Don’t Rush Back to the Ballot on Marriage
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
I wasn’t at all surprised that the May 28 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club was dominated by the issue of marriage equality. After all, the meeting took place only two days after the California Supreme Court ruled by a 6-1 vote that Proposition 8, the voter initiative amending the state constitution to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriages, was constitutional. What did take me aback was that, after hearing a presentation by attorney Charlie Pratt on the anti-8 demonstration at the County Administrative Center the day before, the club swung into a debate over whether California’s Queer community should seek to put a measure to repeal Proposition 8 on the ballot in November 2010 or wait until 2012.
The reason that startled me was I thought that was precisely the wrong question to ask. Just as the Queer community’s leadership swung us into line by deciding for us that the demand for our relationship rights would take not only the form but the name “marriage” — foreclosing any discussion of alternatives like building up the domestic-partnership and civil-union laws so they really do provide exactly the same rights as marriage — so now it seemed like we were being steer-horned into a stupid debate over when (not whether!) to put forth an initiative that we might not even be able to get on the ballot and we would almost certainly lose.
When that debate started I was the first person to raise my hand, and when I was called I said that the right time to put the marriage issue back on the ballot would be when we’re 20 points ahead in the polls. My reasoning was that during the Proposition 8 campaign, we began 15 points ahead and ultimately lost by a shade less than five points. We shouldn’t even think of going back to the ballot until same-sex marriage equality is supported by such an overwhelming majority of our fellow Californians that it will withstand the poisonous hate speech that will be leveled against us by the other side. That’s not going to be in 2010 or even 2012; indeed, while I have no numbers to back it up my instinct is that probably won’t be until 2020 or even later.
The club debate in general seemed quite intelligent to me. Even the people pushing for an initiative in 2010 acknowledged that it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of money — and one person pointed out that that’s going to be money and volunteer time that won’t be available to elect a Democratic governor or keep Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. Former club president Andrea Villa essentially agreed with me and reminded the membership that “this community was bled dry last year,” organizationally and especially financially, not only by the Proposition 8 campaign but the Presidential race as well. “If you support a 2010 or 2012 return to the ballot, I expect you to remain standing,” Villa said — essentially calling the bluff of the members who might be willing to say “2010” but not to work their asses off in the scant 16 months remaining between now and then to win.
Nonetheless, even as politically savvy and reality-based a group as the San Diego Democratic Club overwhelmingly supported 2010 over 2012, 24 votes to eight with nine abstentions — and most of the abstainers were people like me who thought we needed to do a lot more education, research and strategizing before committing to any date for a return to the ballot. I can see why the straw polls on this issue, held not only at the San Diego Democratic Club but at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center and throughout the community not only in San Diego but statewide, would be so lopsided.
The passage of Proposition 8 was a raw wound to the Queer community in general and to younger Queer people in particular. As veteran activist Jeri Dilno pointed out to me on the morning of one of the first anti-8 actions since the election, many younger Queers had grown up with a level of acceptance far greater than anything she or I could have dreamed of when we were growing up — and the passage of Proposition 8 had been a wake-up call to them showing just how much hate there still is against us and how easily a majority of our fellow citizens can be manipulated by fear-based arguments to declare by their votes that we are less than human. Every day that foul ballot measure remains in effect is a day that our second-class status is rubbed in our faces, a day that we are wounded all over again in a way even Queer people who have no desire or intention to get married can’t help but feel.
The question isn’t the rawness of the wound, but our realistic chances of closing it any time soon. The simple, blunt fact is that every jurisdiction in the U.S. that has had a chance to vote on this issue has voted against us. Even Arizona, which voted down a same-sex marriage ban by a two-point margin in 2006, passed one by six points in 2008. The fact that we lost eight percentage points’ worth of support in Arizona over two years should serve as a warning to those people who think we “only” have five points’ worth of support to pick up between now and 2010 to be rid of the same-sex marriage ban. So should the fact that all the highly creative, intensely committed activism the community has done since Proposition 8 passed hasn’t moved the polls one iota: if it were voted on today it would still pass by the same five-point margin by which it actually did.
Another factor is that we are hardly likely to see any time soon another election that will give us as good a chance to win on this issue as we had in November 2008. We had a young, highly charismatic Presidential candidate mobilizing progressive voters and in particular drawing larger-than-usual numbers of voters under 30 — and all the polls on the same-sex marriage issue indicate that the younger you are, the more likely you are to support it. It’s true that Barack Obama’s appeal might have been a two-edged sword — he also mobilized a lot of economically progressive but socially conservative African-American churchgoers — but by the way his campaign shaped the 2008 voter pool, he helped us a lot more than he hurt us. The 2010 electorate is likely to be more Republican than the one in 2008 — the party that elects a new president almost always loses seats in Congress in the next election — and in 2012 Obama will be an incumbent with a record to defend and won’t be the kind of outsider idealist all those young people flocked to the polls to support in 2008.
