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Bernie Sanders’s race problem isn’t his only blind spot

Here's what he should have learned from the #BlackLivesMatter controversy.


Michelangelo Signorile

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 15, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 11:40 pm CDT

It’s been the belief of some political journalists for a while now that Hillary Clinton has wrapped up the LGBT vote. But that thinking is beginning to fray as some major LGBT donors look at a possible run by Joe Biden, and as reports suggest discontent over Clinton’s perceived lack of enthusiasm in taking on big challenges ahead to ensure full equality

Some donors and activists expressed concern to Alex Seitz-Wald at MSNBC that the Clinton campaign still hasn’t hired an LGBT outreach coordinator while it has done so with other key constituencies–from African-Americans to organized labor:

“People are frustrated. They want the candidate to succeed. But they also want to feel that there’s forward momentum,” said a person familiar with the thinking of some major LGBT donors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to damage relations with the campaign. “The idea that after marriage, everything’s solved is a very dangerous idea.”

Bernie Sanders can quickly and easily take advantage of that frustration at a time when Clinton is vulnerable (albeit for other reasons) and as he surges in the polls in New Hampshire and Iowa. All he has to do is talk about his impeccable, incomparable record on LGBT equality that dates back over 20 years. 

Bafflingly, the Vermont senator largely hasn’t done so. Intentionally or not, he’s obscured or hidden that record at a time when an influential, politically organized constituency that raises lots of money for candidates can help put him over the top.

Sanders is a hero among LGBT Vermonters, fighting for them and for all LGBT Americans during his past years in the House in the ‘90s and well into his current years in the Senate. He was among only 67 House members to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which Bill Clinton signed into law. 

And in an interview earlier in the year, he supported adding full civil rights in housing, employment and public accommodations for LGBT people to the 1964 Civil Rights Act—months before Democrats introduced such a bill in Congress, after which Hillary Clinton expressed support for the first time in a tweet.

Quite glaringly—and unlike Hillary Clinton’s site—Sanders does not have an “LGBT Rights” section explaining what he’ll do moving forward.

And yet, Sanders’ stump speeches have tended to focus on his passionate stand against corporate greed and economic inequality to the exclusion of other major issues. This has cost him—such as when he was challenged in July at Netroots Nation, the annual convention of progressive activists. Black Lives Matter activists charged that he hadn’t addressed police brutality against African-Americans at a defining moment. 

Sanders reacted badly, seemingly shocked that anyone would challenge him because of his great record of supporting civil rights for African-Americans, to the point of threatening to leave the stage. He didn’t seem to get that people wanted to know, based on his past record, what he was going to do in this current moment of crisis.

He has since focused on the issue more—and faced more protests—and has tried to tap into the black vote, speaking over the weekend to an audience at a historically black college in South Carolina. Sanders’ issues section on his campaign website includes a section titled, “Racial Justice.” It also includes a section on “Women’s Rights.” However, quite glaringly—and unlike Hillary Clinton’s site—it does not have an “LGBT Rights” section explaining what he’ll do moving forward.

Again, that’s baffling—especially since Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and the GOP presidential candidates who support her have guaranteed that marriage equality and LGBT rights will be issues in the 2016 presidential election, contrary to the predictions of political pundits who claimed LGBT rights would fade as an issue.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire—where the first primary contests will take place in a matter of months—have organized, active LGBT electorates that energize the base and help raise money and support. Both states were out front on marriage equality and both states saw—and still see—an onslaught of attacks from a very organized religious right that has tried to roll back LGBT rights gains via influence in the states’ respective Republican parties. 

In Iowa in 2010, retention votes at the ballot led by anti-gay conservatives resulted in the removal of three justices from the Iowa Supreme Court who decided in favor of marriage equality. It was the first time judicial retentions occurred in Iowa history. A second campaign to remove a justice, in the presidential election year of 2012, failed. In New Hampshire, Republicans in the legislature several times attempted (and failed) to repeal marriage equality, which passed in 2009.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire—where the first primary contests will take place in a matter of months—have organized, active LGBT electorates that energize the base and help raise money and support.

Successes or failures, in both states religious conservatives continue to plot, and all eyes in Iowa are on the influential conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader, who demands GOP candidates bow to him—his group is holding a candidates’ forum in November—and who, like other anti-gay conservatives, offensively compared the Supreme Court’s marriage decision to the Dred Scott decision.

If Sanders wants to make further inroads against Clinton, he should be speaking out against Vander Plaats and attempts to attack LGBT rights in Iowa, and should be touting his own stellar record on LGBT rights in his stump speeches everywhere. Neither Clinton nor even the passionate Joe Biden—who talks about LGBT equality now but voted for DOMA as a U.S. Senator in ’96—can beat Sanders’ long-time record of support. He needs to hit hard on that.

And he must get “LGBT rights” up on his website. That any Democratic candidate can omit it in 2015 is offensive and an embarrassment, and it further reveals Bernie Sanders’ political myopia. Sanders should learn from what happened with Black Lives Matter. A candidate can’t rely on people knowing what he’s done in the past. Bernie Sanders needs to both speak about that record and about what he’s going to do right now.

This article was originally featured on the Huffington Post and reposted with permission.

Michelangelo Signorile is the Editor-at-large of the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices section. He is an author, journalist, and commentator, and the host of “The Michelangelo Signorile Show,” which airs each weekday on SiriusXM.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 15, 2015, 5:30 pm CDT