Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her husband's record on homosexual rights last night in an emotional exchange with singer Melissa Etheridge during a broad forum hosted by the Human Rights Campaign.
Miss Etheridge told the New York Democrat she felt betrayed in the years after she came out as a lesbian during the week of President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.
"Our hearts were broken, we were thrown under the bus, we were pushed aside, all those great promises that were made to us were broken," Miss Etheridge said, alluding to Mr. Clinton's going back on his promise to repeal the ban on open homosexuals in the military and his signing the Defense of Marriage Act.
"Are we going to be left behind the way we were before?" she asked.
Mrs. Clinton lauded her husband's achievements on appointing homosexuals to administration positions but also said she would scrap her husband's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and allow active homosexuals to serve openly in the military.
"I don't see it the way you describe," she told Miss Etheridge. "We certainly didn't get as much done as I would have liked but I believed there was a lot of honest effort going on."
Mrs. Clinton was the final 2008 presidential candidate to speak during the two-hour Visible Vote '08 forum, hosted in Los Angeles by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), streamed online and televised nationally only by the Logo cable channel.
The former first lady pledged to work "to change attitudes and persuade people that they should be more open, more respectful, more understanding" and said the "mean-spirited" era of targeting homosexuals is no more.
"That will end, that is over," she said.
Sen. Barack Obama noted his experience "at times being discriminated against," and said there are similarities between fighting for homosexual rights and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
"When you're a black guy named Barack Obama, you know what it's like to be on the outside," the Illinois Democrat said, calling himself a leader on homosexual rights issues and said inequality inspired him to enter politics.
An Obama administration would ensure "the rights that are provided by the federal, and the state and the local governments are the ones that are provided to everybody," he said. "That's a standard I think I can meet, and I don't make promises I can't keep."
He was later praised on a Logo forum for his answer about religious opposition to homosexuality among blacks.
"There are people who recognize that if we're going to talk about justice and civil rights and fairness, that should apply to all people, not just some," he said. "There are some folks who, coming out of the church, have, you know, elevated one line in Romans above the Sermon in the Mount."
The candidates made their appeals to homosexual voters, promising expansion of rights and treading a careful line on the "marriage" issue. The forum was designed to highlight homosexual issues in a way not seen in previous elections.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said public school students "need to understand why same-sex couples are the parents of some of the children."
When pressed, he said he hadn't thought about what age would be appropriate to educate children about homosexuality.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former congressman, said he regretted voting for the Defense of Marriage Act during the Clinton administration but said he prefers civil unions and fighting for "what is achievable."
"The country isn't there yet," he said.
He also talked about his expansion of anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation in New Mexico, and noted he gave same-sex couples in domestic partnerships state health insurance.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio received a lion's share of the audience's praise last night, saying he agrees with everything HRC wants.
"There is no power on this earth greater than human love. Real equality people who love each other must have a way to express that in a way that is meaningful," he said.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska was the only other candidate on stage last night to have such a sentiment, and he called the others "weak" for saying they won't push any changes to federal marriage laws.
Asked "what is at the heart of your opposition to same-sex marriage," Mrs. Clinton smiled and said: "I prefer to think of it as being very positive about same-sex unions," adding her opposition is "personal."
Mr. Obama said the word "marriage" should be "disentangled" from the debate, and that his administration would allow same-sex couples to have a civil union "that provides all the benefits that are available for legally sanctioned marriage."
Mr. Edwards said as president he would extend "exactly the same" rights to same-sex and straight couples.
The panelists asked Mr. Edwards about a comment in a debate last month about how his Southern Baptist religion shapes his views on marriage, and the former senator backed down: "I shouldn't have said that."
"I do not support same-sex marriage," Mr. Edwards said, adding, "We're past the time for political doublespeak on this" and noting his position "has not changed."
His wife Elizabeth Edwards and his daughter disagree, prompting Edwards supporter Eric Stern to say he wasn't worried because "we would have a first lady in Elizabeth who would be our personal lobbyist on the issue."
Mr. Edwards started the day rolling out endorsements from Mr. Stern and Stephen Handwerks, two homosexual men who said they feel included in the political process for the first time because Democrats have ignored their concerns for years.
"It's incredibly encouraging that not only are we asked to join in the conversation, we are actually playing a large role in the shaping of the future," said Mr. Handwerks, adding that during the Bush administration, homosexuals have been "on the attack end" even though they are the "second most loyal voting bloc" for Democrats.
Moderator Margaret Carlson said homosexuals "were once invisible both in our communities and on the political landscape" but are now "visible and valued" and "a force at the ballot box."
Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut did not participate due to scheduling conflicts.
Mr. Dodd said in a statement he was sorry he could not attend and called homosexuals "a very important voice in our national discourse."
"Addressing equal rights and responsibilities for the GLBT community is fundamental to fulfilling America's promise," he said.
The HRC invited the Republican candidates, but none accepted.
Audience members said on Logo after the forum they rated Mrs. Clinton highest, followed by Mr. Obama. They were overall irritated with Mr. Richardson's performance and one man said Mr. Edwards seemed disingenuous.