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Not In Defense of Bill Richardson

I was all set to write a post defending Bill Richardson's biggest gaffe of last night's candidates' forum*. It wasn't going to be a full-throated defense, since like the other candidates who imagine they have a shot at winning, he's a coward when it comes to LGBT issues. But I did think the criticism was focusing on the wrong place. But then I realized that I was making the same mistake Richardson was. And so this post became a criticism rather than a defense.

The gaffe in question is his declaration (later backpedaled) that homosexuality is a choice:

MS. ETHERIDGE: Thank you.

Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?

GOV. RICHARDSON: It's a choice. It's --

MS. ETHERIDGE: I don't know if you understand the question. (Soft laughter.) Do you think I -- a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, "Ooh, I want to be gay"?

GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, I -- I'm not a scientist. It's -- you know, I don't see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. You know I don't like to categorize people. I don't like to, like, answer definitions like that that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don't understand.

My initial reading, which inspired my initial intent to defend Richardson, was that he was saying something close to my own position: whether or not it's a choice doesn't matter. LGBT people deserve the same rights regardless of why they're LGBT. So while he may have botched the answer and failed to say the right words that would win over the audience, his underlying view was right.

What stopped me from making that defense of Richardson is that, correct though that position may be in an abstract sense and as a reason not to make efforts to harp on the choice question, it's inappropriate, and somewhat paternalistic, as an answer when an LGBT rights organization directly asks you what you think about homosexuality being a choice.

One of the core principles of a truly progressive politics is what I'll call "listening." Listening means that the struggle for a given group's rights should take the experiences of that group as its guideposts. Knowing how to do right by that group has to arise out of hearing and understanding members of that group**. Declaring that homosexuality is not a choice is an important (albeit somewhat stylized) way of expressing one's commitment to listening with respect to LGBT issues, since they overwhelmingly experience homosexuality as not a choice. Saying that homosexuality is definitely not a choice is a way of telling gays and lesbians that you accept their experience as important and definitive. So Richardson's fumbling reference to the uncertain science about the genetic and/or biochemical causes of homosexuality, rather than explaining his position, made it worse -- because it made clear that he didn't grasp that the question was as much about signaling his willingness to listen as it was about his command of psychological facts.

*Defending Bill Richardson will also be a rare occurrence, though probably not as rare as defending Mitt Romney.

**Emphasis on "hearing and understanding" -- listening is not about automatic and condescending deference, it's about really grasping what people are saying (in all its, and your, inevitable partiality and situatedness).


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