Friday, December 12, 2008

“No on 8” Actions, Discussions Continue

Community Gropes for the Next Steps towards Marriage Equality


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Eric Isaacson (in center), Sara Beth Brooks

Usually, citizens of a democratic republic conceive of elections as settling issues once and for all. The winners go ahead and govern, while the losers lick their wounds and look forward to the next cycle. But that hasn’t been the way it’s worked with Proposition 8, the initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California and reverse the state supreme court’s May 15 decision allowing such marriages. The passage of Proposition 8 by a solid but not overwhelming five-point margin on November 4 has triggered a round of demonstrations, rallies, protests and other actions as ordinary Queers came together to express their outrage against a vote they felt relegated them to second-class citizenship — and now the movement is working on building a permanent campaign to reverse Proposition 8 either in the courts or at the ballot box.

At least four major demonstrations on the same-sex marriage issue took place in San Diego in November, including a massive march downtown on November 15 that drew over 25,000 people. The march was part of a nationwide mobilization, but San Diego’s was bigger than any other city’s — including Los Angeles and San Francisco. Other actions included a rally in Balboa Park November 7, a march through Hillcrest and North Park November 8, and a November 22 protest outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel downtown. The hotel was targeted as part of an ongoing campaign called “Sleep with the Right People” that began before the election and continues in coalition with UNITE HERE, a nationwide labor union attempting to organize the Manchester Grand’s work force.

The latest anti-Manchester action took place on December 6, when about 200 people walked from A-1 Storage to the hotel to protest the huge donations both businesses’ owners gave to the Proposition 8 campaign. Sara Beth Brooks, executive director of the San Diego Equality Campaign — which coordinated the action with the San Diego local of UNITE HERE — told the crowd that the Hyatt was targeted because its owner, well-connected local developer Doug Manchester, “donated $125,000 to support Proposition 8.” Brooks also explained that Manchester’s operation is so aggressively anti-union “that folks in this hotel can get fired just for talking to the union about organizing.”

According to Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate, which was also involved in the December 6 demonstration, A-1 Storage was targeted because its owner, Terry Caster, gave a pro-8 contribution that dwarfed Manchester’s: $693,000. What’s more, both Caster and Manchester gave money early in the campaign to fund the signature drive that put Proposition 8 on the ballot in the first place — which led Karger to call San Diego “Ground Zero” for the pro-8 campaign. “He’s just hell-bent on taking away the civil rights and joy and happiness of people,” Karger said about Caster. “While he claims to be a loving person, he should practice that and let everyone have the same rights as he has.”

Asked how these demonstrations advance the goal of getting rid of Proposition 8 and restoring marriage equality to California, Brooks said, “There are three veins in this movement. There are the political actions, there are the legal actions, and there is the direct-action activism of events like these. I think the action helps to keep the conversation going. I think it helps us move forward and keeps the issue in the media’s spotlight.”

Local attorney Eric Isaacson attended the December 6 action and explained the legal strategy to Zenger’s Newsmagazine. Isaacson has filed a lawsuit with the California Supreme Court on behalf of the California Council of Churches, which opposed Proposition 8 — itself something of a surprise because supporters of 8 created the impression that all organized religion was on their side — based on the idea that the ballot measure was so drastic and far-reaching a change to people’s basic constitutional rights that it constituted a “revision” to the state constitution — not just an amendment.

“In Article I of the California constitution, the people say that there are certain inalienable rights, and among those rights are equal protection under the law and the right to privacy,” Isaacson explained. “The right to marry is a fundamental human right, grounded in the right to privacy and equal protection under the laws. It is declared by the California constitution to be inalienable. If the constitution can be amended to revise a fundamental principle of equality before the law [and] the basic principle of a social contract that we call a constitution, it has to be done by the revision process — by a 2/3 majority in each house of the legislature followed by a majority vote of the people of California — if it can be done at all.”

Asked about whether allowing same-sex marriages to be legally recognized when many Californians who have religious or moral objections to them violates their rights — an argument made by supporters of Proposition 8 in the campaign — Brooks said, “I would answer that with the fact that this is not a religious country. This is a country founded on separation between church and state, and I will fight to the end of my breath for those people to have their religious beliefs and their religious rights. I will not stand for them to infringe on my rights based on their beliefs.”

