home news topics photos press opinion donate contact


Originally posted: November 17, 2008 - Chicago Tribune - LINK

The Queen of Hearts campaign for gay marriage rights

In Chapter 12 of "Alice in Wonderland," the Queen of Hearts memorably declares, "sentence first, verdict afterwards!"

Borrowing a page from Lewis Carroll's foolishly imperious monarch, gay rights activists have adopted a "vote first, campaign afterward" approach to trying to win marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Prop 8 protests in downtown Chicago.

My colleague Gerry Smith reports that "thousands of gay-marriage advocates took to the streets of downtown Chicago on Saturday, hoping to galvanize support" for same-sex marriage (Tribune photo, right by Milbert O. Brown). It was just one of many protests nationwide, all aimed at Proposition 8, an anti gay-marriage ballot referendum in California.

In the last 12 days or so, protesters have been picketing Mormon churches and other religious institutions that have supported Proposition 8 and launching a legal effort to have the referendum itself declared unconstitutional.

Though I'm totally behind their cause, my response to this burst of activity and determination is a puzzled, "Umm....."

The vote was Nov. 4. Traditionally, the time for demonstrations, rallies, protests, pre-emptory lawsuits and so on is before the election.

That's when moving public opinion can do you the most good.

Proposition 8 was no secret, particularly not in California. Nor was it a secret that it was doing well in the polls and that various religious institutions were putting big money into the campaign for passage.

Post-election analysis of Prop 8's narrow victory had it that gay-marriage advocates were outhustled, outspent and otherwise outcampaigned by gay-marriage opponents.

Advocates did not, for instance, make much of an effort to win support in minority communities, where homosexuality remains a greater taboo than it is non-minority communities -- even though Barack Obama's name on the presidential ballot was sure to spark a heavy turnout in those communities.

The advocates' legal claim now is that Prop. 8 represents too great a change to the California Constitution to be approved by a simple majority vote. The courts may agree, I have no idea. But the time for that argument was before the election; before asking for nullification of the result looked so much like the complaint of sore losers.

The defeat has galvanized supporters of gay marriage. Why wasn't the prospect of defeat enough?

I ran the above by Rick Garcia, public policy director of Equality Illinois:

You hit it on the head.

I was thrilled with the massive turnout throughout the country. And in Illinois we had unprecedented demonstrations in Chicago, Carbondale, Springfield, Peoria and Champaign

As much as I hate to say this I wonder where were these thousands of people before November 4?

I think a huge problem was that proponents of the proposition fought hard and dirty. Opponents were paralyzed by political correctness, by a refusal to play hardball politics (they should have spent a few weeks in training in Chicago!). They relied too much on focus groups and polling and didn't do the hard political work of getting our votes out on election day. Our sides ads were insipid at best while the proponents ran hard scary ads.

And, this community has been lulled into complacency. We won marriage in California, our neighbors tolerate us, the delightful heterosexuals in our neighborhood would never vote against us. How many friends, family and neighbors of gay people voted yes? And, we are to blame because far to many of us didn't have the necessary conversations with our neighbors, family and friends.

I haven't seen this much anger and outrage and desire to do something since the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I hope it can be harnessed for good so that we don't have another Prop 8 loss. But the question is where was this enthusiasm before the vote?

Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network. added these thoughts:

I certainly understand your befuddlement at the "vote first, campaign afterward" phenomenon. This isn't the first time that this has happened in our community. The classic example was our community's response to Anita Bryant a generation ago.

What you have to understand is that in both cases, the people responsible for the timorous "campaign" at the start were very different from the people who led the "campaign afterward."

In both cases, the initial "campaign" was led by the best-funded and established individual "leaders" and organizations in the community – who ensured that the "campaign" was top-down, with an at best, lukewarm message that many couldn't decifer, let alone get passionate about. There are two main reasons why each time the established community leaders ran such campaigns:

1) As the elite within our community, they typically have the least to complain about in our society, and so are not compelled to "rock the boat"; and

2) A no holds barred campaign – "calling out" all those political and religious leaders who equivocate on matters of equal rights – could end up embarrassing their political allies, particularly in the Democratic Party. After all, with only a few honorable exceptions, Democratic leaders are also guilty of not supporting full legal equality for LGBT people, not just the far right.

Most everyone else in the community (with the exception of a few loud-mouths such as ourselves), deferred to20judgment of their "betters," and passively gave contributions in response to the various fund appeals. There definitely is a class angle here, and it's important to note that the established leaders entered the jockeying for support within the community with huge advantages of built up apparatuses of offices, staffs, political connections, etc.

By contrast, almost all of the post-election rallies and marches (and the few pre-election ones) have been led by individuals with no previous political organizing experience. To say that they have bypassed most of the existing organizations is an understatement.

I for one know that the 20-somethings who contacted GLN for help also reached out to several other organizations besides us, who responded tepidly, if at all. I'm proud that we jumped in feet first immediately after getting their appeal, but that was the exception that proves the rule.

A successful campaign requires not only getting our community out into the streets and effectively utilizing the passionate strength of people who are fearful of loosing their rights, it also requires good, blunt messaging. (Our opponents were certainly clear, if untruthful, in the closing days of the California campaign, and our side just had a muddle.) In our years' long campaigns against anti-gay organizations such as the Illinois Family Institute and Americans For Truth About Homosexuality here in the Chicago area, GLN has long refused to play by Marquis de Queensbury rules. Our position is that if you are a religious or political leader and you oppose legal equality (in marriage, employment or anything else) for a whole group of people, you are a bigot, plain and simple. For several years now, virtually every time IFI and AFTAH have held public events we have been there with a big banner that reads "Opposition to Equal Rights is BIGOTRY."

Using this messaging we have helped label these opponents to legal equality as bigots in the public mind, and thus made them "damaged goods" to many would-be supporters. I am convinced that this played a role in their thus far twice failing to get an anti-equal marriage measure on Illinois's ballot, let alone passing it. This same strategy was what finally led to the demise of Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign (and her career), and the dramatic wind down of hate radio hostess "Dr." Laura Schlessinger's career. In the former case, we very much had a "vote first, campaign later" phenomenon – Bryant did an enormous amount of harm before she was brought down. In the latter case, I'm proud that our "StopDrLaura" campaign nipped the problem in the bud before she did nearly as much damage.

The LGBT community is not monolithic. We have virtually every political tendency and faction you can imagine. What we've seen over the past few weeks are the young, unaffiliated folks, and "radicals" like GLN, taking the ball and running with it now that the established organizations, commanding far greater financial resources, have been found wanting.


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.