WASHINGTON - In what was billed as the first-ever presidential forum devoted to gay rights, seven Democratic candidates delivered strong statements of support yesterday for gays and lesbians on issues ranging from allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military to guaranteeing government benefits for same-sex couples.
At the same time, the leading Democratic candidates grappled, sometimes awkwardly, with the volatile issue of gay marriage, an idea that only the longest shots in the nomination contest are willing to endorse wholeheartedly.
Gay rights activists said afterward that the event, held less than a month after the Supreme Court's landmark case establishing gay rights as a basic constitutional right, showed how much progress their cause has made in recent years.
The forum was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, which calls itself the nation's largest gay rights advocacy group, and featured questioning of the candidates by newsman Sam Donaldson before an audience of about 600 activists.
The candidates were in almost complete agreement on many issues, including the question of supporting congressional action to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell policy" for gays and lesbians in the military.
According to written answers submitted in advance by their campaigns, only Florida Sen. Bob Graham declined to support repeal. Graham did not appear at the forum, nor did North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The seven who did take part made it clear that, when it comes to what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently called America's "culture war," they are firmly on the side of gay rights.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts set the tone, boasting that he had the "broadest, strongest and longest record of support" on issues of concern to homosexuals.
"Before Ellen DeGeneres, before Will and Grace, before anyone knew who Melissa Etheridge was ... when it was radioactive" to favor gay rights, Kerry said, he proposed gay civil rights legislation in Congress.
But like other leading contenders, Kerry shied away from the idea of same-sex marriage, drawing hisses from the audience when he said that "marriage is viewed as a union between men and women."
Kerry seemed to hint that he might favor gay marriage, if the idea were more popular politically and could win support in Congress. But "at this particular moment in time, I don't believe that exists," he said.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri also said legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples is "the way to go" because it is "something that can be accomplished." Vermont is the only state with a civil union statute, which extends all state benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
Gephardt drew applause when he said that he and his wife Jane "joined PFLAG" (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) after their daughter, Chrissy, divorced her husband about a year and a half ago, announced that she was gay and moved in with a lesbian partner.
His daughter, who joined Gephardt at a news conference, disagreed with his opposition to gay marriage.
Republicans have already signaled their intention to inject the issue into next year's election, proposing a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. All nine Democratic candidates oppose the amendment, which has drawn the support of Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, though President Bush has not endorsed it.
Even former Gov. Howard Dean, who signed Vermont's civil-unions law in 2000, said "marriage should be left to the churches." He opposes a federal same-sex marriage law, saying the states should decide. Dean said a same-sex American couple that goes to Canada and gets married should be entitled to the same federal benefits as other married couples.
Only former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton endorsed gay marriage.
Sharpton drew the loudest reaction when he said that asking whether he supports gay marriage "is like asking do I support black marriage or white marriage, because the inference of the question is that gays and lesbians are not human beings that can make decisions like any other human being."
The event showed that all the Democratic contenders want to provide equal rights, benefits and protections to gay couples and their families, said Elizabeth Birch, HRC's executive director, though Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman would review existing federal programs before deciding which ones to extend to same-sex couples.
"The news today is a forum like this has never happened" before, said Birch, noting the candidates' struggles with the "hot-button issue" of gay marriage.
According to HRC, more than 1,000 federal benefits and privileges, such as joint filing of tax returns and Social Security survivor's benefits, apply only to married couples, not those in civil unions, a situation Birch compared to separate-but-equal schools during segregation.
Until the public understands the distinction between the religious marriage ritual and the secular marriage contract with the state, she said, and doesn't "automatically think that the candidate is coming after their sacred, holy union, I think you're going to find candidates shying away from that word `marriage.'"
Public opinion does not support gay marriage, she said, "but it is certainly trending in a positive direction."