Monday, June 01, 2009

Queer Democrats Debate Proposition 8 Response

Hear from Attorney Pratt on the May 27 Demonstration


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: Charlie Pratt

The wounds were still raw from the latest setback for marriage equality in California — the 6-1 ruling May 26 by the California Supreme Court upholding Proposition 8, which reinstated the state’s ban on all marriages except those between one man and one woman — when the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club met on May 28. Queers had already been mounting responses to the decision for two days, including a march and rally downtown the afternoon of May 26 that featured Mayor Jerry Sanders, his Lesbian daughter and the daughter’s fiancée, and a sit-in at the San Diego County Clerk’s marriage license bureau May 27 that lasted from about 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., when the last protesters were escorted out of the building by police.

Attorney Charlie Pratt of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality spoke on the May 27 action. A participant in the protest, he debunked many of the news reports about it, including the one on KGTV Channel 10 that the protesters “caved” when they left the building without being arrested. “We were not there to get arrested,” Pratt said. “We were joined by up to 60 to 70 people in that room. We were singing and chanting. I read from Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ which was dedicated to the nay-saying clergy in Birmingham at the time. We read statements from folks who were married, and from people who weren’t allowed to marry.”

The May 27 event began when Michael Anderson and his partner, Brian Baumgardner, went to the clerk’s desk and asked for a license to marry each other. When they were denied, along with several other couples who also asked for licenses, they sat in the waiting area of the marriage license bureau. Some protesters stayed there the entire afternoon; others moved back and forth between the city clerk’s office and the front of the building at 1600 Pacific Highway, where an open-mike rally in support of the action was being held. By 4 p.m. the rally outside had wound down, but the action inside was still going on and individuals were making statements to the group about their own motives for participating.

“The police came in at 5 p.m.,” Pratt recalled. “Folks who didn’t want to risk arrest left. Twenty to 25 people stayed. Cecile Veillard [who, along with Pratt, had been appointed the liaison people between the protest and the police] had told them, ‘We will not leave unless you make us leave.’ We had agreed not to resist arrest. We didn’t go limp.’” According to Pratt, the officers escorted the protesters out by touching them and guiding them out of the building — an act whose legal significance, he explained, is that if you stay or move in any direction other than the one in which the officer is guiding you, you are guilty of resisting arrest and can be charged with a serious crime.

Pratt himself was singled out for special attention by the police. “Three officers came at me first, accusing me of being one of the ringleaders,” he explained. “They marched me to the basement and then they marched me back to the second floor. Everyone outside was asking, ‘Where’s Charlie?’ I asked, ‘Why does a gimpy person like me need three police officers?’ Then there was a mysterious phone call, and had the caller not intervened I would have been arrested — and then 100 people would have gone to the jail and continued the demonstration outside.” Pratt pledged that “we will go back” to the county building soon because “there’s a lot of fire and spirit in the community to resist the Proposition 8 decision.” He particularly praised the eloquence of Jonathan Goetz, club activist and California Young Democrats secretary, who came there with his partner as one of the couples demanding a marriage license.

Later on the club had an informal debate over when the Queer community in California should try to repeal Proposition 8 at the ballot box with a competing initiative — in 2010, the next statewide election year, or 2012, a Presidential year with a presumably larger voter turnout. “Firmly in the middle,” said former club president Andrea Villa. “You all know what it is to campaign. It takes dedication, time and money. This community was bled dry last year for this issue, the Presidential race and electing our own candidates to the California state legislature. If you step up to support a 2010 or 2012 move to the ballot, I expect you to remain standing when we call for volunteers. It takes a lot more than visibility. We need to make sure we have the numbers.”

Linda Kwizdak, a blind, straight woman who had spoken for marriage equality at the rally outside the County Administrative Center the previous day, said, “Why put it on the ballot in the first place? It could be the third time it’s on the ballot and it gets shot down. I’m just wondering if there is some other way than going to the ballot, where people will once again fall for the Right-wing stuff.

Former club president Jeri Dilno offered “heartfelt thanks to those who sat in at the County Clerk’s office. That kind of pressure changes minds in a peaceful way. In 1987 it was Bowers v. Hardwick (the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states to pass laws making sex between same-sex partners illegal, reversed 16 years later in Lawrence v. Texas) that inspired people to stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, get arrested and spend the night in jail. I will be there the next time and encourage you all to take part in one of these demonstrations.”

“California will require huge sums of time and money,” said club activist Greg Bolian. “In 2010 we’ve got to elect a Democratic governor and re-elect Senator Barbara Boxer. In the Presidential race last year, Barack Obama won the nomination by focusing on the little states — and right now we’re winning marriage equality in the little states, which gives us more time to change hearts and minds in California.” He said that when a bid to repeal Proposition 8 finally makes it to the California ballot, “I don’t want to win by one percent. I want it to be overwhelming.”

“Another thing Barack Obama said, when they said it wasn’t time for a Black President, was, ‘If not now, it will never be time,’” said club member and peace activist Kelli King. “Hesitancy is a problem. What does it take to get ready by 2010?”

“I’m going to say 2010, but that means a lot of work,” said Matt Karolis of the club’s youth affiliate, Stonewall Young Democrats, and an activist in the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME). “The work has been going on since November, and in San Diego especially since January. Every weekend we go out to canvass to change the hearts and minds of 250,000 Californians. We’ve had people apologize to us for voting yes on 8. We have people thinking about what this means. If we do it in 2010, we have to change the hearts and minds of 500 people every day. We need everyone in this room to have the uncomfortable conversations with families, co-workers and friends.”

“It’s not just a rerun of Proposition 8,” said George Gastil, Lemon Grove City Councilmember and longtime club member. “For one thing, on Proposition 8 we were on the no side. If we bring up another initiative, we will be on the yes side, and it’s a psychological difference that will work against us. A lot of people who didn’t necessarily support Gay marriage voted no on 8, and many people who support Gay marriage will vote no on our initiative just because they think there are too many initiatives.” Gastil said that when he ran for Lemon Grove City Council in the same election as Proposition 8, “my community was so Yes on 8 I wanted to hide. There were people who had my lawn signs up who were for Yes on 8, and I didn’t know what to make of that. Conversations we’ve had in our own communities haven’t helped with African-Americans, Latinos and older poor Democrats.”

Club president Larry Baza called for a straw poll of the audience and found 24 people in favor of qualifying an initiative in 2010, eight people for waiting until 2012 and nine people unwilling to commit to either date — many of whom had spoken out in the debate and said the issue was more complicated than just picking an arbitrary target date and working towards it. Kelli King urged the club to take some sort of action on the issue, but Baza said “it’s premature at this time.” He explained that at least three other organizations are deliberating on the issue, “and I’d be remiss with presenting an action without that information.”

The debate on Proposition 8 overshadowed many other items on the club’s long agenda, including the endorsement of environmental activist Diane Takvorian for appointment to an open seat on the San Diego Port Commission, a report on the recent California Democratic Party convention by San Diego Democratic Central Committee chair Jess Durfee — who praised the party’s new state chair, veteran legislator John Burton, for offering rapid responses to political events; and presentations from Max Disposti, representing the North County Coalition, and Dae Elliott of the South Bay Alliance, both of whom are working to build Queer organizations in San Diego County’s more conservative outlying areas and push government agencies to take Queer issues seriously.