Isaacson added that both Manchester and Caster openly boasted that their support of Proposition 8 was based on their own religious beliefs and their desire to impose them on all Californians. Manchester, Isaacson explained, “said basically that he was motivated by religious animosity to outlaw marriages of same-sex couples that are being done in Reform synagogues. Reform Judaism, the largest movement in American Judaism, honors same-sex marriages. So does the United Church of Christ. So does the Unitarian-Universalist Association of congregations. … Each church can make its own decision of what the religious purposes and principles of marriage are. And none of them — not Doug Manchester, and not Mr. Caster — have the right to impose their religious doctrines on all Californians, churched and unchurched.”

Activism by Power Point

Two days after the demonstration at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Activist San Diego gave over their regular monthly meeting to a forum on Proposition 8 and how to continue the struggle for marriage equality in California. The group invited Lisa Kove, volunteer coordinator for the San Diego Democratic Club and an organizer for San Diego Equality Campaign, to make a presentation — and Kove brought along Power Point slides and three other speakers for a program less about what the message should be than about how to communicate it to potential voters and change their minds.

“We now have to get past where we were on Proposition 8,” Kove said. “It was a horrendous loss, but a gain for our visibility. We are now seen as a human rights issue even in China.” Kove criticized the No on 8 election campaign for focusing exclusively on “undecided” voters, and said the task before us should be to reach beyond that and actually change the minds of people who voted for it. “We have to increase the confidence of the community for change, and that will resolve all the barriers and obstacles,” she said. “We want to create an environment where everyone fells they own the change.”

Much of Kove’s presentation stressed the use of modern communications technology, including broadband Internet access and cell phones with text messaging capability. “Candidates send text messages because they know they can touch you quickly and directly,” she explained. “Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King had to go word of mouth to organize. Now people who have never met or seen each other can have discussions. We can build momentum for this change and use these tools to work together.”

Kove was a good deal less specific about what her listeners should be using all these new communications technologies to say. “We’re not going to make change by showing anger or hostility,” she said — a belief she and one of her co-panelists put into practice during the November 8 demonstration, when they unsuccessfully tried to bar people carrying signs using the word “hate” or the acronym “H8” from marching. “We’re going to have to show how Proposition 8 hurts us.” She explained the initiative’s passage by saying that people weren’t “ready for this change” when they voted, and the task is to “connect with everybody through these technologies and what we can do as people” to bring them along and accept same-sex marriage as a matter of equality.

She also admitted that, despite the capabilities of the Internet and other modern electronic devices, much of the organizing work will still have to be done in one-on-one, face-to-face conversations. “There isn’t anything like people-to-people communications,” she acknowledged. “When you talk to people, you have to tell them in an honest way how Proposition 8 hurts you. In addition, our allies on the East Coast have started holding Straight but Not Narrow parties, where straight friends get together and talk about Gay marriage. Sometimes, hearing things from people that are not LGBT [Queer] is needed to build alliances. We need to spread the word.”

Kove’s panel also included Sara Beth Brooks, attorney Charlie Pratt and information technology specialist Sue Heim. Pratt gave a quick rundown of the legal challenges to Proposition 8, including the one at the heart of Isaacson’s case and another filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that argue that banning same-sex marriage was such a far-reaching change to the state constitution that it should have been considered a “revision” rather than an amendment and therefore approved by the legislature before it could go on the ballot. “The other major challenge,” Pratt said, “has been that the initiative upsets the balance of power in California. The Supreme Court said we could get married and the initiative said we can’t.”

In addition, Pratt said, the legal effort challenging Proposition 8 is working to preserve the validity of the marriages of same-sex couples in California between June 15, when the state supreme court’s decision took effect, and November 4. Recalling that he urged couples who wanted to get married to do so before November 4, Pratt said, “The law is whatever the California Supreme Court says it is, and until November 4 they said we could get married. The proponents of 8 said the issue should be looked at retrospectively and all the marriages should be flushed away.” Pratt said that persuading the court to uphold the validity of the same-sex marriages made before Proposition 8 passed will probably be easier than getting the entire measure thrown out, which he conceded will be “a tough go.”

Like Kove, Pratt said the most important task for the community right now is outreach. “I’m a lawyer, but I don’t depend entirely on the courts,” he said. “We need to reach out and get out of the Gayborhoods. We have a huge organizing task, and it shouldn’t end even once we get the right to get married.”

Brooks used her speaking opportunity to promote some of her group’s future events. Urging people to visit their Web site,, she promoted “Light Up the Night for Equality,” a series of candlelight vigils planned for Saturday, December 20, 5 p.m. at six local shopping malls: Plaza, Fashion Valley, Otay Ranch Mall, University Towne Centre, Carlsbad Company Stores, and North County Fair. All of these locations were picked because they’re in the more conservative north, east and south parts of San Diego County, away from what Pratt called the “Gayborhoods” and the more cosmopolitan center of the city of San Diego.

