Sexual orientation makes surprise appearance as campaign issue

Jon Ward Contributor
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Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck looked surprised and uncomfortable when asked Sunday whether homosexuality is a choice or not. But nonetheless, he said he thought it was.

“I think that birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically you have a choice,” Buck said when asked by David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Buck told reporters on set after the show finished taping that he didn’t understand why he was asked the question by Gregory.

“In 800 interviews, meetings, events, never having been asked that question before. Colorado voters aren’t focused on whether it’s a choice or whatever,” he said.

Indeed, social issues — sexual orientation included — are nowhere near the top of the list of concerns that voters say they are focused on this election cycle.

But comments this week on the issue by President Obama and one of his closest advisers, Valerie Jarrett — as well as recent developments regarding the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — have reinserted the issue into the national discussion.

Obama, asked whether he thought that homosexuality is a choice or not at a “youth town hall” hosted by MTV and BET networks on Thursday, said emphatically that he thinks homosexuality is a genetic trait.

“This is a layperson’s opinion. But I don’t think it’s a choice,” Obama said. “I think that people are born with a certain makeup, and that we’re all children of God. We don’t make determinations about who we love.”

“And that’s why I think that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong,” he said.

Just that morning, Jarrett had apologized for a remark she made a day before. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, Jarrett referred to  homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” when talking about the suicide of a gay Minnesota teen.

Liberal bloggers pounced.

“Valerie Jarrett is an idiot,” wrote Teddy Partridge at FireDogLake.com. “Does Valerie Jarrett live in the early 1990s? Does she really believe that being LGBT is a ‘choice’ and a ‘lifestyle’ — and will she really get away with insulting the memory of a dead gay teen with this horrifying out-of-touch language?”

Michael Petrelis, a gay rights activist in San Francisco, was first to raise the issue.

“What an outrage to claim that the 15-year-old Aarberg made a choice to be gay, and that sexual orientation is a lifestyle,” Petrelis wrote. “Did she get her talking points from Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council? It’s doubly offensive that Capehart makes no effort to point out how dangerous Jarrett’s thinking is.”

By Wednesday evening, Jarrett had e-mailed an apology to Capehart, which he posted on the Washington Post’s website.

“I misspoke when I referred to someone’s sexual identity as a ‘lifestyle choice,'” Jarrett said. “I meant no disrespect to the LGBT community, and I apologize to any who have taken offense at my poor choice of words.”

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are not a choice, and anyone who knows me and my work over the years knows that I am a firm believer and supporter in the rights of LGBT Americans,” she said.

The polar opposite opinions by Democrats and Republicans on the issue are interesting, but are unlikely to play much of a role in the national debate as the Nov. 2 elections approach.

“I’ve not seen any evidence that this is a major issue in any race, including Colorado,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“The dominant issue continues to be the economy and the Democrats’ failure to create jobs,” Walsh said. “In fact, even when Sen. [John] Cornyn spoke to the Log Cabin Republicans last month, jobs, spending and taxes were the issues of discussion.”

Democrats hope that in socially liberal Colorado, Buck’s comments may cost him a point or two in a race that is currently neck and neck.

“It certainly will hurt in individual races,” said Hari Sevugan, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

But Sevugan made no effort to argue that gay rights will play a bigger role in the national debate, instead putting Buck’s comments inside the context of the Democrats’ attempts to paint Tea Party candidates, of which Buck is one, as extreme.

“To the extent that this is now a pattern — across Tea Party-Republican candidates across the country — it gives voters who may be frustrated with the pace of change another reason to pause and say, ‘Do I really want to send a message with this group of extreme folks?'”

“The more average voters learn about the alternative with every outrageous comment by a right wing candidate the more this becomes a choice election rather than a referendum on the national mood,” Sevugan said.

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