Saturday, September 26, 2009

Marriage Equality Follies


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

The San Diego Democratic Club blew a golden opportunity to stop the childish bickering within California’s Queer community over whether to put a marriage equality initiative on the state ballot in 2010 or 2012. After discussing the issue for over two hours at its September 24 meeting, it had several options. It could have done nothing. It could have appointed a committee to come up with a recommendation for action at next month’s meeting. It could have taken a position one way or the other. It rejected the two proposals for action and thereby cost itself the chance to use its prestige and reputation statewide to bring an end to the divisive, ego-driven conflict between the two major statewide groups for Queer equality, Equality California (EQCA) and the Courage Campaign, over what date to aim for to seek the repeal of Proposition 8.

I went into the meeting with a very strong opinion that 2010 is way too early. Indeed, during the club’s debate I said the desire to put a repeal of Proposition 8 on the 2010 ballot showed “naïveté verging on insanity.” What I hadn’t realized is that the Courage Campaign and the organization it’s created to push the 2010 initiative has modeled its strategy on the Israeli governments that have pushed settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to eliminate any possibility of a contiguous, economically viable Palestinian state. Like the Israelis, the Courage Campaign has sought to create “facts on the ground” by building an elaborate organization to push for an early vote — thereby challenging EQCA and others who wanted to wait with a fait accompli and forcing them to support a 2010 campaign or bail on the issue altogether.

The curious fact about my reaction to the meeting was that I found myself disagreeing with many of the people in the community I most profoundly respect — people like Lisa Kove, Sara Beth Brooks and Wendy Sue Biegeleisen — who were pushing the 2010 campaign, and allying myself with some strange bedfellows. I have little respect for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center — at least in part because they don’t allow Zenger’s to be distributed on their premises — or for its political director, Carlos Marquez, who as a representative of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) had the unenviable task of promoting SEIU’s bizarre opposition to last May’s state ballot initiatives that would have headed off some of the more draconian social-service cuts in the California state budget.

But both as the Center’s representative and in his own voice, Marquez said some of the most sensible things spoken at the September 24 meeting. He said that the Center’s board had refused to endorse a repeal campaign in either 2010 or 2012, and had instead called on the political organizations to come together and decide on a set of organizational “benchmarks” — levels of support in public opinion polls; outreach to communities of color, rural communities and other sources of support for Proposition 8; fundraising capability and other hard, pragmatic indications of possible success — the community could use to decide whether the proper time for a repeal initiative is 2010, 2012 or even later. On his own behalf, Marquez warned that the consequences of taking it to the ballot too early and losing go far beyond the rights of Queer couples — including more children and teenagers being Queer-bashed in schools because every time we lose a ballot measure, it sends a message to their homophobic fellow students that beating up Queers is O.K.

Another voice of reason in the midst of the madness was that of Fernando Lopez, who both as an individual and with the group Marriage Equality USA is actually doing the organizing that needs to be done to turn the issue around and give us a fighting chance to win our equality at the ballot box. Rather than fuel the divisions within the community, they’ve tried to hold “Meeting of the Minds Coalition” meetings to bring the various marriage equality groups together. They’ve also done a wide range of outreaches — door-to-door, on the streets, by phone — to have the one-on-one conversations that alone will move minds on this issue. And they’ve had enough success with this strategy that they’ve moved from doing it in areas where the vote on Proposition 8 was relatively evenly split (45 to 55 percent in favor) to places where the anti-marriage measure was strongly supported (55 to 70 percent).

I thought it would have been wrong for the club to take a position either for 2010 or 2012 on September 24, and I voted accordingly. Though the club member who made the motion for an immediate endorsement said he thought “most of the members here want to go in one direction,” that wasn’t my sense of the room at all. There seemed to be club members with passionate views on both sides, as well as others plagued by uncertainty and doubt. One prominent club member said he didn’t feel as passionate about the issue as others because there’s no one in his life he cares enough about to want to marry — a more common perspective in the Queer community, especially among Gay and Bisexual men, than we often care to admit.

I walked into the meeting room convinced that a 2010 campaign would be a disastrous mistake, and I still feel that way. First, I don’t think we’ve done our homework; we haven’t done enough outreach to identify possibly persuadable opponents and bring them to our side. The work of Marriage Equality USA and the other people doing outreach are wonderful, but it’s going to take more than a year’s time to finish it. Second, we already had the best imaginable electorate we could have had for this issue — in 2008, with young voters flocking to the polls enlivened by the freshness and “hope” message of Barack Obama’s Presidential candidacy — and we blew it. Both 2010 and 2012 are going to be far more hostile electoral environments than 2008 — especially with a resurgent Republican party and Right-wing movement eager to return Congress to the GOP and stop Obama’s so-called “socialist takeover” of the U.S.

Do we really want to give the Republicans and the radical Right yet another powerful issue that will motivate them to come out to the polls en masse? Do we really want to drain away money and volunteer time that will be needed to keep the Democrats in control of Congress and elect a Democratic governor in California? Do we want to keep organizing around marriage equality when, as important as it is to us, there are far more significant issues to the progressive community as a whole — like real health care reform (instead of the horrible corporate-welfare bill the Democrats in Congress are likely to churn out), maintaining and increasing funding to help victims of the recession, restoring a productive economy (including a U.S. manufacturing base and family-farm agriculture), winning workers the right to organize unions by majority sign-up, protecting women’s rights (including, but not limited to, reproductive choice), and stopping America’s imperialist wars?

But, as deadly as I think a 2010 campaign to repeal Proposition 8 would be, what’s taking shape now — an internecine conflict with one part of the Queer political establishment in California pushing for 2010 and another pushing for 2012, and neither willing to compromise or to budge — is even worse. Unless either the Courage Campaign persuades Equality California to come on board for 2010 or Equality California persuades the Courage Campaign to back off and unite for 2012, the likely outcome is a half-assed campaign in 2010 that will lose, followed by a half-assed campaign in 2012 that will also lose.

What’s worse, if the Courage Campaign actually gets the repeal initiative on the ballot in 2010 and it loses by a greater margin than the five-point spread that passed Proposition 8, it might embolden the Right to try an even more draconian initiative against us in 2012 — the one they abandoned in 2008 because their polling said it wouldn’t fly. That would not only have banned same-sex marriage but would have repealed California’s landmark domestic partnership law, prevented cities and counties from any legal recognition or benefits for same-sex couples, and for good measure reversed California’s pioneering law allowing post-operative Transsexuals to marry in their reassigned gender.

It is utterly imperative that the entire Queer community in California get on the same page on this issue. My preference would be that the statewide groups follow the good advice of San Diego’s Center and set a series of goals for organizing, educating, building support and raising money that would have to be met before contemplating any return to the ballot. Barring that, I’d prefer 2012 over 2010. But I’d rather see a united effort for 2010 than continued division and ego clashes over the timing for a marriage equality initiative.