Next steps for our movement

June 3, 2009

The California Supreme Court decision upholding Proposition 8 sparked angry protests around the country, but these were just the latest mobilizations for marriage equality since the referendum passed in November.

The weekend after the ruling was announced, some 3,000 people mobilized from across California to the Central Valley city of Fresno for the "Meet in the Middle" rally for equal rights. And now, an October 10-11 date has been set for a national demonstration for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. asked a group of activists and writers to give their views on the movement for marriage equality, and what its next steps should be.

-- John Henning is cofounder of the California-based group Love Honor Cherish.

-- Kip Williams is a cofounder and organizer of the group One Struggle, One Fight, which was formed in the wake of last November's election.

-- Sherry Wolf is a longtime activist and author of the new book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation.

WHAT'S YOUR impression of the state of the struggle coming out of the California Supreme Court decision that upheld Prop 8, and what comes next?

John: I was at the rallies in LA with many members from our group Love Honor Cherish, and we handed out signs that said, "Repeal Prop 8 in 2010." It was almost unanimous as you talk to people that they really want to do this in 2010. And a year and a half is a long time--there'll be plenty of time to change the minds that have to be changed.

People are very much energized and mobilized right now because of what they've seen, so I definitely think that the sense in the community is that it's got to be 2010.

Kip: Since Prop 8 passed last November, there's been a tidal wave of activism here in California--a really fast-and-furious development of new grassroots organizations and new folks at the table.

The organization I've been working with, One Struggle One Fight, reflects what I see all over California right now, which is that there are a lot of young, new activists engaged in the fight who have never been activists before.

The California Supreme Court decision to uphold Proposition 8 was met with large protests

And I also think there are a lot of people on the left who have been activists for a long time, around a wide range of social and economic justice issues, but have never really been that concerned with the marriage issue for a number of reasons. But Prop 8 passing and taking away people's rights brought people into the fold on this issue. So I think there's a whole new network of folks who are fired up and ready to go.

I agree first off with John that 2010 is the year to go back to the ballot--the momentum is growing, and I think the worst thing we could do right now is tell everybody to sit on their hands, and we'll be back on the ballot in three years in 2012.

But also, I'm a big advocate for pushing outside of the borders of California and getting ready for a national movement for full equal protection under the law. I'm a Tennessee boy myself. I've been living in San Francisco for the last three years, but I was born and raised out in Tennessee, and reality back at home is that whatever happens here in California around Prop 8, in the South, things remain the same.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Sherry Wolf, Kip Williams and other activists speak on the panel "Prop 8 is Going Down! Winning Gay Marriage in California" at Socialism 2009 in San Francisco. Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

On November 15 of last year, right after Prop 8 passed, when Join the Impact called for a day of action and more than 300 cities across the world and internationally had folks out protesting at their city halls, I think it really showed us that we're ready to build a national movement for equality--not just the repeal of Prop 8, but for equality outside of California in the rest of the country.

Sherry: On all the protests I've been on, from New York to California and here in Chicago, I think the hope is magnificent and apparent. I'm looking at my e-mail inbox, and I see an openly gay teen was voted prom queen at his Los Angeles high school. It tells you about where opinion is moving in this country.

But I guess I also feel like there's a kind of a hidden danger in some of this, because the inevitability that people feel about this issue can translate into passivity around activism--believing that somehow the politicians or the courts are going to resolve this issue without the active participation of grassroots mobilization around the country.

I think that's a wrong conclusion to draw from what's happening right now, because it's not going to happen. Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the federal government is not going to happen; lifting "don't ask, don't tell" and expanding civil rights for LGBT people in the workplace isn't going to happen without a fight.

John: I agree that there's an enormous amount of work that has to be done in order to actually repeal Proposition 8 in California.

I think that Prop 8 should be the highest priority for the national movement for marriage equality, because getting that repealed will cause a wave across the country. It will also be something affirmative, as opposed to just being on the defensive, and so it's going to be a really transformative process and a transformative moment.

But it's not going to happen without a lot of people doing a lot of work. For one example, just to get a ballot initiative on the ballot, you have to get a million signatures. That will take something like 10,000 person-hours to do. And then, of course, we've got to have all the conversations to change people's votes.

So we have a huge effort in front of us. I think the energy's there, but we're going to have to constantly remind ourselves that we can't expect that somebody else is going to take care of it. That was a big problem in the campaign against Prop 8 last year, before the election. There were a lot of people who thought Prop 8 wouldn't pass, and so they didn't do anything to help make sure it didn't pass--and you can see how that turned out.

