Lessons of the defeat in Maine

November 11, 2009

Our discussion of strategy after the setback for marriage equality in Maine needs to be guided by a vision of what it will take to win full equality, says Ann Coleman.

I WAS part of a group of more than 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists who rallied in Boston November 4 in response to the vote on Question 1 that overturned marriage equality in the neighboring New England state of Maine.

At the rally, sponsored by Join the Impact Massachusetts (JTIMA), the activists there asked a series of questions: Why did we lose? What can we learn from a comparison with Washington state, where our side won? What kind of movement is needed to win full LGBT equality across the U.S.?

Certainly the passage of Referendum 71 in Washington state--which confirms a law that gives domestic partners most of the same rights as married couples, though not marriage itself--is welcome after the defeat of marriage equality with California's Proposition 8 last year. But the passage of Question 1 in Maine--which overturned the state's gay marriage law--is a disappointment and a setback for LGBT rights activists.

Do these election results show us that the people of Maine are less committed to equality than those in Washington state? Does it tell us that society isn't ready for marriage equality? The answer to both of questions is no.

Mainers rally against the Question 1 same-sex marriage ban in Portland
Mainers rally against the Question 1 same-sex marriage ban in Portland (Bryan Bruchman)

Unfortunately, the No on 1 campaign in Maine was coordinated by the same forces that won marriage equality in the state legislature, with a very narrow, lobbying-oriented approach. The key strategists saw supporters of marriage equality merely as voters and volunteers, rather than potential activists for a grassroots movement that could link up with struggles beyond the LGBT community.

The No on 1 campaign appeared to be the only viable option for activists who wanted to get involved. Thus, JTIMA mobilized about 40 volunteers over the past several months to assist with the campaign effort.

Many of the participants in the get-out-the-vote drive were still relatively new LGBT activists. They've gained a certain level of confidence and experience over the last year by organizing rallies, demonstrations and panels around transgender rights and marriage equality, and by mobilizing for the National Equality March last month.

Many of these activists poured their energy and time in the final weeks canvassing and phone banking in Maine--and they were saddened and demoralized when the election results were announced.

At the November 4 rally, there was plenty of anger and frustration, too. Many new activists wanted to step up the fight for equality, but few understood where to place the blame. Some anger was directed at the entire state of Maine, with calls for boycotts of tourism and lobsters. Others simply concluded that homophobia had won. Most, however, wanted to dissect the No on 1 campaign to find flaws in its strategy, or blame other activists for failing to make Maine their top priority.

But the fact is that our side had more money and more people on the ground in the final weeks. That money was used to run TV and radio ads more often and provide transportation for volunteers and voters. And unlike the campaign against Prop 8 in California last year, pro-LGBT equality groups held rallies and demonstrations.

The effort to build a grassroots campaign came too late. And campaign strategists attempted to keep the issue of marriage equality separate from transgender rights issues, as well as other issues facing the working people of Maine.

BUT BEYOND the methods used in the Maine campaign, there's an even bigger problem--the notion that our basic civil rights should be up for a vote. Either our federal government grants us all rights under the 14th Amendment, or some of us will be treated like second-class citizens. There's no middle ground.

By limiting our movement to a state-by-state strategy, we play into the hands of our enemies. In Washington state and Maine, the ballot initiatives exposed the depth of deception and bigotry of organized right-wing forces determined to overturn any legislative gains made for LGBT people.

Referendum 71 was launched by the Washington Values Alliance in an attempt to overturn Senate Bill 5688--signed into law in May, the legislation expanded domestic partnership rights in Washington state to the same state rights granted to heterosexual married couples. In Maine, Question 1 was launched by the group Stand for Marriage Maine to overturn a law granting same-sex marriage that was passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci in May.

Many people find the state voter initiative process invigorating, especially compared to the corporate-dominated politics of Washington, D.C. In reality, the referendum process can be used to confuse voters and shape public debate in a way that's far too limiting to achieve the fundamental changes needed to win full LGBT equality. And the same money and big players who dominate Washington politics have found a way to hijack the state referendum process, utilizing it as a way to illustrate that "the people" are not ready for progress.

While watching the returns on Referendum 71 and Question 1 on election night, I was reminded of the lessons of the civil rights movement.

Civil rights activists started organizing as early as 1945, when African American soldiers came back from fighting for "freedom" in the Second World War, only to find that they still lived under segregation and were denied voting rights. The initial gains were modest and often met by violent repression. But at every step of the way, activists were organizing an independent movement that aimed to pressure those in power to come down on the right side of history.

Whether it was the fight to desegregate schools or the struggle for social and economic justice, the mass civil rights movement that developed through the 1950s and '60s did more to change the public debate on the issues and gain protections under the law than any single campaign tied to electoral politics.

By contrast, the effort to win LGBT rights over the last 20 years has been relegated to a piecemeal, "time is on our side" approach. Calls to wait, be patient and let others work through the legislative process has not only demobilized our side, but cut us off from potential allies. If we wage a clear and uncompromising fight for equality, we have a better chance to win allies among those who see the connections to their own struggles for justice and equality.

What's more, the state-by-state strategy diverts us from taking on the federal laws that give cover to the anti-gay bigots. As long as the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy remain intact, the struggle for LGBT equality will be shaped by the right wing and leave the door open to further discrimination.

WE NEED to look critically at the mainstream press and publicly debate the issues before us. We need to talk to our neighbors, coworkers and classmates to find out how the struggle for equality fits into a struggle against corporate-dominated politics--and organize ourselves to create the change we desire.

If there was ever any doubt about whether ordinary people would stand up for equality, the grassroots push in the final weeks around Question 1 showed us the way forward, even if it came up short. Moreover, the Gallup organization has collected data showing a dramatic increase in support for lesbian and gay rights in the workplace--from 56 percent support for equal rights in the workplace in 1978 to topping 80 percent in 1993.

If in 2008, 89 percent of the public thinks that homosexuals shouldn't be discriminated against in the workplace, the challenge for us is how to turn that sentiment into an organized force that's willing to stand up and push for LGBT equality in all matters of civil law--no matter who's in office.

The defeat for marriage equality in Maine must be seen from that perspective. Our discussion of strategy and tactics must be guided by a vision of what it is going to take to win full equality--and nothing less.

Further Reading

From the archives