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Kerry Eleveld: Obama Can’t Deny Marriage Equality

Apr 1, 2011

Most readers of LGBT media are familiar with Kerry Eleveld. Formerly Washington correspondent for “The Advocate,” Eleveld’s now editor at Equality Matters, an LGBT-specific spin-off from Media Matters. Here Eleveld discusses her new gig, why Obama must endorse marriage equality and how the GOP will soon find itself backed into a political corner.

KerryEleveld Kerry Eleveld: Obama Cant Deny Marriage Equality

“We’re a campaign for full lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality,” Eleveld says about Equality Matters, a project launched last December by David Brock, founder and CEO of the indispensable Media Matters for America.

But Equality Matters qualifies as far more than just a website. It’s an organization that employs news analysis, researched commentary and strategic communications to spark direct action, train media personalities and counter right wing falsehoods about LGBT communities — like Pastor Ken Hutcherson’s claim that gay marriage threatens religious freedom — with the ultimate goal of accelerating the pace at which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans become full and equal citizens by shaping the way mainstream journalists think about and report on us and our issues.”

“If equality were a candidate, we would be the communications team helping to define it and push it into headlines across the country,” maintains Eleveld, who has appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” CNN and Sirius Radio to discuss LGBT politics.

Equality Matters represents something of a turning point for veteran journalist Eleveld, whom I first met about five years ago, when she was a far more objective — proudly so — journalist for “The New York Blade.” But according to Eleveld, she had grown weary of sitting back and letting history unfold.

“For the past two years, I’ve had a front-row seat to history. And the longer I sat there, the more drawn I felt to participating in that history rather than reporting on it,” Eleveld said in Equality Matters‘ inaugural press release. “I’ve found it increasingly difficult to feign objectivity about my status as a second-class citizen.”

The loss of objectivity in news reporting has come up a lot here at “Death and Taxes.” Another LGBT journalist, Thomas Roberts from MSNBC, contended that his own personal experience adds a “point of interest” when addressing stories about equality, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer said he strives to “acknowledge what’s right on both sides” because there’s no one truth.

Eleveld holds a similar view, even using the roughly same idiom: “There’s not going to be one perfect truth that gets told.”

Though Eleveld guarantees she would never tell another reporter to be less objective, she also insists, “There’s something sort of disingenuous about objectivity in the media.”

“We all come to every story with a personal bias or bent toward or against different things, just by virtue of the fact that we are human beings,” she says. “[And] there’s something very useful about making an effort to present things in a light that shows certain subjects in different viewpoints.” A news story’s far more productive and informative, contends Eleveld, when it offers myriad solutions from the same side, rather than just playing “right versus left.”

That’s not to say Eleveld doesn’t value objectivity. “If we were full of commentary and nothing else, that would be as big a mistake as having all kinds of objectivity and no commentary. These things work in tandem.”

Objective analysis and personal commentary certainly work together in Eleveld’s work at Equality Matters, yielding some exceedingly astute and perceptive results. For example, a piece from earlier this month, “Obama And Religion: Where Will He Stand On Same-Sex Marriage In 2012?,” explained how President Obama’s past use of his religion to justify opposition to marriage equality may not fly in the next election.

“If President Obama continues linking his denial of equal marriage rights to his religion, he will run into trouble with that rationale in the 2012 elections,” Eleveld says of the political pitfalls facing the president, a man she has interviewed three times.

“Two reputable polls have come out recently showing that a majority of American Catholics and Protestants support marriage equality. These are religious folks who no longer want to see religion used as a reason to treat fellow human beings in an unfair and hurtful manner.”

The president, contends Eleveld, can no longer avoid a marriage endorsement, especially since more Americans now accept LGBT rights and also realize that the president himself supported same-sex marriage during his 1996 state senate bid in Illinois.

“The American public does get to a point where they just wonder whether a politician is being disingenuous with them, and that is very basic question of trust,” Eleveld tells me. “If the President is saying he’s evolving on marriage, but he’s not sure, and at the same time people are asking the question, “How long is it going to take you to evolve, since you devolved to begin with?” At some point that just goes to a credibility question.”

Republicans are no better off, of course. With California’s high-profile Proposition 8 case working its way through the judicial system, perhaps headed to the Supreme Court, and marriage battles are taking shape in key primary states Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s little way the GOP can skirt the issue.

“There’s no way that you go into the 2012 election cycle without marriage equality being discussed in some way, shape or form — whether it has to do with the battles that are going on in the states, or whether it has to do with the legal cases,” Eleveld explains.

While Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels wants to call a “truce” on social issues, Eleveld doesn’t see such a scenario in our political future. But that doesn’t mean Republicans can continue beating anti-gay drums.

“Politicians use any and every tool possible to get elected, and if social issues present an opportunity, they will be employed,” opines Eleveld. “I do, however, believe that treating people in a discriminatory and dehumanizing way because of their sexual orientation and gender identity will have less resonance in 2012. The country simply has much less appetite for it.” While some social conservatives will lap up homophobic rhetoric, the rest of the nation “will find it nauseating.”

As marriage equality winds its way through courts and ballot boxes, there’s another matter that needs to be tackled: passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a national law that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and expression. It’s a far stickier subject than gay marriage, if you can believe.

Many LGBT activists and media are understandably skeptical about the news that openly gay Rep. Barney Frank this week introduced another round of ENDA negotiations, both for Frank’s inconsistent messaging — while the congressman claims the legislation is “winnable,” he admits the Republican majorities in Congress will hinder its success — and for the fact that we’re still reeling from 2007′s disastrous, bruising battle, a battle that created a divide between those who thought gender identity should be included in legislation and those who thought the issue could be put off until a later date.

Even though there’s now broad consensus that inclusion’s the best way to go, that doesn’t mean all activists believe lawmakers are committed to the cause. Nor does it mean activists aren’t still uncomfortable about an open debate about transgender identity.

As Pam Spaulding noted, in reaction to an Eleveld article, “The False Choice: ENDA v. Marriage Equality,” which addressed the conversational stonewall, “LGBs simply have done what often happens with race – if you can’t comfortably discuss it for fear of defensive backlash, the larger community will ignore, dodge, avoid or be silent.”

“It’s kind of this ‘chicken and egg’ effect,” Eleveld tells me. “It’s difficult to discuss, but if we don’t discuss it — we’ll be in a very bad situation again, or we could potentially be in a very bad situation again, entering into the next Congress.”

Surmounting that obstacle’s just phase one of what Eleveld envisions will be a two year effort, one that will be based more on Capitol Hill than the marriage debates: “If we’re going to pass ENDA, then there needs to be at least a two-year lobbying strategy, if not something more. That’s the bear minimum. But the marriage question is coming up in very different contexts. It’s not just a legislative game at the moment.” Activists also need to build momentum to prove to lawmakers Americans want ENDA done. And the President could definitely lend a hand.

“The president is actually further ahead in his position on trans-inclusive ENDA than he is on marriage equality,” Eleveld reminds me. “He’s actually endorsed a transgender-inclusive ENDA, but he hasn’t endorsed marriage equality.”

So, what happens when, in some mythical time, full equality has been achieved? What will Eleveld do? “I leave that to the universe,” she laughs. “But I will continue working on issues of justice in some capacity, because for me LGBT equality and queer rights fall under the umbrella of issues of justice, and I imagine that that is where I will continue to put my efforts. Maybe I’ll apply them to a different constituency.”

Well, whatever the future holds for Eleveld, it’s bright, and there’s no doubt we’re all better off having her out in the field, fighting the good fight.

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