Six months ago, gay and lesbian Democrats in South Carolina were licking their wounds after losing a battle against amending the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage, with some of those wounds caused by leaders in their own party who refused to oppose the measure, or worse still, openly supported it. Now, the state Democratic Party is doing some fence-mending, setting a goal of including at least three gay and lesbian delegates amongst those heading to the national convention, that ridiculously excited bunch of folks that symbolically selects the party's presidential candidate.
The process for finding South Carolina's 55 delegates takes months, funneling up from county parties to the state convention. Set goals already exist for other minorities, but last year, the Democratic National Committee adopted new delegate selection rules that require state parties to adopt inclusion plans for increasing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) participation at the convention and in party affairs.
And South Carolina isn't alone in setting a target for gay inclusion. Forty-five states will set numeric goals for LGBT delegates, compared to only 16 states with these goals in 2004. The national party will also sponsor training forums to educate LGBT Dems on becoming convention delegates.
Charlie Smith, a West Ashley Democrat who ran for the state House of Representatives twice, was worried prior to the state party vote that the language generically supporting gay inclusion would be pulled altogether. He's surprised that the party has set goals for LGBT inclusion, but he says the recognition has been long coming.
"It's an acknowledgement that the LGBT community is an important part of the party and has carried a lot of water for the party over the years," he says.
A point of contention for Smith and others has been the lack of support from the party and its candidates in the past, particularly in the run-up to last year's vote on amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Tommy Moore, the party's nominee for governor, was a co-sponsor of legislation to put the marriage amendment on the ballot.
"In the past, there's always been some excuse for failure," Smith says. "There's always been a way for the Democratic Party to get what they needed out of the LGBT community without giving anything back. I don't think it's going to be that easy for them do that anymore."
A lot of the praise for the new attitude is going to the recently inducted party Chair Carol Fowler, whom Smith calls "a breath of fresh air." Charleston County Party Chair Waring Howe has also been praised for his efforts in pushing the change.
Fowler says it is important for every voice to be included and that the gay community has been good to the Democratic Party.
"It's important to show that we know about that support and appreciate it," she says.
Of couse, some opposition to gays and lesbian issues still lurks within the party. When speaking to gay and lesbian Democrats last month, national party Chair Howard Dean noted that the civil rights movement is a good example of the time and patience required for change.
"Not every one of those days was a good day," he said. "There was a lot of tough stuff along the way and the lesson that has been learned is that sometimes you are disappointed, sometimes you are temporarily set back, sometimes you are disappointed with your friends as well as angry at your enemies. But the trick is to understand that this is a long-term process — this business of human rights — this is a long-term process and when you get knocked down, you have to get up right away and put one foot in front of the other and keep going. It is a long-term commitment and you do overcome if you make the long-term commitment and work every day and do not get sidetracked by the inevitable disappointments."
After all, a step in the right direction isn't the same as a leap, but it's movement.