The fight for Referendum 71

October 26, 2009

SEATTLE--Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Washington state are facing a crucial vote. Voters are choosing whether to approve or reject SB 5688--a domestic partnership expansion bill passed earlier this year by the state legislature and signed into law by the governor in May.

The law would grant the rights of civil marriage in Washington state--like sharing health benefits and death benefits, and hospital visitation rights--to same-sex couples and heterosexual partners where at least one of the two people is over the age of 62, without calling it "marriage." Everyone registered to vote in Washington state should vote to approve Referendum 71 and protect the rights of LGBT couples and seniors.

This "Everything but Marriage" law--as it is referred to by its supporters--is the culmination of a strategy of working toward marriage equality by first creating the domestic partnership category for same-sex couples, and then adding more and more rights until domestic partners have the same state-granted rights as married couples do, just without the name.

This step-by-step approach to LGBT rights was developed by Equal Rights Washington--the primary state-based LGBT lobbying group--along with its Democratic Party allies in the legislature as a response to the Washington State Supreme Court's 2006 decision to uphold the state's Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in 1998 without much public mobilization against it.

Of course, these domestic partnerships will only grant same-sex couples the more than 300 state-based rights of married couples, but not the more than 1,000 rights granted at the federal level. Still, a victory in approving Referendum 71 will give a boost of confidence to pro-LGBT forces and demoralize the right-wing bigots that oppose same-sex domestic partnerships.

THE CAMPAIGN to reject Referendum 71 is being spearheaded by a coalition that calls itself the Washington Values Alliance, which is made up of a handful of far-right organizations that oppose LGBT rights on principle. One of the group's TV ads begins with a voice declaring, "In the beginning, God...formed man...and brought woman unto the man. Thus, God established and defined marriage between a man and a woman."

In a recent e-mail to supporters of Protect Marriage Washington--a leading group in the Reject 71 campaign--state Sen. Val Stevens wrote:

Could this be the final battle?

Are the homosexuals finally going to take control of our culture and push their depraved lifestyle on our children and families?

Do you realize what is going on here? Consider the following:

In 1970, (on the heels of a "free love" 60's radical culture) sodomy laws were repealed in Washington state, with government turning a blind eye to a behavior commonly considered perversion--and still the case with a majority of Americans.

Stevens went on to complain, "After 27 years of relentless pursuit, homosexuals finally received protected class status from the Washington state legislature in 2006, making it illegal for you to refuse to rent them a house, or hire them on account of their homosexuality."

A quick Internet search of Washington Values Alliance endorsers reveals that they also share a much broader program that includes opposition to women's rights to reproductive freedom; a virulent racist agenda that targets immigrants and people of color; and an anti-union, anti-labor platform. With typical "family values" hypocrisy, one of the co-founders of Protect Marriage Washington--Larry Stickney--has been married three times and divorced twice since the 1980s and allegedly has a history of domestic violence.

These bigots represent a minority of Washington voters. Nearly 66 percent of Washingtonians support marriage equality, domestic partnerships or civil unions for LGBT couples.

The vote, however, is tilted against pro-LGBT forces. First, this is an odd-year election. In odd-year elections, voter turnout tends to be very low, and the voters who do turn out tend to be older and more conservative. In fact, the average age of odd-year voters is 59. Secondly, a right-wing anti-government spending initiative is also on the ballot and is helping to mobilize further conservative turn out.

Currently, the poll numbers are slightly in favor of Referendum 71. According to a recent Elway Poll of likely voters, 46 percent will approve the law and 41 percent will reject it with 13 percent undecided. Stuart Elway, an independent pollster who has been tracking public opinion on gay rights issues for years, reports considerable confusion about what an affirmative or negative vote means on R-71. The simple message is this: a vote to approve 71 is a vote to approve LGBT rights.

THE APPROVE 71 campaign--led by a coalition called Washington Families Standing Together--has been endorsed by more than 260 community organizations, including 31 organizations that represent or serve communities of color. The coalition includes religious organizations, labor, health advocacy organizations, and cultural and social organizations. The campaign has also received significant financial support from the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and locally based corporations like Microsoft, Boeing and Nike.

Unfortunately, the Approve Referendum 71 campaign's strategy has taken some pages from California's "No on Proposition 8" campaign playbook. Officials have instructed volunteers not to discuss equality or civil rights, but rather "shared values," in an effort to reach the "moveable middle" and avoid "conflict." The words "gay," "same-sex" and "LGBT" are absent from most of the official Approve 71 materials.

Initially, the campaign even seemed to bypass the LGBT community altogether by focusing on the specific protections for senior citizens that the law would provide. But of the more than 5,000 registered domestic partnerships in Washington state, more than 93 percent are gay or lesbian couples.

As the election has drawn closer, the campaign is focusing its efforts on phone banking, door-to-door canvassing and fundraising. Still, the official campaign completely ignored and abstained from the large visibility potential presented by the local events in solidarity with the National Equality March in Washington, D.C.

But there has also been a real grassroots surge of independent organizing that's now pulled the campaign in a more activist direction. Independent activists, sometimes with the support of the official campaign and sometimes without, have organized visibility actions, sign-waving, pub crawls, leafleting at Mariners' baseball games and music festivals, and poster distribution in order to increase voter turnout.

One independent organizer, Josh Castle, took it upon himself to use the social networking site Facebook to organize large tablings in downtown Seattle and the Capitol Hill "gay-borhood" to promote the "Approve 71" message, pass out literature, raise money and sign up new volunteers. Castle and others also organized "cheer teams" to do outreach and education at the local bars.

When five radio stations recently began airing deceptive ads that encouraged people to reject Referendum 71 on the basis that LGBT rights are a distraction from issues like job losses and foreclosures, activists began a call-in campaign demanding that stations take the ads off the air. Within 24 hours, three radio stations had pulled the ad.

Approving 71 is part of the effort to oppose right-wing attacks on LGBT rights. If the bigots are not turned back, they will keep going on the offensive, spreading their hatred and discrimination.

But even if Referendum 71 and same-sex domestic partnerships are approved, LGBT people in Washington state still won't have full civil rights under the law. Coming out of this campaign, local activists will have to join the Equality Across America campaign and take the fight for equality to the federal level.

Further Reading

From the archives