Debating the way forward for marriage equality

August 12, 2009

Chuck Stemke, Ragina Johnson, Zakiya Khabir, Ashley Simmons and Cecile Veillard, activists in the fight for marriage equality in California, report on a recent summit that exposed differences in strategy among some groups in the movement for same-sex marriage rights--and a debate over whether it's too soon to push for full equality.

THE PASSAGE of California's Proposition 8 in last November's election not only ended the four-and-a-half-month period in which same-sex couples were able to legally marry in California, but it also proved to be the last straw for a whole new generation of activists. Since the vote, thousands have committed themselves to winning back marriage equality, once and for all.

The scale and tempo of the movement has been remarkable--it amounts to the greatest resurgence of LGBT activism in decades. In addition to longstanding organizations that over the years focused on fundraising in order to fuel a lobbying machine, there now exists, in cities large and small across California, activists and organizations who meet regularly to organize, discuss and protest.

Many of these people trace their involvement back to the "No on 8" campaign and the feeling that the measure passed narrowly due to the superior organization of right-wing homophobes--and this was made possible by a very expensive but lukewarm "No" campaign that shied away from a frank discussion of same-sex marriage.

Protesters bring the demand for a repeal of Prop 8 to California's capital, Sacramento
Protesters bring the demand for a repeal of Prop 8 to California's capital, Sacramento (Fritz Liess)

Part of the process since the election has focused on efforts to unite the movement statewide, and use the new momentum to get back on the path toward winning. To this end, there have been a series of regional meetings and statewide summits to bring together local activists and, significantly, a growing cadre of organizers.

The first of these were held in big cities shortly after the election, and major protests took place as a result. These meetings were organized by well-connected and moderate groups like Equality California (EQCA) and others that made up the core of the No on 8 campaign, and were an attempt at damage control--to bring back on board those looking for a different, more radical way forward.

But as the months of organizing have rolled on, the character of the summit process has changed--the new generation has begun to assert itself and mount an ever-more serious challenge for an assertive, immediate campaign to overturn Prop 8 at the next opportunity, the 2010 election.

In late May, following a demonstration in the Central Valley city of Fresno--called "Meet in the Middle"--many of the new grassroots groups participated in a leadership summit that brought together groups and activists from all over the state who were organizing for LGBT rights.

Unfortunately, the grassroots voices calling for a ballot campaign in 2010 weren't heard. Instead, EQCA, which helped run the last No on 8 campaign, has urged patience, while at the same time not allowing for criticism of the last campaign.

This was a frustrating experience for many. The most important decision-making sessions of the summit were left to the end of the agenda, and with each session running over time, they were ultimately cancelled. Nothing concrete about a ballot campaign emerged, but there was one take-away: There would be a "Get Engaged Tour" of town hall-style meetings in 80 cities, with the aim of taking the temperature of the movement and community. At the meetings, there would be a presentation of polling data.

Many reports from the Get Engaged meetings described carefully coordinated presentations that made the political atmosphere seem very menacing.

In the presentations by meeting organizers, neither the rise in grassroots activism nor the victories for same-sex marriage in other states, from Iowa to New England, were promoted as important to the next No 8 campaign. More conservative strategic conclusions were heavily promoted, while favorable poll data--such as findings that four-fifths of Californians are for same-sex marriage or civil unions, or that 70 to 80 percent of people who know of an LGBT family member support equal marriage rights--was glossed over.

Based on the presentations, one wouldn't think that anything had changed for the marriage equality movement in the last nine months.

Most Get Engaged meetings ended with a nonbinding vote on whether to go back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012, and in big cities, there was overwhelming support for 2010 expressed at the meetings. But rather than release the vote counts, Get Engaged organizers presented the range of opinions of attendees across the state--and they centered on the conclusions drawn long before by EQCA and other like-minded groups.


THE DIFFERENCES over 2010 or later revealed themselves at the most recent summit on July 25.

Approximately 200 activists from across the state gathered in a San Bernardino church for the meeting, hosted by the local group Equality Inland Empire (EQIE) and funded by EQCA and the Courage Campaign. Also present in numbers were activists from Marriage Equality USA, Yes! On Equality, Love Honor Cherish, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and local groups like One Struggle One Fight (OSOF) from San Francisco, the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME), and Out West from Los Angeles.

Although the agenda was developed through a reasonably collaborative process, there was a major effort to avoid a conclusive floor debate on what has become the key question: whether or not to mount a 2010 ballot campaign to restore same-sex marriage in California. At the end of a day-long meeting, the feeling that a decision had to be made could no longer be contained, tempers flared, and the summit fell into disarray--exactly what everyone wanted to avoid.

