March 29, 2012 at 10:25 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
In 2012 election, are women the new gay?

National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill (photo by NOW via

Move over gays. The dominant social issue heading into the 2012 election isn’t marriage or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but a topic many thought was resolved decades ago: women’s rights.

Republican presidential candidates rail against Planned Parenthood; the Senate votes on allowing employers to opt out of providing birth control coverage; and Republicans derail legislation aimed at helping women who are victims of domestic violence. As a result, some are asking: Are women the new gay?

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said women’s rights have become the No. 1 social issue — creating a “truly unprecedented war against women” — because of the Tea Party’s success in the 2010 elections.

“In addition to health care services, this war on women really includes repeated efforts by conservative lawmakers to slash social programs, like Head Start and after-school programs and family planning centers as well as Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security,” O’Neill said. “These are all programs that women disproportionately rely on.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said women’s issues are a prominent part of public discourse in 2012, but not in a way that separates them from LGBT rights or other social issues.

“There are many women who are lesbian, bisexual and transgender,” Carey said. “If you look at Planned Parenthood, we know that many members of the LGBT community rely on Planned Parenthood for health services, so even if we’re looking at the attacks on Planned Parenthood — these are not separate from the attacks on our own community.”

Republican presidential candidates have criticized President Obama for instituting a regulation requiring employers — even religious organizations — to provide birth control as part of insurance coverage to female employees. In February, the rule was amended so companies with a moral objection could opt out of such coverage, but in their stead, the private insurers with which the employers contracted would have to offer contraception.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has railed against the change as an affront to religious liberty and attacked contraception, saying it leads to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.

Santorum articulated his views in an interview with a conservative blogger last fall before he became a strong contender in the presidential race.

“One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about is, I think, the dangers of contraceptives in this country,” Santorum said. “The whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Contraception’s OK.’ It is not OK. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Romney, viewed as a more moderate candidate in the race, has also articulated his views on women’s issues, telling a local reporter in Missouri earlier this month that he would “get rid” of Planned Parenthood.

“Of course you get rid of Obamacare, that’s the easy one, but there are others,” Romney said. “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that.”

Romney campaign strategist Eric Fehrnstrom later clarified the former Massachusetts governor was talking about cutting federal funding for the organization.

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has joined the attacks related to contraception. On Feb. 29, he called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” after she gave congressional testimony in support of mandating health insurers to cover contraceptive costs.

“It makes her a slut, right?” Limbaugh said. “It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

Obama personally called Fluke to express solidarity with her after Limbaugh made the remarks. After advertisers began withdrawing from Limbaugh’s show, he apologized, saying his “insulting word choices” were meant to be “humorous.”

Planned Parenthood has taken the brunt of attacks as women’s issues have come to the forefront. In January, the Susan G. Komen organization, the largest breast cancer organization in the country, cut funding to Planned Parenthood after conservative Karen Handel was named senior vice president for public policy.

A public backlash ensued in which Planned Parenthood received nearly $1 million in donations — more than the $600,000 a year that Komen had contributed each year. The next month, Komen’s board of directors apologized, issuing a statement pledging, “to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants.” Handel resigned a few days later.

The emphasis on women’s issues doesn’t mean Republican hopefuls haven’t addressed LGBT issues in their campaigns. Santorum and Romney back a Federal Marriage Amendment and have pledged to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

Still, the discussion of LGBT rights this year hasn’t been as high profile or drawn as much media attention as women’s rights.

And it’s a far cry from 2004 when the issue of same-sex marriage was center stage in the presidential election. The legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to marry gay couples prompted both Democratic candidate John Kerry and former President George W. Bush to repeatedly declare their opposition to same-sex marriage. Bush made support for a Federal Marriage Amendment a cornerstone of his campaign.

Whether women’s issues will remain on the front-burner of the presidential campaign remains to be seen.

O’Neill said she thinks Republicans will drop women’s issues as a point of contention once they settle on Romney as their nominee.

“Mitt Romney is going to run to the center as hard as he can, and he’s going to run away as hard as he can from women’s issues because he gets that this war on women is a losing war for his party,” O’Neill said.

Moreover, LGBT rights might return to the forefront as voters in as many as five states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Maine, Washington and Maryland — take up the issue of same-sex marriage at the ballot.

Carey said she doesn’t want LGBT people to think they’re “off the hook” in the 2012 election because these issues will be coming up soon.

“I have no doubt that as the marriage amendments around the country start heating up, even more than they are now, we might have a similar conversation a few months from now saying, ‘Wow, the dominant conservation in the presidential election has become the marriage amendments,'” Carey said.

The emphasis on women’s issues isn’t just occurring in the national presidential contest; it can be seen at the state level as well.

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed legislation requiring women to have ultrasound exams before electing to have an abortion. The initial bill called for a vaginally invasive form of the examination, but was changed following protests.

At the same time, an anti-gay adoption bill that would allow private adoption agencies to discriminate in placements conflicting with their religious or moral beliefs, including on the basis of sexual orientation, is awaiting McDonnell’s signature.

In some instances, controversy over women’s rights issues has had a direct impact on LGBT issues.