Indeed, in our reasoning moments on this issue we’re so acutely conscious of the overwhelming opposition of the American people that the first thing we think of when we hear that a legislature has passed a same-sex marriage bill or a state’s high court has ruled for marriage equality is, “How easy will it be to repeal it by initiative?” Massachusetts, the first state whose courts ruled for marriage equality (in 2003), kept it only because their constitution contained a ridiculously complex amendment procedure that barred it from the ballot until at least 25 percent of the state legislators voted two years running to allow it before the voters — and Massachusetts Queers and their political supporters had the clout and parliamentary and lobbying skills to keep that from happening. If the Massachusetts constitution were as easy for voters to amend as California’s, same-sex marriage in that state would have vanished as quickly as it did here.
What’s more, as Lemon Grove City Councilmember George Gastil pointed out at the May 28 San Diego Democratic Club meeting, it’s psychologically harder to get voters to vote for an initiative than it is to get them to oppose one. Californians in particular are so disgusted at having to vote on so many ballot measures in every election, many of them complex pieces of legislation delving deeply into the minutiae of government, that quite a few of this state’s voters express that disgust by just voting no on all of them. That, Gastil explained, worked for us in the Proposition 8 campaign but would work against us if we qualify our own initiative and thereby have to persuade people to vote yes.
As a community, we have already been beaten twice on the marriage issue at the California polls, and we simply cannot afford to lose again. Contrary to the wishful thinking of a lot of people, both Queers and straight allies, there is nothing inevitable about the U.S. recognizing same-sex marriage. Three-fourths of the states have already turned it down, most of them at the ballot box, and if Obama is unable to turn the economy around he’s likely to be replaced by a radical-Right Republican who might resume the fight for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage nationwide — a fight which might have more traction now than it did when President Bush launched it in 2004 precisely because the number of states allowing same-sex couples to marry has grown from one to five.
And while it’s conceivable that there might be a strategy that could overcome the broad-based public opposition to same-sex marriage and actually pass an initiative allowing it, quite frankly I don’t trust the incompetent bozo-brains at Equality California, the Courage Campaign and that confusing myriad of organizations with the names “equality” and/or “marriage” in their names to find it. The No on 8 campaign, like the U.S. war in Iraq, was a dedicated, committed troop of foot soldiers fighting under a cadre of officers who imposed a misguided and criminally stupid strategy on them.
One of the most powerful moments in the movie Milk showed Harvey Milk, presented with an early draft of a leaflet against the Briggs Initiative (the Proposition 8 of his time) that carefully omitted the G- and L-words, crumpling it up, throwing it in a fireplace and using a few choice expletives to denounce the idiocy of telling Queer folk to go to the back of the bus in their own civil-rights struggle. One of the reasons we won the Briggs Initiative and lost Proposition 8 was there was no one with Milk’s assertiveness or clout to send a similar message to the official campaign organizations and their high-priced “consultants” that we should not be silenced and driven back into the closet in a campaign that was fundamentally about us and our rights.
Milk has some positive lessons for us, too. Seeing it, I was reminded that in the late 1970’s it was as inconceivable that any U.S. electorate would vote to enact — or keep — a law barring discrimination against Queer people as it is now inconceivable that any U.S. electorate would vote to allow same-sex couples to marry. Public opinion on issues like this does move; it just doesn’t always move as quickly as we’d like. I know that this editorial will likely be read by some people as a call for delay, a wimp-out on an issue of overwhelming importance, and I’ll be told to re-read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essays “Why We Can’t Wait” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to get the fire under my belly again and join the call from immediate action.
What I am making here is not a call for inaction, but for smart action. When King wrote those articles, he wasn’t calling for a massive involvement in electoral politics. (And the people he was criticizing were the conservatives in the African-American ministry who then thought all this “agitation” for the civil rights of their own people was potentially dangerous — the 1960’s equivalents to the African-American ministers of today who pay lip service to King’s legacy and invoke it to support the denial of our rights.) He was calling for tough, courageous, nonviolent direct action outside the political system to prick the consciences of the American people and educate them that a system of racial segregation and discrimination was so incompatible with America’s ideals of democracy and freedom as to be intolerable.
The kind of education we need to do on the same-sex marriage issue not only has nothing to do with electoral politics — except that, if successful, it will lay the groundwork for winning our rights through the system in the future — but an electoral campaign will only be a distraction. “Are we going to continue to educate the American public about the fundamental importance of our rights?” said San Diego LGBT Center executive director Dr. Delores Jacobs at a February 13 forum sponsored by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Yes … but the best work on the ground is done in the absence of a campaign. No 30-second spot will erase generations of homophobia.”
The blunt truth is we’re a long way away from the point where we can actually put a marriage equality ballot measure before the voters in California and reasonably expect it to pass. We have to acknowledge that fact and be both relentless and creative in pursuing the kind of activism needed to educate the public and change the political realities that right now are against us. That’s not going to happen by November 2010 or even November 2012. It’s going to be a much longer-term struggle than that, and we will need to pursue it with dedication and in the belief that, as Martin Luther King himself said, the arc of human history is long but it eventually bends towards justice.