Equality Forum Highlights: Our Favorite Panel

At the National Politics Panel, experts weighed in on DOMA, ENDA and the chance we'll have an LGBT presidential candidate in the near future.

(L-R) National Black Justice Coalition’s Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff and the Equality Forum’s own Malcolm Lazin spoke on the  National Politics Panel.

One of the cornerstones of each year’s Equality Forum is its wide array of topical panel discussions, and this year was no different: programming this go-round dissected everything from religion, the rights of the transgendered, and LGBT history to legal issues for the community and a lively chat among elected LGBT officials, including Pennsylvania’s own state reps Brian Sims and Mike Fleck.

One of our favorites was the National Politics Panel held at the National Constitution Center on Friday, May 3, which was moderated by Chuck Wolfe, the president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, which raises money and support to elect LGBT candidates for political office. (Wolfe is basically the LGBT equivalent of Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List.) The purpose of the panel was simple: To assess where the LGBT movement is in the national political landscape, and analyze, predict, and mull where it’s headed.

The panel included Equality Forum director Malcolm Lazin; Kirk Fordham, a longtime Capitol Hill operative and the executive director of Gill Action, an LGBT advocacy group; Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, dedicated to advancing the civil rights of the black LGBT community; and Kevin Naff, the editor of the Washington Blade.

First up: the likelihood of the fall of DOMA (the panel agreed unanimously the Supreme Court would almost certainly strike it down) and California’s Prop 8, which panelists felt would also go by the wayside, though a sweeping decision outside of California was seen as unlikely. Fordham scored style points (and laughter from the audience) when he said Clarence Thomas was likely to vote to strike down Prop 8, because, he said a tad cheekily, “he is the purest Federalist on the bench.” “The Court really doesn’t like to get out ahead of public opinion,” Lazin said, but added that public opinion on gay marriage is shifting so fast—certainly faster than anyone could have predicted—that a 5-3 decision, in his estimation, was likely.

A follow-up talk on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA, elicited interesting insights. Lettman-Hicks argued that “ENDA suffocated because of marriage,” even though the Congressional Black Caucus told her that “it’s easier for us to stand up for ENDA than it is for gay marriage.” (A brief aside: Upon follow-up questioning by G Philly about whether the African-American church was perhaps softening on of its longstanding opposition to gay marriage, Lettman-Hicks basically slapped us verbally by countering that it was unfair to single out the black church when the white evangelical and Mormon churches have been just as vehement in their opposition. Duly noted, though hers is a slightly disingenuous response: by any objective measure those white churches hold absolutely no sway in Democratic Party politics, where all of the legislative work on gay civil rights is now being done. The African-American church, on the other hand, still carries tremendous influence within the Democratic Party.)

Lazin said emphatically that “I think it’s shameful that we have not yet passed ENDA,” while Naff argued that transgender people are the “elephant in the room” when it came to ENDA, and that there needed to be a broader and more cohesive dialogue — and education — about how the rights of the transgender community would be impacted by the bill.

Shifting to straight-up politics, a look at upcoming national and state elections centered on the GOP, and whether it could sustain a candidate who supported LGBT rights, given the party’s hard-line supporters who are the backbone of its primary voting. Fordham made a persuasive argument that it could be done, if the GOP candidate in question had solid conservative bona fides in every other area. (In other words, only one variation from the pro forma GOP tick boxes.) He noted that even Paul Ryan seemed to be coming around on the issue of gay adoption, something that only last year would have seemed inconceivable. “It isn’t always about marriage,” Fordham said. “I think we should be encouraging the GOP candidates to be talking about a whole range of these other issues.”

Naff wasn’t quite so rosy, citing moderate Jon Huntsman’s appalling performance in the 2012 presidential primaries as evidence that “the GOP base has a long way to go,” and that it’s still “the most shrill voices that dominate at that stage of the election.”

Finally, there was the inevitable discussion, prompted by an audience member’s question, about whether we might see in the foreseeable future a viable gay or lesbian candidate for President. Wolfe issued a rather definitive yes, and said within 20 years he expected it to happen. It might have even happened earlier, he said, had the early years of the AIDS epidemic not taken so many potential voices so young.

There are, he said, now 600 out LGBT elected officials serving in various capacities in the U.S.; not a huge number, but certainly a big increase from only a decade ago. He labeled the lack of an openly gay member of the President’s cabinet “disappointing,” but said that fight isn’t over, either. “We’d like to see that happen,” he said, noting that cabinet members often vacate early in second presidential terms. “And we’ll keep encouraging that.”

Stay tuned to G Philly for more of the weekend’s Equality Forum highlights.

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