So hopefully this time, people will actually follow up their passion with action and spend weekends walking around to get signatures, and then change people's minds.

HOW DO you think the movement should relate to the more established and well-funded equality organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California, where there's a debate about whether we should wait until 2012 to try for repeal?

Kip: Actually, I believe that Equality California has come around and announced that it's ready to move forward in 2010. But the reason that happened is because of the grassroots pressure coming from groups like Love Honor Cherish and Yes on Equality, which are two of the organizations in California that have been paving the way to get back on the ballot in 2010.

I think that the large organizations like Equality California have sat on their hands for too long. In the months after Prop 8 passed, all of the mainstream organizations put all of their energy and focus on the case in the California Supreme Court. It was really the grassroots that said that we're losing all of this time to pave the way for a better campaign next time.

I don't think we have to rehash what the problems were with the No on 8 campaign. We all know what went wrong, and it was really the grassroots that said we're not going to let another campaign be run this way--and while we sure hope that the California Supreme Court does the right thing, we're not going to count on it. We're going to get out and we're going to start doing the work right now.

So I want to say that it's been the work of the grassroots that got the larger, well-funded and more powerful organizations to come around to some common sense. But also I want to say that we need a ballot campaign--but we also need people fighting in the streets. I think it's really important to have a popular movement that goes back to the ballot to repeal Prop 8.

Also, in terms of the national landscape in the fight for equality and civil rights, I think that Prop 8 has been an interesting staging ground to push that fight nationally. Of course, a number of other states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. But California was fundamentally different because it was the first time that right was stripped away from us.

So I think, as John said, the fight to repeal Prop 8 paves the way for change to happen across the country. Repealing Prop 8 in 2010 is pivotal for the national movement, but I also think it's a staging ground to begin talking about national issues. We now have President Obama, who made promises to repeal DOMA and "don't ask, don't tell," and there's been no movement on that--and he stood by while the California Supreme Court affirmed that it's okay for a slim majority of voters to take away a minority group's rights.

Obama was down in Los Angeles the day after the California Supreme Court ruling, and there was a demonstration where folks came out to confront him about "don't ask, don't tell," but also to say that "don't ask, don't tell" isn't the only issue we want to confront him about. There's a broader issue of full equal protection under the law.

Again, I think it's a really great example of how California can pave the way to build a national movement and put pressure on the White House and on our elected legislators for our demand for equal protection in all matters governed by civil law.

Sherry: I agree with Kip's approach. With the Human Rights Campaign and the statewide equality groups, they're not the enemy, but they're also not consistent allies.

But as Kip was explaining, they can be pushed. And they have to be pushed. They have tens of millions of our dollars--money that ordinary people contribute to these organizations, hoping that they're going to represent a fight for equality and a fight for civil rights. But these are people who aren't involved in activism. Their world view is shaped by politicians and wealthy LGBT business people. That's who they tend to cater to, and attempt to appease with their actions.

So, for example, the two attorneys on different sides of the Gore/Bush 2000 presidential case have launched a legal case in federal court to get the Prop 8 marriage ban halted. And I thought it was interesting that the first response of many of the mainstream equality groups was hostility.

It's as if they're saying, "Who the hell are these upstarts to take this to the Supreme Court when we've been working on this for decades." And I thought: "Precisely! You've been working on this for decades, and we still don't have any recognized civil rights in this country." Their strategy has been a failure, and it might be worth re-examining and jettisoning.

About Obama, I watched the coverage of the protest outside his speech the other evening in Beverly Hills. And he did make a joke about the protest, but it wasn't the kind of Bush-style dismissal, like when he said that the huge 2003 antiwar demonstrations were just a focus group, and he didn't pay attention to focus groups. Obama, on the other hand, went on to say that presidents actually should be held accountable for their promises.

So that opens a door to the idea that what we do on the ground--in terms of protest, and getting the signatures to get Prop 8 repealed in California, pushing for a repeal of DOMA federally--will have an effect on what he does. In some ways, Obama is actually saying, "Push me." And I think we ought to take him up on that offer.

We need to push. We need to organize protests and ongoing grassroots activity that presses the mainstream groups to open up their coffers and put money into the kinds of organizing efforts that will really make a difference--that will force the hand of a Democratic-run Congress and the Obama administration.

John: I wanted to say that I agree with Sherry's point about the need to pressure these large equality organizations. The main reason why Love Honor Cherish exists is because we felt last year that the campaign against Prop 8 was not being adequately run by the larger organizations--there was kind of a group-think mentality that resulted in a bad campaign and the avoidance of various issues.

