Bil Browning

3 Simple Rules for Politicians

Filed By Bil Browning | June 26, 2008 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: rules for gay groups, rules for politicians

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:

  • Gay
  • Lesbian
  • Bisexual
  • Transgender
  • Diversity
  • 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:

  1. I think marriage is between a man and a woman.
  2. I think marriage is a state's rights issue. Each state should decide on their own.
  3. 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.


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Right on, Bil! Let's PDF it and have parties send it out to their lists ;)

Wow, it's a shame this couldn't get out before Pride season. For the last 12 years, I've heard politicians show up at Pride events and make all these mistakes. I like Dustin's idea of turning this into a document that LGBT political groups across the country can send to their local officials. Maybe if we're able to educate them while they're still running for small local offices, they'll make better allies when they get into the big positions.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 27, 2008 6:23 AM

I think that if these politicians want GLBT support they should have the savvy to have a Gay media consultant. "No ticket, no washing!" Employ some Gay people if you want their votes. At minimum seek the free advise of your Gay constituency. Visit the Gay Community center in your voting district. You are only going to be comfortable talking to Gay people if you do it regularly and interactively.

Bil: Great Article!

When a politician who's not gay is totally unprepared when he speaks to an LGBT group, the group's support will be somewhat underwhelming.
With some preparation, the politician could make
a good impression.

There is another side of this, that gay politicians or those who strongly support gay issues sometimes forget. They can't always preach to the choir, i.e., LGBT groups. They also have to campaign with groups other than LGBT ones to get their messages out there. I've seen that, too.

I've watched a lot of these politicians and the way they deal with any minority. It's generally, "I know someone who is (insert minority here)."

However, they've never really taken the time to actually understand the issues. Oh sure, they've read a few leaflets here and there and have learned the talking points, but when it comes to a real understanding, they don't get it. While we have to give a lot of them credit for trying, we also have to come to the realization that until they really spend some time getting to know the person behind the story, they will never get a grasp of how society and government is affecting that person.

I'm not a politician, well at least not a career politician. I am a candiadate for Indiana House District 100. I'm a Libertarian and a new member of Indiana Equality. I believe strongly in equality for all of Indiana's citizens regardless of race, sex, religion, economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity.

I participated in the Pride Parade along with a few of our other local candidates. I sponsored a booth for our local Marion Co Libertarian Party to have a presence at this important event.

While the Democratic Party is often acknowleged as being supportive of GLBT issues, I would like to point out that the Libertarian Party has as one of its core values the defense of all our constitutional rights and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

By DavidM

Question one: They never bothered using words like straight, Marriage, Christian or God.

Question two: Often when you put a politician in front of an all Straight audience its hard to convince that audience why you would support people that make up 1% of the country that the biggest percentage of people do not agree with.

Question three: When speaking to an LGBT groups why should one avoid any words? I would think one would be proud of words such as sexual preference or lifestyle choice. You don’t want to hear the term gay marriage? And I do believe that gay marriage should be up to the state by a referendum vote of the people in that state.

Lee Rowan | July 3, 2008 5:20 PM

To David Meyers:

'lifestyle choice' and 'sexual preference are subtle ways of putting down the reality of our sexuality. These words suggest that who we love is a 'choice' or a 'preference.' To some extent that may be true - as much as it is for a heterosexual person who 'chooses' to get involved with an attractive partner -- but to suggest that we 'choose' who we are attracted to is as inaccurate and disrespectful as if I were to say "well, you chose to be hetero." And "Gay Marriage" is a red flag to the "defenders" of conventional marriage. (One man, one woman? How many wives did Solomon have, for pity's sake?) What we want is equal rights, not necessarily equal rites. In my opinion, all couples should have civil unions for legal purposes, and be free to make whatever additional religious arrangements they desire. That would be real separation of church and state.

Buffalo Boy | July 3, 2008 5:35 PM

Claiming that there are too few gays for society to be bothered is an insult.

There are more gays than Jews, but I don't hear anyone telling the Jews "There are so few of you in America that we don't have to address your concerns. Go away and stop your whining."

DavidM, the reason to avoid those buzz phrases you mention we should be proud of is that those who hate us use them as weapons. One thing you have to say for the radical right, they certainly know how to spin the rhetoric. They know the populace's hot buttons and just how to push them.

I too am a registered Libertarian, and Ed is right on. I still scratch my head at why LGBTQ folks, or Jews for that matter which I also am, continually support the party of micromanagement of your life by Big Government. Take a look at this statement from the current LP platform:

Sexual orientation, preference, gender, or gender identity should have no impact on the rights of individuals by government, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration or military service laws. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships. Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships.

Doesn't that cover it?

I agree with with DavidM and Lee. Each on their own points. But here is my problem... what is wrong with the term gay marriage? That's exactly what it is. That's what we want. So why not call it what it is. Also, what about same-sex marriage? I didn't see it mentioned on either the to use or not use side, but I see the media has been pushing that term especially since California.

I also agree with DavidM on the gay marriage question. What is wrong with 2? Of course on a local/state level I'd rather see 3, but if a federal candidate answers 2, they're right, but 3 is still better.

Finally, when did the LGBT community become a voting bloc? I don't remember this happening. If that's the case then count me out, I have a mind that I use to make my own decisions and don't follow a flock. I'll vote for who I want to, whether they're gay, straight, animated, or purple.

Gay American with Grasp on Reality | July 10, 2008 5:54 AM

Touche' Gregory Wright!
I'm not a "follow the flocker" either. We have minds - use them to vote for the candidates that best reflect your core values.