After Amendment 1 in North Carolina

May 16, 2012

Trish Kahle reports from North Carolina on what was behind the passage of an anti-marriage equality referendum--and what LGBT rights supporters are doing now.

NORTH CAROLINA'S Amendment 1--which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and bans any legal recognition of same-sex couples, including civil unions and domestic partnerships--passed by an unexpectedly wide margin on May 8, sending the struggle for LGBT equality into a new phase.

The referendum was approved by 61 percent of voters. But supporters of marriage equality believe this margin doesn't reflect the sentiments of the state's population. More voters on May 8 were Republicans because the GOP presidential primary was the most publicized race of the election. Moreover, the media overlooked the resistance that emerged after Amendment 1 qualified for the ballot--a resistance is already organizing to meet the new challenges.

The sponsors and chief supporters of Amendment 1, many of them Republican lawmakers, were open bigots. For example, state Rep. Paul Stam, the majority leader of the state House, compared same-sex marriage to incest and polygamy. The wife of another sponsor, state Sen. Peter Brunstetter, reportedly told an opinion poll caller that the reason her husband "wrote Amendment 1 was because the Caucasian race is diminishing and we need to uh, reproduce."

Marriage equality supporters are arrested after one demands a marriage license following passage of Amendment 1
Marriage equality supporters are arrested after one demands a marriage license following passage of Amendment 1

Unfortunately, the line currently being spun by state Democrats about their determined opposition to the amendment is a myth. When the measure was first being debated in the state legislature, the strongest argument Democrats would mount was that North Carolina doesn't have a great record on civil rights, and we shouldn't pass something we'll regret in 10 years. There was no denunciation of homophobia.

When the referendum was scheduled for the November election ballot, Democrats urged that it be moved to this May's primary--something Republicans were all too happy to concede--on the pretext of preventing "wedge-issue politics" from interfering with the general election.

In other words, Democrats wanted to avoid taking a stand on this issue during the general election--and in the process, they made an already uphill battle much steeper, since the only major race on the primary ballot was the Republican presidential freak show/nomination.

ONE PART of the right's effort on Amendment 1 that failed was the attempt to pit Black North Carolinians against LGBT people--part of a nationwide strategy made explicit in a leaked National Organization for Marriage memo explaining its plans to "drive a wedge between gays and Blacks." This strategy failed so miserably that one result of the fight against Amendment 1 has been the strengthening of ties between anti-racist organizing and organizing against homophobia.

The state NAACP, led by Rev. William Barber, spent the spring campaigning against Amendment 1 across the state. A caucus of Black clergy made a formal statement opposing the referendum. As one activist described her time outside a polling station in one of Greensboro's predominantly Black neighborhoods: "It was all these old folks who look like my grandparents, straight-up old-school Black folks, and they were all voting against and proud of it. One person realized his son hadn't voted and returned with him 10 minutes later, after clearly dragging him out of bed."

Coalitions formed to fight Amendment 1--particularly All of Us NC, which centered around community based organizing, and We Are, which focused on organizing high school and college students--adopted explicitly antiracist stances, clearly articulating that we must fight back against the right on all fronts, and fight together. Thus, anti-Amendment 1 activists were central to the organizing around fighting the opening of a new prison, demanding justice for Trayvon Martin and trying to stop deportations.

Though the media seems once again to have bought the line that African Americans voted against marriage equality, the statistics from the election tell a different story. According to Barry Yeoman writing in the American Prospect:

In each of North Carolina's five largest cities, voters in majority-black precincts rejected the measure: Charlotte (52 percent), Raleigh (51 percent), Greensboro (54 percent), Winston-Salem (55 percent), and Durham (65 percent). Durham's results were dramatic: Not a single majority-black precinct supported the amendment. Several crushed it by margins of 3-to-1 and even 4-to-1.

What the results really showed, according to Yeoman, was a rural-urban fault line--unsurprisingly, Amendment 1 got its biggest levels of support in areas outside the cities.

Opinion polls before the election also show that the sentiments of all North Carolinians are more in favor of marriage equality than the minority who turned up to vote on May 8. One survey from Elon University last March found that 61 percent of the state's residents would oppose an amendment banning same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships.

Surveys in April by Public Policy Polling did find majority support for Amendment 1 among voters, but pollsters also found contradictory attitudes among backers of the referendum. For example, in a PPP poll done late last year, 60 percent of people said they supported either same-sex marriage or civil unions--but 40 percent of that majority nevertheless said they would vote for Amendment 1, even though it bans all legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

So if the Democratic Party had taken a real stand against Amendment 1, explaining how it banned any legal recognition of same-sex unions, the result might have been different.

THE PASSAGE of Amendment 1 will have a real impact on people's lives. The campaign in favor of the referendum exacerbated homophobia in the state, and that will lead to repercussions.

Within hours of the Amendment's passage, municipalities reportedly began discussing how to use the law as an attack on workers and their families by cutting domestic partnership benefits. Other such benefits--like hospital visitation--will also be in jeopardy. Domestic violence protections and child custody can be called into question. And of course, second-class citizenship for LGBT people will be enshrined in the state constitution.

Nevertheless, the immediate opposition to the Amendment 1's passage is promising.

The Mountain Xpress newspaper reported an impromptu march of marriage equality supporters late on Election Night, in the streets of Asheville, a city in the Western North Carolina mountains. In other cities, activists called organizing meetings within hours of the amendment's passage to plan next steps. More than 20,000 signatures were to the "1 Million Against Amendment 1" petition in a matter of two days.

The day after Election Day, in Charlotte, a big demonstration at the Bank of America shareholders meeting took up the demand to repeal Amendment 1. Later in the day, hundreds rallied in the pouring rain in Greensboro, marching through downtown to chants of "We demand equality" and "Gay, straight, Black or white, marriage is our civil right."

May 10 saw the beginning of the "We Do" civil disobedience campaign, where couples will occupy City Halls around the state, refusing to leave until they are given a marriage license or are arrested. That day, two woman were arrested in Winston-Salem for seeking marriage licenses. And when the state legislature arrives back in session on May 16, a coalition of unions and opponents of Amendment 1 plan to greet them with a protest. As one Greensboro activist said, "Whatever law they pass, they can't get rid of us."

The community organizing group Southerners on New Ground made the right point when it noted in a statement that, while the right wing had won the fight over Amendment 1, opponents of bigotry and oppression are more closely connected to each other than ever, having organized and linked arms together when it was said that we couldn't do so. That will be important in the struggles of the future.

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