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Anti-Gay Forces Re-Launch Drive For Illinois Constitutional Amendment

The Gay Liberation Network recently learned that anti-gay forces have begun another campaign to place an advisory referendum on the Illinois ballot aimed at passing a constitutional amendment against the LGBT community. If they are successful in getting at least 277,000 valid signatures of registered voters, a non-binding referendum would appear on the 2008 ballot, asking the legislature to put a binding constitutional amendment referendum on the 2010 ballot.

Last summer GLN, along with several other organizations in the FAIR Illinois Coalition, successfully defeated an attempt by the Protect Marriage Illinois Coalition (PMI) to put a similar advisory referendum on the 2006 ballot by challenging tens of thousands of PMI’s invalid signatures, mainly of people unregistered to vote.

Going into the next campaign, anti-gay forces have several advantages and a few disadvantages compared to their last effort:

* In the last campaign, many basic mistakes were made in how the anti-gays collected signatures, resulting in tens of thousands of them being declared invalid. Our side would be naively optimistic to expect them to be foolish enough to repeat most of these same mistakes.

* During the last campaign, anti-gays had to create a campaign network virtually from scratch. By embarking on the campaign a second time, they will have already identified a network of experienced right-wing activists who can be counted on to collect signatures.

* In spite of the thrashing that the Republican Party took over the war in last November’s election, right wing activists can still point to the 25 states that have now passed anti-gay constitutional amendments, including several relatively liberal states like Wisconsin and Oregon. Only one referendum campaign (Arizona) has come out in our favor.

* With the addition last fall of Wisconsin, Illinois is now increasingly surrounded by states with anti-gay constitutional amendments – only Iowa and Indiana are hold-outs, and in Indiana this is largely due to the particular procedural difficulties in changing that state’s constitution, difficulties that our opponents could nonetheless overcome in the next year.

* Currently a major block to the passage of a constitutional amendment in Illinois has been the sitting Democratic legislature, which doesn't want to boost Republican turnout at general elections by allowing anti-gay initiatives onto the ballot. But as the current budget and tax battles indicate, Democratic legislative / gubernatorial unity is fading fast and the constant churn of scandals around the Blagojevich administration could put the governor’s mansion up for grabs in the next election, as it has for so many of Blago’s predecessors.

* More importantly, those who complacently believe that Democratic legislators would not opportunistically cave into anti-gay bigotry would do well remember their reaction to the Transgendered rights bill that was debated a few weeks ago. Legislators on both sides of the aisle unleashed a disgusting display of bigotry that indicates that for many of them, “tolerance” of LGBT people is a matter of temporary convenience. The pro-Trans measure went down to crashing defeat by a 2-1 margin.

While there are many factors against us, pro-gay forces have some advantages of our own:

* Illinois, like the country as whole, has been gradually trending pro-gay over the last several years. While a solid majority is still opposed to equal marriage rights, a solid majority is also opposed to the removal of all legal protections for same sex couples. The proposed constitutional amendment would gut all legal protections for same sex couples in Illinois, including domestic partnerships.

* There are clearly important schisms among anti-gay forces in Illinois, as evidenced by last year’s resignation, probably forced, of Peter LaBarbera from the Illinois Family Institute. He subsequently set up of a P. O. Box organization in Naperville with himself as its only visible member. Country club Republicans are increasingly in revolt over the narrow dead-end that far right activists, such as the anti-gay ideologues, have led the party into. They point to the disastrous 2004 Alan Keyes campaign, and how it drove the party into a ditch, culminating in the near-total blanking of the party at every level of state government last fall. Many of them are determined to never again let the yahoo chorus of the party borrow the keys to the party car.

Pro-Gay Plans

While anti-gay forces have undoubtedly learned many lessons that might help them succeed this time around, pro-gay forces need to do likewise. Around the country, the general themes of pro-gay campaigns against constitutional amendments have been expensive media advertising campaigns containing quiet pleas for tolerance of lesbian and gay people, and pointing out the important benefits that same-sex couples lose as each of these measures pass. At 1 for 25, with Arizona being the only exception to the rule, this strategy has been an utter failure.

As an alternative, GLN points to the successful street mobilization techniques of the African American-led Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which faced down far greater odds and rampant violence. While racism and the institutional discrimination that comes with it are very much alive in our society, the movement did succeed in finally winning at least formal legal equality for African Americans after decades of Jim Crow. Following the model of the Civil Rights Movement, LGBT people need to counter anti-gay bigotry in the streets, such as we recently did with General Peter Pace, and on numerous occasions with virtually every public appearance of Peter LaBarbera, effectively stunting his anti-gay career.

To counter the 2008 referendum drive, GLN has already announced a plan called the “Occupation Project,” which calls for a non-violent occupation of the Cook County marriage license bureau in the event of a passage of the advisory referendum in November 2008. We invite community members and allies to sign the Occupation Project pledge which can be found at our website, www.GayLiberation.net

In the upcoming campaign, probably the biggest enemy the Illinois LGBT community faces is our own complacency. We cannot persist in the illusion that we can safely reside in pro-gay cocoons on Halsted Street or in Andersonville (even if most of us cannot afford to live there). We must stop passively hoping that fickle Illinois legislators or well funded pro-gay organizations will fight the battles that we ourselves should be fighting.

Many of our pro-gay leaders have fed this complacency by crudely extrapolating from the progress and visibility we have won over past few decades and concluding that further progress is “inevitable,” like night follows day. But progress has never been inevitable. For every era of civil rights progress one can point to in U.S. or world history, there are also eras of devastating retreat and defeat, when many people in our and other communities have been horribly hurt. In many respects, which way history records what happens to our community in the battles over constitutional amendments will be a question of what each of us decides to do now and over the next few years.


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