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Melissa Etheridge confronted Hillary Rodham Clinton about her husband's gay rights record, accusing Bill Clinton of throwing gay and lesbian supporters "under the bus" by pushing for the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act. The Democrats' top three candidates, including Clinton, pledged support for gay rights at the first-ever nationally televised same-sex issues presidential forum - but they and other Democratic candidates attending refused to back gay and lesbian marriages.

Facing successive 15-minute interviews by gay rights advocates in Los Angeles last night, Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all vowed to battle for gay, lesbian and transgender rights. But they stopped short of endorsing gay marriage - a hot-button culture-war issue that could alienate millions of independents and religious conservatives.

Etheridge, who announced she was a lesbian shortly after Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, expressed bitterness at his inability to pass gay rights measures he promised during the campaign.

"It was a very hopeful time," she said. "But in the years that followed, our hearts were broken, we were thrown under the bus, we were pushed aside. All of those great promises ... were broken."

Clinton, who had been warmly received by the studio audience, seemed surprised by Etheridge's comments.

"Obviously, Melissa, I didn't see it quite the way you describe it," she said. " ... We didn't get as much done as I would have liked, but I believe there was a lot of honest effort going on."

The candidates appeared in the order they accepted the invitation from the LOGO cable network and Human Rights Campaign, with Obama first - and Clinton last.

"This forum is a real measure of how far we've come as a community, but there are many of us in our community who'd like to see the candidates come farther on gay marriage," said Fred Hochberg, dean of the Milano urban policy institute at New School University, one of Clinton's highest-profile gay supporters.

Suffolk Legis. Jon Cooper, a supporter of Obama who attended the forum, echoed those sentiments, saying, "Although I would love them to come out in support of same sex civil marriage, it's not going to happen right now ... "

The forum underscored the gay paradox in the Democratic Party: The candidates support gay rights but are wary of alienating party conservatives and religious blacks in the South.

Earlier this year, Clinton and Obama angered Human Rights Campaign leaders by refusing to immediately and forcefully rebuke a general's claim that homosexuality was "immoral." They later released statements indicating their disagreement.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel were the only Democrats who have expressed support for gay marriage. Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd, who oppose same-sex marriage, declined the invitation, as did all Republican candidates, including Rudy Giuliani, who supports some gay rights.

All the Democrats in attendance pledged to back broad new anti-discrimination statutes, want to scrap Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for the military, and believe in civil unions that allow same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.

"I'm going to be more sympathetic not because I'm black, I'm going to be more sympathetic because this is the cause of my life," Obama said.

Panelist Jonathan Capehart challenged Obama on his opposition to gay marriage, saying his position was "old school." Obama used the remark to point out he'd been the first candidate to accept LOGO's invitation. "There's a reason why I was here first," he said.

Etheridge challenged John Edwards on his recent comments suggesting he was opposed to same-sex marriage based on his religious convictions.

"I have heard in the past that you felt uncomfortable among gay people," she said. Edwards denied her assertion but offered an apology for linking gay issues and Christianity.

"I shouldn't have said that," he said. "I believe to my core in equality ... I will not impose my faith belief on the American people."

Gay activists react

"I was thinking 'When will they get it that equal means equal?' Senator Obama was talking about how he wanted to extend all rights of marriage to people through civil union. But laws are defined by marriage. Laws are not defined by civil union. We've learned that through New Jersey."

- David Kilmnick, executive director of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth

"I appreciated John Edwards speaking about the homeless teenagers in the L.A. community center. That was something that people didn't talk about yet and it's very important - people getting thrown out of the house because they're gay."

- Lauren Van Kirk, treasurer of the Stonewall Democrats of Suffolk County

"My family comes from the South, so I understand where he's [Obama's] coming from. But between him and Edwards, both of them fall short. They still fall short of calling it marriage. ... Civil union: it's second-class citizenship."

- Sheila Marino-Thomas, data entry worker for Marriage Equality New York, who has been with her partner for 14 years

"It sounded like she [Clinton] was handing the responsibility for moving the ball forward - fighting - and she said 'well, you guys in the human rights campaign are doing the right thing,' as if to say we can't be doing that in the political realm. It's an easier thing to say, rather than saying I'm going to take up that struggle."

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