Raising our voices for equal marriage rights

November 17, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte rounds up reports sent in from around the country on the day of action against Proposition 8 in California.

TENS OF thousands of people gathered in 300 cities across the country November 15 in support of equal marriage rights for all, as the national spotlight settled on a new--and newly invigorated--civil rights movement.

From San Francisco to New York City, from Austin, Texas, to Boise, Idaho, protesters took to the streets in a national day of action to oppose the passage of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that bans same-sex marriage.

The biggest turnouts were, naturally, in California, with around 20,000 people each marching in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Smaller but still impressive numbers attended events in other cities up and down the state--2,000 in San Jose, 1,500 in Sacramento, 1,000 in Santa Cruz.

But supporters of equal marriage are spreading the fight to other cities and states. Some 10,000 people turned out in Boston, 4,000 in New York City, 3,000 in Chicago, 3,000 in Austin, Texas, 1,500 in Portland, Ore., 1,500 in Denver and 500 in Northampton, Mass., to name a few of the demonstration sites.

Crowds of people marched in San Francisco to protest the passage of Proposition 8
Crowds of people marched in San Francisco to protest the passage of Proposition 8 (Josh On | SW)

Coming on the heels of the election of the first Black president and the ousting of George Bush, there was an overriding sense at the demonstrations that history is on our side. One popular chant was "Yes we can!"--a slogan popularized by the Barack Obama campaign, but before that, the popular chant "Sí se puede" that dominated the massive May Day marches of the immigrant rights movement.

The contrast was stark with the 2004 election--when Republicans pushed a series of same-sex marriage ban referendums as the leading edge of their agenda of social conservatism, dealing a blow to the movement that had grown up in the preceding years.

This time, instead of a retreat, the mobilizing began, literally, the night of the election as news broke that Prop 8 had passed, robbing gays and lesbians of their right to marry granted in a California Supreme Court decision in May.

The next evening, at a vigil called in West Hollywood, some 5,000 people poured into the streets to show their anger. Similar acts of defiance took place in other cites.

In San Francisco, two people who had never organized a protest before called for a march on November 7. Using Facebook and a Blogspot Web site, they got the word out, the call was taken up by many others, and some 20,000 people marched from the San Francisco Civic Center to the Castro District.

There were also protests in New York and Chicago, where same-sex marriage rights aren't yet a reality, but where the victory of Prop 8 was bitterly felt. Like in California, the initiative bubbled up from the bottom among people new to activism.

In the following week, people across the country prepared for the "Join the Impact" Equality Now national day of action on November 15.

In San Francisco, some 20,000 people turned out on November 15. Protesters gathered at City Hall--the site where thousands of LGBT couples lined up to get married after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of equal marriage rights.

Speakers at the rally included many from religious and ethnic backgrounds, including a Mormon, a Muslim, a straight Black pastor and others. By taking a public stand in favor of equal marriage rights, these speakers sent a powerful message to the conservative churches--including the Mormon Church, which spent millions of dollars on misleading ads in favor of Prop 8--that pushed the ban: You do not speak for us.

This show of solidarity stood in stark contrast to the claim by the media that African Americans voting in large numbers were to blame for the passage of Prop 8. The link between the fight for equal marriage today and the Black civil rights movement in the 1960s could not be clearer.

One demonstrator carried a sign showing her father and mother, an interracial couple who could not be married in the state of Indiana. "Here it is 50 years later, and I'm going through much the same thing," said B.C. Cliver.

Another protester, Mathew Rome, said, "It's about civil rights. If you look back 40 years ago, there was a similar fight. You convey this, map the similarities between struggles, then we can build this understanding."

After the rally, several thousand demonstrators began a spirited march down Market Street, halting traffic for several blocks while onlookers and delayed bus drivers cheered on the marchers.

Like other recent marches, the November 15 march in San Francisco was organized by a group of individuals who came together after Prop 8 passed, most of whom had never organized a protest before. Cat Kim put out the initial call for volunteers over Facebook after seeing tens of thousands of people march against Prop 8 on November 7. The response, according to Kim, "was phenomenal."

One volunteer, Scott Brogan, who was among the first gay couples to get married in California last June, recounted, "When we were in City Hall getting the marriage certificate, I thought, 'Wow, I really have my civil rights now, I really have equality.' Now that's in jeopardy."

Many protesters reused their No on 8 campaign signs, while more came brandishing homemade signs with slogans such as "Stop the H8" and "Separate is not Equal." According to Brogan, most supporters of gay marriage weren't discouraged by the passage of Prop 8 because it won with such a slim margin. "In school 52 percent is an F, so why should a constitutional amendment pass with an F grade," Brogan said.

In Los Angeles, some 20,000 people converged on City Hall and marched through downtown to call for repeal of Prop 8. The march was planned to end at a city park north of downtown, but most protesters turned around and marched back downtown. Hundreds of people extended the march all the way to Hollywood, six miles away from City Hall.

Protest organizers denounced the scapegoating of African American voters for the passage of Prop 8, with the director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center joining the head of the LA chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in calling for a multiracial struggle for civil rights for all.

In San Diego, the downtown rang with chants of "What do we want? Equal Rights! When to we want them? Now!" and "Gay, straight, Black, white, marriage is a civil right!"

Rally spokesperson Ken Moede said that Prop 8 supporters have "given rise to a whole new generation of activists. [They] have given us the courage and strength to stand up and say we will not accept being second-class citizens. [They] have given us the drive and determination to fight for equality, not just for us, but for everyone."

In Seattle, the November 15 event--which brought out more than nine times the number of people who marched in the last demonstration for marriage equality in 2005--was largely organized by a 21-year-old gay Mormon, Kyler Powell.

"I was kind of outraged with Prop 8, which inspired me to start a protest," Powell said. While involved previously with non-profits and event planning, this was the first protest he'd ever attended.

In Portland, a large crowd came out to a rally held in the South Park Blocks, where speakers expressed the audience's anger that laws like Prop 8 relegate LGBT people to second-class citizenship. The protesters recognized that California is far from the only place where equal marriage rights are under attack. A number of people talked about organizing against Oregon's Measure 36, a ballot measure passed in 2004 that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

WHAT WAS striking about many of the protests was the incredible solidarity--gay and straight, Black, white and immigrant, standing together. "It was as if San Jose had suddenly come out of the closet," wrote one astounded San Jose Mercury News reporter.

J.D. Quintero, a student at San Jose City College who became a naturalized citizen this year, held a sign noting the date of his citizenship, then, "Second-class citizen, November 4, 2008."

If we are going to turn back anti-gay Prop 8, protests like these will be key to building a vocal campaign for equal marriage. And they will build the solidarity necessary for activists in other states to push for their own right to marry.

"We need people to come out to protest to show that this is not about a face hidden away," said Cat Kim. "It's about real people. It makes us feel like a part of the community--like we're not alone."

Added Brogan, "This whole movement seems to be growing. It's not just gays. There are straights and people of color. Because for most people, it's a civil rights issue, and that angers a lot of people."

Jeffrey Boyette, Randy Childs, Rick Greenblatt, Andrea Hektor, Lonnie Lopez and Jerald Reodica contributed to this article.

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