Kate Coatar is seriously considering voting for Green Party candidates instead of Democrats, whom she normally supports. James Wyatt won’t cast a ballot at all because he no longer trusts anyone to fight for causes important to him.
If Democratic candidates are counting on long-standing support from gay voters to help stave off big losses on Nov. 2, they could be in for a surprise.
Across the country, activists say gay voters are angry – at the lack of progress on issues from eliminating employment discrimination to uncertainty over serving in the military to the economy – and some are choosing to sit out this election or look for other candidates.
President Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago, with its large, politically and socially active gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, offers a snapshot of what some are calling the “enthusiasm gap” between voters who came out strong for Obama and other Democrats in 2008 and re-energized Republican base voters, including tea party enthusiasts who say they are primed to storm the polls.
It didn’t help that the controversy over the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays erupted less than two weeks before the election, when a judge overturned it, then Obama’s justice department decided to fight the judge’s decision. On Thursday, the Defense Department declared that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is official policy but set up a new system that could make it tougher to get thrown out of the military for being openly gay.
“It’s all talk and nothing’s happening, and I’m just over it,” said Coatar, 62, a church business manager who said she’s as concerned about health care and homelessness as about gay issues. “I don’t know who to vote for and the election is a week away.”
Wyatt, 35, a maintenance worker at the Center on Halsted, a community center serving Chicago’s GLBT community, said politicians only court gay voters at election time.
“Once they’re elected, they’re not fighting for things like civil unions or same-sex marriage or ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because they’re hot-button issues,” said Wyatt, who usually supports Democrats. “We’re just used as a piggyback for them to get into office. It’s absurd.”
Whether or not that’s the case, Wyatt isn’t the only one who feels that way.
And in places like Cook County, Ill., where the gay population represents about 7 percent of voters, that could mean the difference between victory and defeat in some races, said Rick Garcia, director of public policy for Equality Illinois. One of those races is a much-watched and close battle for Obama’s old Senate seat between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk.
“If (candidates) can mobilize the gay community and get them out to vote, it could make all the difference in the world in some of these key races,” said Garcia.
But volunteers who’ve been calling the 18,000 or so members of Equality Illinois to urge them to vote have been getting an earful. Many members say they won’t vote or will vote against incumbents, regardless of their party affiliation or stance on gay issues.
This year’s election is a stark contrast to 2008, when the gay community turned out in droves to elect Obama and help Democrats regain control of Congress.
“People were clamoring and very excited about the change that then-candidate Obama promised America,” Garcia said. “Now I see lethargy at best and disgust at worst.”
He said gains won under Obama, including in fighting housing discrimination, have not filtered out to many in the gay community because “the big issues have not appeared to change at all.”
“But change takes time; sometimes it takes a lot of time. A lot of folks just don’t understand that,” said Garcia. “I am older and more seasoned, but most people are very disturbed with the administration … and they’re the hard ones to get out to vote.
“The message is huge: Don’t take us for granted.”
Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times, Chicago’s oldest and largest GLBT newspaper, and author of the new book “Obama and the Gays,” said disappointment is showing up in another way: Some are refusing to donate money to candidates until they see progress, although it’s difficult to gauge how much that has affected fundraising.
A message left Friday with the Democratic National Committee seeking comment was not immediately returned.
But many gay organizations are working hard to get voters to the polls, fearing they could face setbacks if Republicans retake control of Congress. Baim said Democrats and Obama still enjoy widespread support in some parts of the gay community, particularly among African-Americans and Latinos, and she believes the majority still will vote.
“People are disappointed but understand that this really is the best hope for significant change over the next several years,” she said. “But at the same time, the anger is very real.”
Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of the national gay-rights organization GetEQUAL calls the mood among gay voters a “disappointment canyon” but said they have no choice but to go to the polls.
She, however, is refusing to donate to or volunteer for any candidate this year. And members of her group are protesting wherever Obama appears on the campaign trail.
“We can’t not take advantage of the right to vote, but that doesn’t mean we can’t vote smartly,” said McGehee, of Fresno, Calif. “If I was a leader in the Democratic Party, I would be worried.
“Either we’re important enough to fight for our equality or we’re worth losing,” she said. “Right now we’re being treated like we’re worth losing.”