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Gephardt seems . . . confused
Asked about his daughter’s homosexuality, Gephardt tells Chris Matthews it’s a matter of choice

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2003 -- Congressman Dick Gephardt had no trouble handling Chris Matthews’ typical rat-a-tat barrage on right-to-work laws, international labor standards, trade tariffs, authorizing the Iraq war, and repealing the tax cuts at Monday’s Hardball interview at Harvard University. Gephardt even dropped his fiery Bush-bashing rhetoric and seemed genuinely contemplative about the personality traits of George Bush that hold the president back, observing from his own first-hand experience that Bush "lacks curiosity" and "doesn’t want to appear well-read."

But when Matthews directed Gephardt’s attention to his daughter’s homosexuality, the 62-year-old Congressman seemed uninformed himself. Chrissy Gephardt, a 30-year-old social worker, was previously married but divorced her husband in 2001 to be with her partner, Amy Loder.

Asked by Matthews how he had "come to grips with her orientation," Gephardt spoke of his concern that she was "choosing a lifestyle which is looked down upon by a lot of people."

This was the second time in a week Gephardt had used terminology suggesting that his daughter’s homosexuality is a matter of choice. In a New York Times front-page article about his daughter last Saturday, Gephardt is quoted saying "there are people who don’t like the decision that she’s made and think that it’s wrong, immoral, whatever and will look badly on me."

After the taping I had an opportunity to ask him: Do you look at homosexuality as a choice people make?

"That’s her decision, and I support that decision," he said. I pressed on: But do you look at is as a choice? "I think there is some evidence that it’s not a choice, that it’s a decision people make because of their whole chemistry. So I support her decision," the Congressman said.

Nobody can question Gephardt’s credentials as a supporter of gay and lesbian legislation, going back long before his daughter came out to him to years ago. He earned a perfect 100 rating from the Human Rights Campaign each of the last three Congressional sessions. Last week he appointed David Mixner co-chair of his campaign, the highest presidential campaign role ever for an openly gay individual.

He has also openly embraced his daughter’s lesbian relationship, and included Loder in the family’s Christmas card photograph last year. The campaign Web site mentions that Chrissy lives "with her partner, Amy," and a family picture on the same page includes Loder.

But this long-time support of the issues, coupled with his claims that Chrissy advises him regularly on gay and lesbian issues, makes his lack of understanding harder to understand. And wording is not just academic in this case: Activist groups opposing gay and lesbian rights deliberately describe homosexuality as a matter of individual choice, to lay the foundation for arguments against gay rights. "It shows that groups like ours have a lot of work to do in fighting the perceptions put out by those who oppose our rights," said Dave Noble, executive director of the Stonewall Democrats, when read Gephardt’s remarks.

And his clumsy uncertainty about the research reveals an ignorance of the scientific community’s overwhelming rejection of the view of orientation-by-choice. The American Psychological Association, for example, states flatly that "human beings can not choose to be either gay or straight," and that "sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors."

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who found the answer disturbing -- first thing Tuesday morning, Gephardt’s New Hampshire press secretary Kathy Roeder called to see whether she could "help clarify the Congressman’s response to your question." Her unconvincing explanation is that Gephardt had not understood my question. "He was talking about his daughter’s decision to campaign publicly and openly talk about her orientation," she insisted. Chrissy Gephardt is actively campaigning for her father, particularly among gay and lesbian communities.

Not much later Erik Smith, national press secretary for the Gephardt campaign, called, admitting that Gephardt’s response on Hardball had "raised a warning flag" for him as well. He had also been there for my follow-up, and remembered it well enough to correct me when I mistakenly referenced the quote as "some research" instead of "some evidence."

"I know he doesn’t believe that anybody’s sexual preference is simply a choice," Smith said -- although he was not able to unearth any previous comments by Gephardt to bolster that claim, and never produced a statement from the candidate acknowledging that.

Smith ultimately shifted to a heart-is-in-the-right-place approach. "If his language is less than crystal-clear, it reflects the fact that he has struggled with it, that it’s such a personal topic," Smith said. "To be honest with you we have not sat down and talked with him about how to talk about his daughter, and maybe in retrospect that’s a mistake."

But if a progressive Presidential candidate with an openly lesbian daughter doesn’t know how to talk about homosexuality, who can we hope can?

Issue Date: November 5, 2003
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