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Tied Into Knots
The top Democratic candidates were tentative on the topic of gay marriage. But Al Sharpton wasn’t pulling any punches.

Family Banning
The UN’s Population Fund just took a serious blow. That means crucial funds won’t reach women around the world.

What the EPA Isn’t Doing
Isn’t the EPA supposed to help protect us from breathing mercury and drinking rocket fuel?

Tied Into Knots
When asked if he supported gay marriage, Presidential nominee Al Sharpton scoffed:

“It’s like asking do I support black marriage or white marriage… The inference of the question is that gays are not like other human beings. [It’s] like saying you give blacks, or whites, or Latinos the right to shack up — but not get married.”

But such fiery responses were the exception to the rule, at Monday’s Gay and Lesbian presidential forum. The event was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a half-million-strong lobbying group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Although the candidates present were vying for the support of the queer community, all the top candidates fell short of advocating fully equal rights for gay Americans.

With their full-throated embrace of gay rights, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Ohio lefty Dennis Kucinich offered a stark contrast to the half-measures put forward by the mainstream candidates. In an impassioned speech, Kucinich told the audience:

“I think Americans will respond to a president who reaches out and says that I believe there should be a federal law that would enable gay couples to be recognized, and not have to search state to state for a place to be. This is America. We should be able to get past this. Let people be who they are and love who they are — and love who they love.”

Such comments go straight to the heart of what the nation’s gay community wants to hear. But neither Braun, Kucinich nor Sharpton is seen as having a chance at the Democratic nomination.

While the three long-shots didn’t mince words, the other candidates danced the political dance around the issue of gay marriage. Howard Dean — the first governor in the US to sign gay civil unions into law — minced around the issue, suggesting that the federal government leave such decisions to the states. Dean told the crowd: “I’m for equal rights for all Americans,” and bragged about the civil unions law he signed in Vermont. But his more liberal following might be surprised, as Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Dick Polman points out, that Dean only signed Vermont’s civil union law when a state court ruling forced him to do it. Dean’s “pro-gay” image was further tarnished during this exchange with the event’s host, Sam Donaldson of ABC News.

“When Dean remarked that voters won’t accept gay marriage because ‘marriage has a long history as a religious institution,’ Donaldson noted that times had changed, that contemporary weddings were often performed outside religious settings. ‘That’s true,’ said Dean.

‘Then why do you say it’s a religious institution?’

‘Because it is. ‘

‘But you can go to a justice of the peace — ‘

Dean cut him off. ‘You want to keep talking about this?'”

Despite having been stuck with a “liberal” label, Dean stands neck-to-neck with other “states’ rights” advocates. But of course, every Democrat with a fighting chance is trying hard to avoid seeming “too liberal.” As Polman notes, however, Democratic candidates might have to start taking their queer constituencies seriously.

“Gays, as well as the heterosexuals who support gay rights, vote heavily in Democratic primaries; three years ago, 11 percent of California primary voters were gay, the same share as African Americans. Next year, South Carolina will stage a key early primary, and Democrats have identified 44,000 gay voters who could swing a close outcome.

But Democrats are also thinking beyond the primaries. Polls indicate that less liberal voters, especially the independents who swing close national elections, don’t buy the gay-marriage concept.”

Indeed, it is just such fears about national elections that lead top Democrats to toe the Republican-sounding “traditional values” line. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, for instance, told the crowd at the Human Rights Commission that he respects an exclusively heterosexual view on marriage: “Historically, culturally and religiously, [most Americans] view marriage as between a man and a woman. One has to respect that perception, and I respect that.” While the audience wasn’t crazy about Kerry’s statement, his ongoing support for civil unions trumped some of his opponents’ records. Both Joseph Lieberman and Bob Graham voted in favor of the notoriously anti-gay 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The Republican act allows any state to deny recognition to same-sex unions that were granted in a different state.

Neither Graham nor Senator John Edwards bothered to show up at Monday’s forum. Other attendees included Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. Gephardt promised gay Americans — including his daughter — that although he opposes their right to join in holy matrimony, he simply feels “that civil unions is the way to go.” Out of all the candidates present, Joe Lieberman was the most hesitant to advocate for gay rights. Like Dean, Lieberman suggested civil unions remain in the state jurisdiction, leaning heavily on the “marriage has a special status in our culture, our society, our history” crutch.