Since November 4, we've been really singularly focused on the fact that we might lose the legal case and if so, we need to go back to the ballot as soon as reasonably possible, which we decided was November 2010. So we've really spent the last six months pressuring and pressuring and pressuring--trying to get other grassroots groups to focus on 2010, because the larger groups weren't. And I do believe, as Kip said, that this pressure is what has caused Courage Campaign and Equality California to start talking about 2010.

These groups need to be constantly pressured. Even now, Equality California is kind of saying "2010 if"--where the "if" is that we have to raise enough money and get enough groups behind our campaign and get a campaign plan going that's going to show us the route to victory. The result is that we're talking about more delays, potentially, in deciding whether we're actually going to go forward with 2010.

So the pressure needs to be applied constantly, because the larger groups tend to be funded by people who are more conservative, and they often don't want to move quite as quickly as other people do.

ALONG THESE same lines, how should activists be viewing the reality of the Democrats in the majority in Congress and in charge of the White House?

John: I'm kind of proceeding without reference to the Obama administration. I've never really had a lot of hope for him on this issue. This is kind of a final frontier, and he's just not ready to get to the final frontier.

The thing that bothers me about Obama is he's always finessing the issue--and I think in some ways, we enable that finessing behavior by coming up with ways for him to do it. I can't be part of that. Other people are good at the whole business of telling Obama that he shouldn't say this, or he should say it a different way, so that he doesn't quite ever say what he really means. So I'll leave that to other people--we're just going to go and fight for our rights, without regard to whether the president wants us to have them or not.

Kip: I really appreciate what John says. I think that there's a strategy going on behind the scenes about when is the "right time" to talk about this issue. And we come from a perspective that it's never the right time for the movement--so it's always the right time for the movement.

But I do believe that we should keep the pressure high, and I do believe that Obama will be moved on this issue. I think that if we want to push for full protection under the law federally, we're going to have to build up the political will of our legislators across the country.

I think we're going to have to frame it as a nonpartisan issue--that we can all agree, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, that people deserve equal protection and civil rights. I do believe that if we keep the pressure high, the White House and our elected legislators across the country are going to come along on this within the next few years.

Right now, I'm sitting in the house of Robin McGhee, who's is the lead organizer on this event "Meet in the Middle" in Fresno in the central valley here in California. And I'm just surrounded by these incredible, amazing organizers from all over the state.

I think this is the first time I've felt that we've had control of the message nationally--we're setting the message that we're demanding this as a civil rights issue. I feel like the anger and the resolve and the hope is just unstoppable. I don't mean to sound young or naïve, but I genuinely believe that as long as we don't shut up, they're going to have to come along.

Sherry: I'm thrilled to hear about the Fresno protest because I think that it's important to get out of the gay-borhoods and cities, and bring people from the Bay Area and LA into places where homophobia is stronger in this country.

I also feel like the time has come for another national protest. We really haven't had a national protest in this country since 1993, and even that one, if you think about it, was organized after the 1992 election, so that no pressure would be put on Bill Clinton before he came into office.

I know there's the beginnings of a push for this coming October in Washington, D.C., and if there was another one on the West Coast, I believe they'd probably draw out at least hundreds of thousands, if not over a million people, for LGBT civil rights, for equal marriage, for lifting "don't ask, don't tell," and for passing an all-inclusive employment non-discrimination act. This is the kind of thing that needs to happen if we're going to put the pressure that's needed on the Obama administration and on Congress--to force their hand to include LGBT people as a constitutionally protected class of people, which we currently are not.

Kip: Actually, there's going to be an official announcement of a call for a march on Washington, D.C., on October 10-11. This is being initiated by Cleve Jones and Torie Osborn and others--we have a Web site up at

The call to action has a single demand of full equal protection on all matters covered by civil law, and the philosophy that we're part of a broader movement for peace and social justice across the world. We believe in a decentralized organizing strategy that involves people organizing by congressional district across the country. So the hope is that the organizing of the march will lay the groundwork for an ongoing infrastructure after the march, based on 435 congressional districts across the country.

Sherry: I'm thrilled to hear that there's a push among people with a profile like Cleve Jones for a national protest.

I feel like one of the next steps nationally over the coming weeks--especially since that protest call is coming out prior to the Gay Pride parades, and of course this is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots--would be to bring a little bit of Stonewall back into gay pride parades this year and have political, civil rights contingents, demanding a repeal of Prop 8 and the other civil rights demands.

The gay pride parades have been far too commercialized for some years now, and devoid of politics in too many places. So it would be a step forward for our struggle if we could have contingents in every city--of political protesters and grassroots activists, making demands and beginning to publicize the October national protest for LGBT civil rights.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor

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