Incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s current secretary of state, held their last televised debate this week in Chapel Hill.
News coverage of the event centered on what is now being called the “sharpest exchange” between the candidates while they shared the stage for an otherwise boring discussion. Pollsters say the election might already be decided; Burr shows a considerable lead over Marshall. But, as TPM notes, Burr’s and Marshall’s testy exchange over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) exposes stark differences between mainstream Republican and Democratic platforms on issues of LGBT equality.
The exchange between Sen. Richard Burr (R) and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) isn’t likely to change the election’s outcome — polls show Burr with a big lead, and most observers expect him to cruise to reelection this fall.
But the debate offered one of the clearest views of the differences between Republicans and Democrats over LGBT rights found this year. Marshall called DADT “governmental discrimination,” equal to “judging people by the color of their hair, the color of their eyes, or the color of their skin, or other factors they have no control over.”
Burr said he had no idea whether homosexuality is a choice or biological and bristled at the idea that the battle for racial Civil Rights is equatable to granting LGBT rights.
“This is a very specific group of individuals,” Burr said to Marshall. “Don’t bring race into this.”
TPM goes on to note several polls and other data showing Americans’ general disfavor toward DADT. But, Burr’s and Marshall’s debate and the resulting news coverage didn’t center on the facts. Rather, it focused on whether being gay is a choice, an issue, as TPM also points out, that’s near moot among the majority of Americans.
The debate this week is a perfect example of why our community needs a “seat at the table.” In 2008, openly gay Chapel Hill businessman Jim Neil ran against party favorite Kay Hagan in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary. Then, as now, issues of LGBT equality cropped up during debate. Yet, silly and ridiculous questions like “choice” never rose to the surface (although slight arguments over comparisons of LGBT rights to the Civil Rights Movement did create some stir with one of the lesser known primary candidates).
Perhaps there are several reasons for this, primarily that the debate was between primary candidates not otherwise affected by party affiliation in an election season defined by absolute polarization. But, one could make the argument that questions of “choice” were never asked because of Neal’s mere presence.
The question of whether or not being gay is a choice is pretty insulting to the majority of gay folk. I’d bet many straight people are aware of that. In political discourse, the question serves to take the focus off any particular political or legal issue and places it squarely on a person or group of people. It’s a personal question. A very personal question. A question most civil and courteous folks wouldn’t necessarily ask to someone’s face. Perhaps the question never came up in 2008 because it would have taken the focus off the issues and put it solely on Neal, as a person — as a gay person, and not a contender for public office. Despite all the criticism against Hagan that year, perhaps she already believed being gay wasn’t a choice. Perhaps, she was just kind and polite enough to keep such a personal question off the table.
I don’t really know.
Regardless, I believe LGBT people are best served when we have a physical, personal presence in our communities’ and nation’s political debates. It’s easy to insult people when you aren’t sitting across from a person that insult directly attacks. Even if the question of “choice” comes up between a straight candidate and gay candidate, I have faith any intelligent, gay candidate seriously contending for office will quickly turn the question around, refocusing debate on real facts and real issues — facts that knock down most, if not all, anti-LGBT talking points.
At the end of the day, whether being gay is a choice doesn’t really even matter. What matters more is our nation’s promises and guarantees of equality, liberty and justice, those guiding principles and mores defined in our social contract — you know, that pesky thing we call the Constitution — that have kept this nation forever toiling to become better and brighter, forever wary of allowing our Great Experiment to fail before the ever-watchful eyes of a candid world.
But, for Republicans, I guess it’s easier and more politically expedient to debate moot points that serve only to stoke the fires of bias, prejudice and hatred. After all, if they debate facts we know what happens: We win, they lose.
Former N.C. State Sen. Cal Cunningham, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-native living in nearby Davidson County, has announced his challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, also of Winston-Salem.
Other than the interesting regional connection between the two pols and what that means for the continued East-to-West political shift in the Tar Heel State, I was also intrigued by a portion of Cunningham’s announcement. More below the fold…