It’s not all that surprising that the candidates chose to play conservative on the matter of gay marriage. Many in the Democratic Party believe that Al Gore fared poorly in the southern states because he was seen as too liberal on social issues. Even the leaders of the Human Rights Commission expressed a textured understanding of the resistance to gay marriage from the American public. The campaign’s executive director, Elizabeth Birch, told the San Francisco Chronicle that marriage has secular and religious elements that many Americans see as being threatened by gay marriage.

“Until the American people understand the distinction and don’t automatically believe that the candidate is coming after their sacred holy union, I think you’re going to find candidates shying away from that word ‘marriage.’ ”

So despite the differences in candidates’ positions, Birch focused on how civil rights have greatly improved for the gay community. Still, when asked if she was disappointed by the candidates’ hesitancey, she said, “There’s always room for some profiles in courage.”

Family Banning
The House of Representatives has dealt a harsh blow to developing countries that receive aid from the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA). The Fund’s money allows the countries access to healthcare and information. But as a result of Tuesday’s vote , fewer women will have access to family planning resources — which could translate directly to more abortions, more unwanted pregnancies, and more sexually transmitted diseases in developing countries already seeking to curb skyrocketing population rates.

Democrat Joseph Crowley’s proposed amendment to an aid bill could have restored $50 million in funding to the UNFPA, which prides itself on being “the world’s largest international source of funding for population and reproductive health programs.” Crowley hoped to offset the $34 million (about one-eighth of the UN agency’s budget) already withheld by the Bush Administration in 2002. The bill, which sets guidelines for the State Department’s foreign aid programs, passed easily through the House on Wednesday, but without Crowley’s $50 million amendment.

The House vote follows a separate initiative proposed by California Democrat Barbara Boxer that passed in the Senate. Boxer aimed to repeal the 2002 Bush administration’s “Mexico City Policy,” which bars the US government from providing assistance to organizations that advocate abortion as one of family planning tools and openly counsel women about abortion services — a policy dubbed the “global gag rule.” That proposal was backed by nine Republicans — a surprise to women’s health advocates, who feared that Bush’s gag rule would cut funding for international family planning groups. Women’s E News’ Peggy Simpson writes that free speech issues were a deciding factor in the Senate vote:

“Only three of the nine Republicans who voted with Boxer could be called pro-choice; the others went with her because they were persuaded the gag-rule was a free speech issue — something that would be declared unconstitutional in this country.

‘How can we export a policy that denies free speech and still say we support democracy?’ Boxer asked during the Senate debate. ‘These organizations face two choices: They can either refuse U.S. assistance or give up the right to speak freely.'”

Tuesday’s decision by the House is backed by the Bush Administration and anti-abortion advocates, who claim that some of the aid given to the UNFPA would help fund China’s “one child” policy — thereby supporting coerced abortion, writes Reuters.

“Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who pushed to reverse his panel’s action, said, ‘We ought to stay a thousand miles away from anything that facilitates a program deemed to be coercive and in violation of human rights.

He added, ‘This money that we give to the population control fund facilitates the Chinese program.'”

But the fact is that shortly after taking office, Bush sent a fact-finding team to China to investigate UN operations there. The fact-finders concluded that there was no evidence to support the idea that the UN team knowingly participated in China’s population control program. But, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Epstein writes, that didn’t stop Bush and co. from pushing their gag-rule forward:

“Still, the Bush administration cut off money to the fund, which is the largest single source of birth control money around the world. The U.N. fund also is active in fighting HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and helps women in poor countries give birth to healthy babies.

‘Not one single penny of U.N. money goes for abortions,’ [Democrat Representative Barbara] Lee said.”

So at the same time that Bush is making a play for the compassionate vote and funding the fight against AIDS, his administration is stripping funding from an international family planning agency (yes, that included condoms) that needs all the help it can get.

According to the Associated Press, Republicans argue that no harm will come from swiping the UNFPA’s US funding because it will be rerouted to other family planning programs: “`We are the largest spender on the globe, in the galaxy, for family planning, and nobody will be denied anything,’ said [International Relations Committee Chairman Henry] Hyde, ‘It just doesn’t go through the U.N.'”

