Queer Democrats Rate Three Congressional Candidates Acceptable
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club heard from a wide variety of people at its regular meeting February 23, including a six-foot-tall African-American Transgender woman, a long-time advocate for Queers in the military and three candidates — one of them openly Gay — vying for the Democratic nomination against 26-year Republican Congressmember Duncan Hunter in the East County-based 52nd Congressional district. With up to seven potential Democrats in the race, the club ultimately decided against endorsing any single candidate and instead moved to rate all the candidates who appeared — John Rinaldi, Derek Casady and Karen Otter — acceptable.
Rinaldi, Casady and Otter all scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaires, and when they addressed the club they differed mostly on style, not substance. In their presentations, Casady and Otter focused mostly on issues while Rinaldi talked mainly about why he thinks he can win in a district that’s historically been considered a safe seat for the Republicans.
“I’m running for Congress to restore the Democratic Party to majority power, end the war in Iraq and start the process to impeach George W. Bush,” said Casady. He explained he was inspired to run after the San Diego Union-Tribune, normally a strongly Republican paper, ran an editorial calling Hunter a “looter” and accusing him of being involved with at least one of the defense contractors that bribed fellow Republican Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
“I’m a patriot and advocate the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq,” said Otter. “Our military has better things to do than serve as a police force in a foreign country. They’re shooting at us because they want us out. We can’t kill all the people we’re trying to ‘free,’ and until we leave there will be no rebuilding. We should redeploy so they can rebuild their own infrastructure.” Otter also said she hopes to be part of a new Democratic congressional majority that will “demand accountability,” called herself “a firm believer in equal rights for everyone,” and emphasized her opposition to the proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
“I’m running to take down Duncan Hunter once and for all,” said Rinaldi. “I’m unusual as a candidate in the 52nd Congressional district because I’m openly Gay. I’m here because we have a winning campaign team.” Asked how he and his team planned to make up for the disadvantage in party registration — the district contains 151,000 Republicans and only 103,000 Democrats — Rinaldi said he planned to focus on the 65,000 district voters who aren’t registered with a party at all. “Our data show they’re ready and looking for change,” Rinaldi said. “We’ve hired a field director from the Howard Dean campaign. We’re asking people to get involved.”
Asked what they knew about Hunter that could be used against him, Otter said she didn’t know any more than anyone else — “I’m bringing out what I’m going to do that he isn’t doing, including getting us out of Iraq,” she explained — but the other two both mentioned that Hunter’s primary residence is in Virginia and that he hardly ever returns to the district he represents. Casady added that Hunter co-owns a Virginia cabin with a former secretary of the Air Force. Rinaldi also said he questioned why Hunter is proposing an $8 billion fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and Casady mentioned a plan Hunter recently offered to turn an entire island off the coast of Santa Barbara into a private hunting resort for military officers.
According to the club’s procedures, before they can consider whether to endorse a specific candidate they first have to vote on a motion whether to endorse in the race at all. Such a motion was made but failed by one vote, 21 to 22. One club member pointed out that two of the candidates were themselves club members but hadn’t been able to vote on the motion because, in accordance with club rules, they’d left the room so the club could debate whether or not to endorse them without them being there. But when the candidates came back to vote on that specific motion, their votes split — Rinaldi voted to make an endorsement, Casady opposed it — and when club president Stephen Whitburn called a final vote the motion lost by an even bigger margin, 20 to 24. The final motion to rate Rinaldi, Casady and Otter acceptable passed 30-9.
The club also heard from two community activists, Tracy Jada O’Brien from the Family Health Center (FHC) and Bridget Wilson, local attorney and affiliate of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN). O’Brien, who is herself Transgender and provides support services to other Transgender people who are FHC clients, said that Transgender people are routinely assaulted verbally, often physically. She also made some controversial statements about the status of Transgender people and questioned whether the analogy implied in the acronym “LGBT” — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender — is really accurate.
“I think the Transgender community was done a disservice by being added to Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals,” O’Brien said. “Those are sexual orientations; Transgender is a gender just like male or female.” She noted that Transgender people were intimately involved in starting the Queer liberation movement, not only at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969 but before that in San Francisco — but that after that, “in much of the struggle, my community was set aside. My community does not benefit from domestic-partner recognition or health care. A lot of members of my community don’t want to go to doctors because they’re often treated unfairly by doctors or nurses. There is no road map for a young Transgender person. My brother and sister were nurtured and I was just left on my own to deal with being Transgender, African-American, 6’3” and going through puberty.”
Wilson spoke to the club to promote HR 1059, a bill in Congress to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that virtually prohibits Queers from serving in the military. She said they’re specifically targeting Congressmember Susan Davis, and asked people to write letters and sign postcards to Davis asking her to co-sponsor that bill. One of Wilson’s goals was to get the club to “defer” considering an endorsement of Davis, who’s had the club’s support in the past, to try to get her to do the right thing on HR 1059 despite her concern about “jeopardizing her position on the House Armed Services Committee” if she signs on to the bill.
According to Wilson, most people don’t understand how “don’t ask, don’t tell” actually works in practice. “It’s not a law that lets you serve in the military if you’re Gay as long as you don’t talk about it,” she explained. “If you told your mother you were Gay and someone overheard it, that could be grounds for separation.” As she’s done in previous presentations on this issue, Wilson reached out to the audience, put her arm across the shoulders of a woman in the front row, touched her on the shoulder and then announced that, according to the military’s definition of the word “sex,” they’d just had sex with each other.
What “don’t ask, don’t tell” really means, Wilson explained, is that one’s ability to be Gay and function in the military depends on a series of circumstances totally beyond the servicemember’s control. “There are pockets of relative tolerance, and then a new C.O. comes in and thumps a Bible, and you’re in trouble,” she said. Wilson also noted that, “as the war goes on, the number of people separated from the service for homosexuality dives,” and that she’s actually seen the military delay the discharges of people who wanted to get out because of the military’s desperate need for people to fight the current war in Iraq.
According to Wilson, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a particularly difficult issue to organize around because many of the progressive and Leftist people who ordinarily support Queer demands for equality are also anti-war and anti-imperialist, and therefore question why they should care about people being denied to serve in an institution whose mission they largely oppose. Wilson said she answers that argument by stressing the functions of the military other than fighting America’s wars — “The military is the largest trade school in the United States, probably in the world,” she explained — and also by stressing that military service is a civil-rights issue for our community just as it was for African-Americans when President Truman abolished racial segregation in the military in 1948.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ deprives people in our community of tremendous opportunities and full citizenship,” Wilson explained. “We’re talking about the freedom to serve. The ability to say no involves the ability to say yes. The day it’s O.K. for Gays to serve in the military is the day you can take your pacifism out of the closet.”