Despite the inconclusive finish, those who favor the 2010 initiative feel emboldened by a couple group decisions:

The room was split exactly on the question of how to proceed, with half saying there should be yet another meeting to decide, and the other half saying the 2010 advocates should go ahead and start organizing themselves

At the height of the chaos, with some people heading for the exits, a nonbinding straw poll showed 93 people in favor of 2010, 49 wanting to wait for 2012 or later, and 20 abstaining. Groups favoring a 2010 campaign announced they would be meeting in Los Angeles on August 9.

We feel the debate has become unnecessarily polarized, personal and removed from the kinds of discussions we need to be having with each other right now. Although we are enthusiastically supportive of the 2010 ballot initiative, we don't make any accusation that those who oppose it do so with bad intentions.

We have to take a realistic view: there are organizations like EQCA that are very reluctant to part with their hard-earned war chests to embark on a campaign they can't control and aren't convinced can win--at least not yet. They and others, like the signatories to the open letter "Prepare to Prevail," have posited a number of legitimate concerns about the viability of a 2010 campaign. Many of our friends and allies share these concerns.

Recognizing the enormity of the task ahead of us, and that we need everyone, the remainder of this article will be devoted to addressing some of the key issues in the debate from the perspective of socialist activists.


Finances: Much attention has been paid to the topic of finances in the debate about whether to pursue a campaign to overturn Prop 8 in 2010 or 2012.

The importance of money can't be discounted in a ballot campaign. LGBT rights supporters were rightly shocked that Prop 8 passed despite the fact that the No on 8 campaign raised an estimated $43 million, versus $39.9 million for the the Yes on 8 campaign.

The No on 8 campaign insisted until the very end that it didn't have enough finances to reach adequate numbers of voters. However, the way in which the money was spent has to be a question for debate and criticism. The majority of the campaign money went to a media campaign that did not prominently feature LGBT couples or families, or directly address homophobia, and very little money or effort was put into grassroots mobilization.

The movement that has emerged in the streets since the passage of Prop 8 is truly priceless in having created "earned media," as various participants at the July 25 summit pointed out. Sean from SAME in San Diego posed the question this way: "How do we quantify the effectiveness of 'visibility' from activism?" One campaign expert, Paul Mandabach, related the story of the Arizona effort to have Martin Luther King Day recognized a holiday. The initiative started out far behind in the polls, but won, because 50 percent of the campaign budget was dedicated to grassroots organizing.

The recent "Prepare to Prevail" letter raised the concern that donors to a 2010 campaign "will be constrained given the current unprecedented economic downturn."

First of all, it needs to be recognized that the costs of media campaigns vary dramatically because of timing. As Sheri Sadler, a media consultant, pointed out at the summit, the cost of TV and radio ad spots in the 2010 election would be nearly half as much as in 2008, given the poor state of the economy and the opportunity to buy ad slots early. Sadler estimated that the total savings for a 2010 campaign in comparison to the No on 8 campaign would as much as $20 million.

Ultimately, though, it will be the political character of the campaign to win same-sex marriage in California that will both win votes and donations.

As Sarah Callahan of the Courage Campaign said, "No one is going to invest in chaos. The money will come if you can show you can win." Instead of the ultimately ineffective strategy of the No on 8 campaign, we must organize a diverse, broad-based coalition effort now. A successful signature-gathering campaign can prove itself to donors, small and big. Through grassroots activism, we can make the decisive political shifts in California to win back marriage equality.


How to win support: Those who are in favor of waiting to go to the ballot in 2012 forces aren't just the high-paid consultants of statewide fundraising machines. Many are people working hard in areas where there is less support for marriage equality, and they aren't seeing firsthand the strength of the new movement.

Some worked in the No on 8 campaign and were discouraged from doing voter persuasion in communities of color. Some live in non-urban areas where the impact of the post-Prop 8 protests and demonstrations has not been fully felt yet. These forces that have coalesced around the "Prepare to Prevail" statement argue that more time is needed to develop an effective strategy for reaching out to these communities, and that "anything short of a broad coalition of allies would place our campaign in a strategic disadvantage from the onset."

But a new kind of campaign has already emerged in the eight months since the election. In San Diego and Long Beach, labor and LGBT activists have united against Doug Manchester, owner of the downtown Grand Hyatt hotel, over his treatment of workers and his $125,000 donation in support of the marriage ban. In Oakland and Los Angeles, door-to-door canvassing is happening in areas that voted decisively to implement the marriage ban. LGBT people are out as they demonstrate against California budget cuts, for the rights of undocumented residents, and as opponents of war.

Campaign strategists are accustomed to measuring success based on polls and precinct walking results. They speak of changing "hearts and minds" one conversation at a time.