The next big national mobilization, Brooks explained, is set for Saturday, January 10. This is a protest not against Proposition 8 but the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton. Much like Proposition 8, DoMA defines marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman, and it says that same-sex couples who are legally married in a U.S. state or foreign country can’t claim any federally recognized marriage rights. Brooks said that her group hasn’t yet decided where San Diego’s January 10 action will be, but she’s sounded out the San Diego Police Department and won tentative approval for another November 15-style march down Broadway.

“Some of us were heavily involved in the November 15 march,” said Sue Heim. “We started the Web site and a Yahoo group. We’re now going to apply to be a nonprofit organization so we can accept donations, including water for future marches. We’re creating another Web site that will be more professional” — the existing site at is as much a social networking site as a promotion for political activism — “and a public face’ for the movement.

The Other Panelists

Though Kove clearly intended her group of speakers to be self-contained, Activist San Diego invited four other people to sit on the panel and address the meeting. This reporter was one of them. The others were veteran Queer activist Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, whose long history in the community includes having served on the board and as security chair for the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride events; and two women identified only as Zakiya and Jackie, members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and among the organizers of a marriage-equality coalition that differs from the San Diego Equality Campaign mainly in more aggressively linking same-sex marriage with other progressive concerns, particularly issues affecting people of color. (Zakiya, who is African-American, was the only person of color on the panel.)

Zakiya said that one thing she especially liked about Activist San Diego’s call to the December 8 meeting was its promise of “a discussion about tying the struggle for Gay rights with other struggles. Activists see the connections. One issue is immigrants who are Gay and don’t have the option of marrying their [U.S. citizen] partners [and thereby getting permanent resident status]. Another issue is the armed forces and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” She added that it’s not only progressive people who see these issues as interconnected; their adversaries do, too. Zakiya said she recognized members of the Minutemen, an aggressively anti-immigration organization, among the people staging counter-protests to the November 15 march.

One of Zakiya’s principal concern was that 70 percent of African-American voters supported Proposition 8 — a far wider margin in favor of the initiative than any other racial/ethnic group. (The initiative carried the Latino community by more than its margin of passage statewide, and narrowly won the white vote. Asians were the only racial/ethnic community where it lost, albeit also narrowly.) She was troubled that this vote was being used to promote “this idea that there’s a divide between Black and Gay America,” and said that African-Americans were only 6 percent of all California voters in the November 2008 election. She warned white Queers against “putting the blame [for Proposition 8] on other people who are oppressed.”

Zakiya’s argument was that homophobia in the African-American community has more to do with class than race. She cited the well-known fact that the higher up you are on the socioeconomic scale, the more accepting you are likely to be of Queer people and their claims for civil rights. “When you go to college, move out of your parents’ house and go to the city, you get to ‘become’ Gay,” she said. “A lot of Blacks and Latinos don’t have the opportunity to do any of those things.” She also noted that when initiatives seeking to ban same-sex marriage were on the ballot in 13 states in 2004 — and were often credited with delivering the conservative vote that enabled President Bush to win re-election against John Kerry — African-Americans were actually less likely to vote for them than others.

Jackie pointed to another problem supporters of same-sex marriage have to deal with: the corporate media. She criticized the coverage of Proposition 8, both before and after the election, as seeking to drive wedges between various oppressed communities — and, she argued, this wasn’t an accident. “Corporate media are tools of larger bodies,” she said, pointing as an example to General Electric, a major defense contractor and also the owner of NBC and Universal studios. “Over 90 percent of corporate media is owned by just 11 companies,” she said. “Freedom of information is tied in to all struggles.” Jackie pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — which, like the Defense of Marriage Act, was signed into law by President Clinton — and two more recent acts passed under Bush as giveaways to the corporate media which progressives must organize to repeal.

Wendy Sue — who, like Zakiya and Jackie, wasn’t introduced by her last name — stressed the “Day Without a Gay” protest scheduled for December 10 and also an ongoing “White Knot” campaign, which urges people to wear knotted white ribbons to demonstrate their support for same-sex marriage rights. Patterned after the red-ribbon campaign for AIDS awareness and the pink-ribbon campaign to fight breast cancer, the White Knot campaign is aimed at starting precisely those one-on-one conversations Kove and her panelists think are necessary. “It’s a way to wear something on your person to let people know you support marriage equality, and it’s a conversation starter,” she explained.