On March 1, the Senate narrowly agreed by a vote of 51-48 to table a measure known as the “Blunt amendment.” Sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the measure was aimed at allowing not only religious groups but any employer with moral objections to opt out of contraception coverage for employees.

Retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) was the only Republican to vote with Democrats to table the amendment. Other Republicans considered to be moderates — such as Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)— voted with their caucus. Democrats joining Republicans were Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

But the amendment was seen as having an impact on LGBT people because its broad language could have also affected the health care services LGBT people receive. According to the Task Force, the measure could have allowed an employer to deny a gay man treatment for HIV/AIDS, hormone therapy for a transgender person or in-vitro fertilization for a lesbian couple.

The same could be said for the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, legislation before the Senate that would extend and strengthen programs working to combat domestic violence. A vote on the bill, which was reported out by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February, is being held up by Republicans.

On March 15, a group of mostly women senators took to the Senate floor to decry Republican obstructionism, saying its passage is necessary to fund programs to help women who are victims of violence or sexual assault. Sen. Barbara Mikuski (D-Md.) was among the lawmakers who spoke out.

“We’ve got to remember our communities and our families, and I think if you’re beaten and abused, you should be able to turn to your government to either be rescued and put you on the path, and also to have those very important programs early on to do prevention and intervention,” Mikulski said.

But the VAWA reauthorization also impacts the LGBT community because it has language extending protections to people in same-sex relationships who are victims of domestic  violence.

The bill would make grants available for programs providing services to LGBT victims of domestic violence. Additionally, the bill contains non-discrimination language prohibiting VAWA grantees from discriminating against LGBT people.

These enumerated protections are among the reasons Republicans are blocking the bill from a Senate vote. During the committee markup of the bill, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) voiced opposition to language protecting undocumented immigrants and expanding powers of Indian tribes as well as provisions for LGBT people.

“I agree that shelters and other grant recipients should provide services equally to everyone, but advocates of this provision haven’t produced data that shelters have refused to provide services for these reasons,” Grassley said. “The provision is a solution in search of a problem.”

Data exists showing that LGBT people are victims of domestic violence and suffer from discrimination when seeking help at shelters. According to a 2010 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 44.6 percent of LGBT domestic violence survivors were turned away by a shelter and 54.4 percent of LGBT survivors seeking an order of protection were denied help.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) articulated the need for LGBT provisions in VAWA reauthorization during her speech, saying opponents refuse to support the bill because of these expanded protections.

“In my view, these are improvements,” Feinstein said. “Domestic violence is domestic violence. I ask my friends on the other side, if the victim is in a same-sex relationship, is the violence any less real? Is the danger any less real because you happen to be gay or lesbian? I don’t think so.”

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and other House Democrats were set to introduce their version of VAWA reauthorization. Like the Senate bill, the House Democrats’ version of the legislation was slated to have enumerated LGBT protections.

The Task Force’s Carey said the joint impact of these measures on women and LGBT people demonstrates the interconnectedness of the two communities.

“What we know, and I think society has learned over the past 40 years is that LGBT people are part and parcel of every other community in this country,” Carey said. “The Blunt amendment and the Violence Against Women Act are two specific examples of where our fates are tied.”

Progressive activists say the takeaway is that the LGBT community and women’s rights advocates should work together in the 2012 election as part of a broader coalition to protect their interests.

Hilary Rosen, a lesbian D.C.-based Democratic activist, also said the new attention to women’s issues demonstrates the need for the progressive coalition to stand together in the election.

“I think it means there is a great alliance forming — more important than in any recent election — among women, LGBT, Latinos and others depending on continued social progress in this country,” Rosen said. “Romney has declared he is going to be the ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ candidate, which means he doubles down on oppositon to all of us.”

Carey emphasized the importance of all elements of the progressive community standing together with women.

“One, we have shared opponents and shared future, and two, we are women, too,” Carey said. “Two, speaking as a lesbian myself, it’s hard to discern if there’s an attack on women, I can’t just put away my lesbian self for the night.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Good column and it points out that even when one thinks their rights are safe you must be vigilent. Whether it is women, members of the LGBT communiyt, the Latino or African American community we always need to support politicians that understand two things: that diversity in this country is a good thing and that the rights of minorities and women must always be protected.

    I had the good fortune to be able to work with many of the leaders of the women’s movement in the 70s including Bella Abzug and I recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post suggesting that the women’s movement needs to be reinvigorated with the daughters and granddaughters of those valient women,.

    I am glad to see this column in the Blade.

  • According to a recent poll by Pew Research Center, women now favor Obama by a MUCH wider margin than they did in 2008. Perhaps Obama’s re-election has gone from a shoe-in to set in stone?

  • One huge difference in attacking women’s rights vs. LGBT rights: There are a LOT more women than LGBT people combined. It’s mind-boggling how blithely the Republican presidential candidates have thumbed their nose at half the population!!! That seems too foolish to be true. Yet it is. And in this year’s parade of elephants vying to replace President Obama, it’s par for the self-defeating course (have I told them thank you lately?).

  • And if the pet being bathed is a cat, on that point is a distinct danger that there would likely be claws and enamel occupied.
    And to have a child, a dead child at that paraded around for the cameras to see is just ridiculous.
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