes of federal law. He and his partner have to file taxes separately, losing benefits afforded to married couples. If Democrats take control of both houses of Congress, they can repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, he said.
Lembo said he hopes that in four years, the exclusion that gays have endured “will just be a memory.”
And in a generation, he said, he hopes that there will have been so much progress that “folks won’t remember how difficult it has been.”
Previous Independent stories from the Democratic National Convention:
• New Haven “DREAMer” Sees A Dream Come True
• Call Him Surrogate General
• DeStefano: Time To “Relinquish Power”
• Echo From Floor As DeLauro Calls For Pay Equity
• Union Boss Boycotts Breakfast
• Murphy SOS Goes Out In Charlotte
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