I've been around a lot of politicians in my day. Whether City Councilors, County officials, state legislators or Congress members, there are some basic rules that transcend the status of the office when it comes to gay rights.
After spending time at the Indiana Democratic State Convention last weekend hobnobbing with our state's queer-friendly politicos, one thing became crystal clear: More and more politicians are willing to reach out to LGBT voters, but they have no idea what to say.
I thought I'd start an official list of suggestions for politicians on how to interact with our community. Maybe if I offer some assistance more politicians can get a quick grasp of the basics.
Rule #1 - Acknowledge Your Audience
Last weekend's convention really put this first rule squarely in the forefront of my mind. Several politicians stopped by - from the candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor to a local City-County Councilor. Some made a good first impression; others didn't.
Why? Several speakers didn't even bother to use any of the following words:
- Sexual orientation
- Or any acronym like LGBT, GLBT, etc
If you are willing to step into a room and ask for our vote, at least have the common courtesy to acknowledge the tie that binds. When a politician speaks in generic code words like "civil rights" or "equality" without so much as mentioning who should be equal, it's just insulting. It shows us that you don't really care about us so much as you care about our votes.
While LGBT rights aren't the only topic our community thinks is important, it is the elephant in the room. Using your opportunity in front of a gay audience to speak about unemployment, taxes or Head Start funding is a cheap ploy to avoid what's important to us.
By speaking in generalities, you're only showing us that you don't really care about us. You're pandering. Which leads directly into Rule #2.
Rule #2 - Don't Look Like a Pandering Fool
You'd be shocked at the number of gay-friendly politicians who end up sounding like jerks just because they are ill prepared for the conversation. Our community is just like any other minority group or organization you'd prepare for; you need to know your stuff.
We want to be confident that you know what we're talking about. We want to feel comfortable talking with politicians without wondering if they are following along.
All too often when you put a politician in front of an all-queer audience, you get stutters and starts and a general vagueness that doesn't accomplish anything. It doesn't leave a positive impression with the community and lets us know they've half-assed their preparation. We are - obviously - not a priority.
Instead, do your homework. Know our issues - or at least get a basic grasp. We're happy to fill in any blank spaces you might have, but a general starting point is appreciated.
We don't expect Congressmen to know the differences between otters and bears, but we do anticipate that you'll have a rudimentary knowledge of our priorities. Otherwise, you're just pandering to try and win votes and don't care about us in the least. We'll know it right away.
You can solve this problem with Rule #3.
Rule #3 - Know the Lingo
Nothing will turn off queer voters more than using rightwing talking points in front of a liberal audience or in the media. When speaking to an LGBT group avoid words like:
- Sexual preference
- One man and one woman
- Lifestyle choice
- Family values
- Gay marriage
Let's use an example. Polly Politician doesn't think gays and lesbians should be able to get married, but supports civil unions. She is perfect on every other issue. When asked the question, "Do you support gay marriage?" should Polly answer:
- I think marriage is between a man and a woman.
- I think marriage is a state's rights issue. Each state should decide on their own.
- I believe gays and lesbians are entitled to the same benefits and privileges. I know we still have some disagreements over wording, but surely we can work those out as we tackle other problems together.
Which do you think makes the best impression?
Don't let stupid mistakes foul up your message. Instead of "gay marriage" use "marriage equality." Instead of "sexual preference" try "sexual orientation." Being queer is not a lifestyle or a lifestyle choice. And for cryin' out loud never, ever say, "you(r) people."
Show That You're a Friend
Most of us realize that very few politicians are in favor of complete equality for LGBT folk. Whether it's marriage equality, hate crimes legislation or transgender civil rights, there are some areas that a politician might not be in lockstep with our community. That could happen for myriad reasons including fear for the candidate's political career, a worry that they'll be painted as gay themselves, or a general unease with the subject matter.
Just because you're not in 100% agreement with our voting bloc doesn't mean you should avoid even acknowledging our commonality. Challenge your own fear for your political hide and "come out" and talk. Whether you're with us or against us, nothing ever gets solved without communication.
It's not a matter of simply telling the audience what they want to hear. Instead, you need to know what you're talking about, how you're talking about it and with whom you are talking.
You don't want to end up looking like a jerk by making stupid mistakes that are easily avoidable. When you can't call us by name, don't know our issues and use offensive wording you're not a friend we need. We want allies that know us, trust us and will stand with us.
And call us by name. Friends do that.