Publisher’s Note: Here is another post from our fabulous correspondent on Gender Issues, Elise Gowen. She is an LGBTQ activist and wage slave living in Seattle and is tracking many of these issues closely. For her previous post, see here.
A New Hope
As state Democrats shepherded this month’s historic gay marriage bill through the legislature, the anti-gay lobby stayed remarkably quiet. There was an air of resignation in the few terse statements issued by the National Organization of Marriage. They squawked a bit when Starbucks threw its support behind marriage equality, but their attempts to stir up a boycott were summarily ignored. They threatened to ouster any Republican lawmakers who dared cross the aisle, but their hearts just didn’t seem to be in it, and the seven Republicans who eventually crossed the aisle seemed to agree. Overall, the culture warriors were so subdued in those weeks that I felt a surge of hope. After all my wariness, which you can see on display in my last article, could it be that the optimists were right? Had the conservatives abandoned gay marriage in Washington state, and chosen to focus their resources on easier battles?
In the weeks since the bill was signed into law, Washington’s opponents of marriage equality, homegrown and carpetbaggers alike, have broken their silence and brought their plans into focus.
A Brief Summary of What’s Going On
As predicted, the same anti-gay organizations behind Referendum 71, the last-ditch effort to put the brakes on Washington’s 2009 domestic partnership law by sending it to a public vote, are back. This time they didn’t even wait for the ink to dry on the newly enacted gay marriage law before filing another referendum. Preserve Marriage Washington, a local front for the National Organization for Marriage, filed the papers just hours after Governor Gregoire signed the bill into law. NOM, which has played a crucial financial role in the rollbacks of marriage rights in California in 2008 and Maine in 2010, is a shadowy organization funded by a handful of secretive multi-million dollar donors. (It has fought court orders demanding it reveal its donor list.) This referendum challenge would put same-sex couples’ marriage rights to a public vote in November.
So far, so predictable.
But here’s a twist I didn’t see coming. On February 8, it was reported that conservative forces, headed up by Stephen Pidgeon, might also put a separate initiative on the ballot, I-1192, this time to “define marriage as between one man and one woman.”
This struck me as diabolically brilliant. The marriage equality foes must understand what we’ve known for a long time. It’s impossible to for them to win in a fair fight on the merits of their arguments. And if you can’t persuade the electorate, you might as well confuse them.
Two initiatives on the ballot muddies the water, ensuring that with enough confusing language, the electorate could be persuaded to cast the wrong vote for at least one. It would strain Washington gay rights advocates’ resources, and force them to split their time fighting two different fights. Underhanded, indeed, but a smart tactic when you have little but ever-dwindling fear and underhanded tactics in your arsenal.
So I originally thought. But now I’ve had some time to dig, and it’s become clear that I gave them too much credit. This is less of an elaborate ploy and more of an internal power struggle.
Dissension in the Ranks
It’s become clear that NOM, the largest and wealthiest umbrella organization for anti-gay marriage activity in the country, is less than thrilled that Stephen Pidgeon decided to wade in with his initiative.
Who’s Stephen Pidgeon? Before he became the one-man juggernaut behind I-1192, he was a crackpot lawyer from Everett with political ambitions. His ambitions aren’t exactly a secret: he’s running for attorney general this year, where he currently lags far behind King County Councilman Reagan Dunn in the race for the Republican nomination. Early last year, he was involved locally in the Bellingham anti-red cameras effort.
It’s not hard to imagine that he’s decided the best way to get his name out there in advance of the summer primaries is by diving into the same culture war waters that are currently buoying other dumb, crackpot candidates on a national scale like Rick Santorum, while threatening to drag social moderates like Mitt Romney under tow.
Like Santorum, Pidgeon has little chance of grasping the Republican nomination, and even less chance of winning the general election. His conception of the law is almost frighteningly bizarre. His theocratic vision for Washington state is articulated on his legal website with his list of “God-given human rights,” topped by “the right to worship the one true God.” No pretense of separation of church and state for this lawyer!
It’s clear that this is a slapdash operation run by a man with little funding and little understanding of the law.
Joseph Backholm, of Preserve Marriage Washington, the NOM offshoot, has called the initiative “incredibly confusing.”
Yet another prominent WA anti-gay activist, Gary Randall, a Pidgeon ally, insists there’s no tension between the anti-gay groups, and that there’s room at the table for both measures.
Randall sees Pidgeon’s initiative as a long-term solution that goes hand in hand with Ref-74’s short-term smackdown on gay couples. The trouble is, there’s nothing long-term about the initiative. The Washington state legislature already passed an anti-gay marriage law every bit as permanent as this one back in 1998. That’s right, the same people who just passed our shiny gay marriage law passed a law against it fourteen years ago. This year’s initiative would be just as easy to override if public opinion turns the other way.
Meanwhile, two competing petitions circulating could end up hurting both campaigns’ chances of making it to the ballot. If gay marriage opponents sign Pidgeon’s petition, they could neglect to sign NOM’s, mistakenly thinking that they’ve already signed “the gay marriage petition.” This seems especially likely with low-information voters who… how can I put this delicately? … are probably both petitions’ primary constituents.
Even if signature gatherers collect signatures for both together, which is by no means certain, Pidgeon’s measure faces further struggles.
Due to Washington state law, Pidgeon’s initiative will require almost twice as many signatures to make it to the ballot as the referendum, yet he will only have one more month, until July 6, as opposed to June 6 for the referendum. That’s a lot for a ragtag team of Washington bigots who may not have access to NOM’s coffers to pull together.
A Note of Caution
And yet, as fun as it is to watch the friction between Washington’s different homophobic camps, I don’t think we should treat either measure lightly.
If both somehow manage to appear on the ballot, it creates the appearances of a broad consensus against marriage equality. One challenge looks like a aberration… two looks like a genuine movement. The conservative culture war has always benefited from getting out in front and setting the tone of the debate, and two challenges from two different groups sets the tone of the debate just the way they want it.
And after all, they only have to win one to deny same-sex couples in Washington their rights.
Fighting back starts with identifying the players. These are not ordinary concerned citizens who were so alarmed by the prospect of gay couples marrying that they had to rise up and launch not one but two initiatives in their defense. These are the work of NOM and its handpicked players on one hand, a shadowy organization that exists solely to stomp on equality wherever it crops up in our nation, and in-state crackpots, who want nothing but power. (And can’t even design a petition that doesn’t look like it came from the back page of a Jack Chick tract.) Neither of them are in any way representative of the spirit of the people of Washington State.
As the campaign takes shape, and we get a better idea of just how much the anti-gay forces will struggle to collect signatures, and how closely they work together, we should have a better idea of what challenges this two-measure election will present for supporters of love and equality—and what we need to do to ensure that all couples have equal rights in Washington.