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The Visible Vote

410w It’s easy to dismiss celebrities as political commentators. Even Melissa Etheridge, at last night’s Democratic forum on Logo, noted that she is “not even a journalist. I’m an incredibly privileged rock star.”

As indulgent as she could be, she was responsible for two of the night’s most memorable moments — ones that actually have significance beyond gay issues.

The first was when she asked Bill Richardson whether homosexuality is a choice or biological. “It’s a choice.” When he said it, there were gasps, and even a few hisses, in the room. Then she asked again. “Well, I’m not a scientist. I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition.”

Within a half hour after the debate the Richardson camp issued a clarification, in which the New Mexico governor noted that he actually does not think sexual orientation is a choice.

But Etheridge also  had a moment when she pointed out that she came out the week that Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president. “It was wonderful. We were very, very hopeful, and in the years that followed, our hearts were broken. We were thrown under the bus. We were pushed aside.”

Clinton responded, “Well, you know, obviously Melissa, I don’t see it quite the way that you describe.”

For Richardson, it only adds to the impression that he is prone to stumble. For Clinton, it shows that she will have to defend her husband’s record, not just her own.

Called the Visible Vote and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and  Logo, the event was the latest in a series of presidential forums, each of which gets smaller ratings than the one before. Given that Logo is still in its relative infancy, it will be interesting to see how many viewers it drew.

What worked was the format: Instead of sound bites, candidates actually had a chance to talk significantly about certain issues. Few described any personal stories, as some had hoped, but there was plenty of effort to equate their own struggles to that of the gay rights movement. For example, Hillary Clinton described her efforts in holding back Republican Congress. Barack Obama invoked the struggles of those of different skin color, and said, “When you are a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it’s like to be on the outside.” John Edwards cited his wife’s efforts to fight back against Ann Coulter.

Whether this makes any difference politically depends on how significant the gay vote is — and that in and of itself has been in dispute. The candidates actually faced some hard-hitting questions from the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart and HRC’s Joe Solmonese, and Etheridge’s zingers were often deftly followed by moderator Margaret Carlson. The latter also steered the conversation away from one of its tangents, when Etheridge and Richardson traded the latest news of the bark beetle. There were few softballs.

In the studio, the crowd treated it as no less than an important chapter in gay rights. That was evident by those who turned up, a mix of celebrities, community leaders and major donors. Among them were Neil Patrick Harris, Jane Lynch, producer Max Mutchnick, producer Bruce Cohen, entrepreneur Skip Paul, Los Angeles city councilman Bill Rosendahl, state Assemblyman Mike Feuer,  attorney Alan Hergott and West Hollywood mayor John Duran. Also present: producer Steve Bing and Arianna Huffington.

Each of the candidates had their strengths, but super-longshot Mike Gravel probably did his best at endearing himself to the crowd.

Again, it was Etheridge, who noted, “You are unusual for generation of straight white men. But you actually support same sex marriage.”

Gravel replied, “Now, about my generation, most of them are wrong.”

Here’s highlights, via Logo:

Obama is asked to compare the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement.

Richardson is asked if homosexuality is a choice.
Clinton talks about “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Edwards on Ann Coulter.
Kucinich on medicinal marijuana.
And Gravel on his early push for gay rights.

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