THE SOUNDS OF JUDY GARLAND songs weren’t heard in the fluorescent-lit hallways of the Production Group Studios in Hollywood, and RuPaul, the famous drag queen, was nowhere to be found. Instead, America saw the straightest-looking assembly of gay and lesbian folks since the last Log Cabin Republicans convention, hunkered down for two hours underneath bright lights — and surrounded by beefy Secret Service agents — as they watched six Democratic presidential candidates bob and weave their way through a gay vetting session broadcast on live TV. One could only wonder what Larry Kramer, the gay provocateur and writer, was thinking when the whole thing went down.

The evening was billed as “historic” and it continued to attract national TV commentary this week. For the first time ever, all of the front-running Democratic candidates for the presidency of the United States — along with three long shots — sat down to address gay and lesbian issues exclusively. Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, former Senator John Edwards, former Senator Mike Gravel, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Congressman Dennis Kucinich showed up to talk the talk on the LOGO network. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a Washington, D.C., gay-rights heavyweight, sponsored the event.

Before the “gay forum” started, there had been rumblings in the gay and lesbian community about the size of the venue — a small studio with a maximum capacity of 200 people — and the makeup of the audience; it was rumored that the seats would be “packed” with only the candidates’ supporters. As late as a couple of weeks ago, even West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, a longtime gay activist, couldn’t wrangle a ticket.

So if you believed the rumors, HRC’s “Visible Vote 2008” had the distinct feel of a political rollover, with the gay-rights group happily taking whatever scraps the candidates were willing to dish out as long as they showed up. In the press room, a few minutes before showtime, Brad Luna, HRC’s director of media relations, assured otherwise.

According to Luna, only 25 or 30 of the studio seats were “dedicated” to guests of the candidates — the rest were chosen by the HRC. “We wanted to make sure there was a diverse representation of the community,” he said. Indeed, those people were there, although almost everyone wore a business suit of some kind. Gay Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl showed up, as did AIDS Project Los Angeles Executive Director Craig Thompson. Mayor Duran landed a seat after all, and actors Wilson Cruz and Neil Patrick Harris sat in the back row. Even gay-friendly types like California Assemblyman Mike Feuer and Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Leron Gubler attended. A certain kind of gay flamboyancy was missing, but the place clearly wasn’t packed with true-blue friendlies. As for the small venue, Luna said, LOGO, and not the candidates, insisted on the studio rather than an auditorium, which had been the setting of choice for previous debates.

Still, some people were skeptical about the setup. As he was waiting on line to enter the studio on Vine Street, Councilman Rosendahl grabbed and hugged old friends and said excitedly, “I don’t like the format at all. I think it’s ridiculous, but at least at this juncture you’ll get a clear statement on where the candidates stand on issues concerning the gay community.” The city councilman preferred a straight-up debate, with all of the candidates appearing onstage together.

Not too far away from Rosendahl, Mayor Duran was bracing for the worst. “From what I know,” he said, “it all sounds fairly scripted and controlled, which is unfortunate.” Luna, however, said, “[The candidates] have no idea what the questions are.”

SO WITH THAT SOMEWHAT SETTLED, the candidates, one by one and for 15 minutes each, sat alone in a white armchair and fielded questions from three panelists: Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, rock star Melissa Etheridge and Washington Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart. Columnist Margaret Carlson was the host.

Probably to the relief of John Duran, the evening wasn’t a complete love fest. The panelists grilled Obama on his same-sex marriage stance, with Capehart asserting, “But how can you run as a candidate of change when your stance on same-sex marriage is decidedly old school?” The senator shook his head. “Oh, come on, now. I mean, look, guys, you know, I mean, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes. But there’s a reason why I was here first. It’s because I’ve got a track record of working on these issues.” The senator still refused to back down from his preference for “strong civil unions” rather than marriage.

With Edwards, same-sex marriage also came into play. Solmonese asked the former senator why his faith played a role in his opposition to gay matrimony. Edwards, looking somewhat apologetic, said, “Well, you know, I have to tell you, I shouldn’t have said that, because first of all I believe, to my core, in equality.” The candidate then later said, “I will not impose my faith belief on the American people. I don’t believe any president of the United States should do that.”

Clinton also took heat on her same-sex marriage stance — she’s for civil unions — and then made a comment that could not have pleased the audience, regarding the political necessity of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was signed by President Bill Clinton and has undercut many state rights and benefits that legalized gay couples have won through civil unions, domestic partnerships and marriage.

Citing her work with the HRC to defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage, Clinton said, “I don’t know that we could have defeated it if we had not had DOMA. I mean, that is something that, you know, has provided a great protection.”

But the main stumble of the evening was executed by Governor Bill Richardson. Richardson was already in poor stead with the gay community when he awkwardly defended his use of the word “maricon” on the Imus in the Morning radio show; the Spanish slur translates into “faggot.” So Melissa Etheridge thoughtfully lobbed him a soft ball.

“Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” the rock star asked.

Richardson thought for a brief moment, and said, “It’s a choice.”

Etheridge interrupted the governor and tried to bail him out, as did Margaret Carlson a few moments later, but the governor stared blankly at them, explaining, “I’m not a scientist.” In a quickly dispatched press statement after the forum was over, Richardson said, “Let me be clear — I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice. But I’m not a scientist, and the point I was trying to make is that no matter what happens, we are all equal and should be treated that way under the law.”

After the debate, Mayor Duran wondered, “He may have gay and lesbian friends, but it sounds like he’s never had a deep conversation with them. He just didn’t seem to get it.”

When the forum wrapped, the candidates drove over to West Hollywood to stuff their campaign coffers in the heart of Boys Town. Clinton held a large viewing party at $50 a head — $1,000 for VIPs — at the Abbey, a never-endingly popular gay-owned restaurant and bar on Robertson Boulevard. Treated like a rock star, the senator stood up and spoke, with recalled former California Governor Gray Davis near her side looking like a guy who had been granted political rehabilitation.

It was a basic stump speech, but this time she was facing a crowd of gays and lesbians, some of whom drank a few too many cocktails. At one point, an enthusiastic woman yelled, “We have your back, Hillary!” Clinton paused for a beat and said, “That’s very comforting, because for the past 15 years I’ve had to watch my own back.” The crowd went wild. After six years of anti-gay policies from the Bush administration, and after watching anti-gay marriage initiatives move forward in numerous state legislatures, the crowd could relate.

LA Weekly