But the post-Prop 8 generation of LGBT activists have recognized that true solidarity with other struggles for justice will have a far greater effect. Thus, when Chicago's "Day Without A Gay" march joined the rally for the workers who occupied the Republic Windows & Doors Factory, an important alliance was formed.

This new movement has given closeted people the strength to come out, allowed private supporters of equality to announce it publicly, and given confidence to those who have quietly suffered the indignity of second-class citizenship to loudly demand equal treatment under the law.


Diversity: At the July 25 meeting, presenters from the Jordan/Rustin Coalition (JRC), representing the "Prepare to Prevail" side of the debate, were pessimistic about our chances for repealing Prop 8 in 2010, after mainstream polls (though they were later discredited) blamed Black voters for Prop 8's victory.

It is now well known that people of color groups were left out of organization in the No on 8 campaign, even as some wanted to be included. No doubt an inclusive campaign to repeal Prop 8 in 2010 will be much more successful if groups like the JRC are not only included, but brought into equal partnership with other organizations. Activists experienced in grassroots campaigns know that the more diverse voices that are included in its planning, the more successful a campaign will be.

It's understandable that if the JRC felt disempowered from participating as equal partners in the last campaign, they might lack optimism about the success of another following so soon. The way to overcome these fears is to reassure activists that a grassroots campaign wants to include them in a coalition to repeal Prop 8 in 2010.

Unfortunately, in the JRC's presentation at the summit, its members stated that there has been no movement in California polls on support for marriage equality since 2005. This is refuted by a number of recent surveys and studies.

On July 28, Physorg.com (a site that publishes studies on topics from chemistry and biology to nanotechnology), shared the results of work by Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips, two political science professors at Colombia University, who say, "According to [our] analysis, the growth in support of gay rights is accelerating. Roughly half of the change in support nationwide has occurred in the last four years alone."

This new study, combined with results of polls like one done by SurveyUSA in November that indicates up to 8 percent of "yes" voters said they would vote differently if given another opportunity, following the huge street protests against Prop 8.


VOLUNTEERS WHO worked hard on the No on 8 campaign will remember, regretfully, that the anti-equality campaign was able to turn voter opinion dramatically from a strong lead in "no" votes to a narrow "yes" victory in a few short weeks leading up to November 4. But an effective campaign run by our side has the same potential to turn the tide back (if, indeed, that tide has not been turned already). Instead of just three months, however, we'll have much longer--15 months from now until the 2010 election.

Plus, there is the experience of the No on 8 campaign last time, and what people have learned from it. As grassroots organizers insist, and as strategists are hearing loud and clear, the next No on 8 campaign will need to be based on the principles of being out, proud and aggressively in favor of same-sex marriage rights, rather than being apologetic and defensive.

Since same-sex couples have nothing to apologize for in demanding their full rights, no campaign should act like they do--and we know that now.

What we have now that wasn't present during the No on 8 campaign is a movement with the numbers and level of organization to defeat Prop 8 defenders both ideologically and in terms of our visibility. With the movement's current size, our side will be able to put into the field much more publicity, from bumper stickers and lawn signs to banners over freeway overpasses.

And this time, we should organize counter-demonstrations to any fundamentalist "prayer rallies" that might be called to defend Prop 8. In fact, with so many faith leaders on our side, we can and should empower those faith leaders to speak publicly for equality--as our faith leaders are in fact so eager to do. They have the ability to reframe the debate on religious freedom--to point out that, in fact, it is their religious freedoms, as equality-loving faith leaders, that have been taken away, now that the marriages they sanctify cannot be recognized by the state.

In this way, a movement like ours can force people of a more narrow faith to make a choice between following their leaders' restricted teachings, or standing up for the legal equality and rights of their own neighbors and family members.

Visible support for repeal of Prop 8, besides creating an atmosphere of hope for supporters of LGBT rights, would also have a more tangible consequence of empowering more LGBT people to come out safely and comfortably to their families, friends and co-workers. Polling shared during the "Get Engaged Tour" showed that knowing an LGBT person or having one in their family is the strongest determinant in a voter's likelihood to support marriage equality.

It only makes sense, of course, that few people would choose to continue to support a discriminatory policy that restricts the rights of their own friends, family members and co-workers.

We have the momentum now to make a campaign to repeal Prop 8 in 2010 visible enough to win by a possible landslide--and to make LGBT people more visible, and thereby safer and more respected in their communities in the process, which may be an even more important win in the long term.

On the other hand, if we wait until 2012 to move forward on repealing Prop 8, that momentum could be lost. And that would be a shame for a newly born movement that is screaming to take its first breaths.

Note: An initial version of this article wrongly characterized Marriage Equality USA as having helped run the No on 8 campaign and incorrectly stated that the group had a "war chest" to contribute to a future campaign to overturn Prop 8. The authors regret the error.

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