But Crowley argues that the agency is an integral part of the international family planning community, writes Simpson:

“[Crowley] says the agency is the only U.N. group which intervenes significantly on behalf of women needing the tools of ‘safe motherhood’ — to be able to gain access to contraceptives to space their children and to have Ôclean birthing’ conditions.

‘To some, this is an opportunity to set the marker of where they want to be–to express support for family planning, even if you are against abortion,’ he says.

One Crowley convert read The New York Times article about the agency’s major role in helping the more than 2 million African women with fistula, a debilitating consequence of birthing experiences gone awry — something that is virtually unknown in the West.”

What’s more, argue the editors of the Star-Tribune, the UNFPA has been advocating voluntary programs in Beijing as a better option than its coercive one-child policies. In other words, UNFPA was working against the policy Bush accused it of supporting:

“[T]he UNFPA has been working in China to show that voluntary programs work best; its agreement with China states that all coercive policies must be abandoned in the project counties.

At a Senate hearing last winter, Phyllis Oakley, former assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration, testified that while she oversaw UNFPA programs, ‘I have to tell you that never, not once, did I hear from another government, from my forceful colleagues in the human rights bureau, from the intelligence community, or from any reputable human rights organization expressing concerns about UNFPA’s work in China or anywhere else. Not one cable, not one letter, not one phone call. Nothing.’

Since it is not based on evidence, U.S. policy appears to be based on an unsupported belief that the United Nations is acting in opposition to its own goals and values. That is both illogical and irresponsible.”

Nonetheless, Washington is warning that the president will veto any State Department bill that contains the Boxer or Crowley provisions, writes the Associated Press.

What the EPA Isn’t Doing
With America’s attention elsewhere, Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency continues to do what it does best — nothing. Given the latest developments, it seems the EPA is sending the message that fresh air and clean drinking water are luxuries.

The Associated Press reports that while the EPA vows that it protects drinking water, the agency refuses to add new contaminants to its list of 90, and has refused to create new drinking water standards. That might seem a harmless bureaucratic stance, but it’s not. A particularly noxious chemical known as perchlorate has already turned up in drinking water supplies across the country. But the EPA won’t regulate the chemical because, reports Eric Leins of California’s Gilroy Dispatch “it lacks the information necessary” to regulate it. That’s a broad-based excuse, given that the agency already has a list of 51 contaminants to study, and Congress mandates that it study only five contaminants every five years.

Perchlorate might demand immediate attention. It’s a toxic ingredient in solid rocket fuel and has been found in 22 states’ water supplies. It’s been known to cause thyroid damage and reproductive disorders when present at levels as low as 2 to 6 parts per billion. The EPA’s refusal to regulate the chemical now could postpone a study of its potential hazards until 2010, Leins reports.

Continuing along the lines of shrewd “not knowing is not hurting”, the Bush administration has told the EPA not to analyze or release air pollution studies “that conflict with the president’s air pollution agenda,” writes Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times. Calls for the regulation of mercury — a persistent, health-threatening metal that’s produced by coal-burning power plants — fell on deaf ears when Jeffrey Holmstead, the assistant administrator for air programs, cancelled a staff meeting at which staff members were scheduled to discuss regulation options. Holmstead cancelled because he had to “meet with the White House” first. The meeting has not been rescheduled, though mercury regulations are supposed to be approved by August 1.

Holmstead did manage to show up as the only witness at the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee on the Clear Skies plan, however. Yep, he was there to make sure that attendees to the only meeting so far on air pollutant regulation knew that the Bush administration’s plan should be viewed as “historic,” JR Pegg of Environment News Service reports. (Bush wants to let industry trade the rights to pollute like commodities, as long as the total national emissions stays within a certain limit.) But members of Congress aren’t convinced. Instead, many of them were infuriated at the administration’s refusal to present alternatives to the Clear Skies plan, especially because the proposal does less than existing laws to reduce the emission of, that’s right, mercury:

“Critics say that the health risks of mercury — and of emissions of NOx and SO2 — merit moving more quickly than the targets under Clear Skies and contend that the existing Clean Air Act, if enforced, would produce greater reductions more quickly.

‘The administration’s bill would repeal, delay or gut many existing Clean Air Act requirements allowing more pollution for years longer than current law requires,’ said Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. ‘The administration calls this bill the “Clear Skies Act” – that is good marketing, but this bill is terrible for air quality and should be opposed by every member of this committee.'”


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