Posted by: sweeneyblog | January 27, 2012

The Gender Junkie: Marriage Equality has some serious hurdles, remember Prop 8?

Editor’s Note: I have the great pleasure of introducing another one of our guest columnists. The Gender Junkie has been a friend of mine for many years, and is currently a wage slave and political activist living in Seattle. She is very passionate and active in LGBTA issues and will be covering them off and on this year for The Political Junkie. Without further ado, I give you The Gender Junkie.

Guest Columnist: The Gender Junkie

Well, I’m excited.

Are you excited?
This Monday, Democrat Mary Margaret Haugen pledged to become the last senate vote needed to pass Washington’s gay marriage bill. Gay marriage is legal now!
Except not.
Here’s the next hurdle.If marriage equality opponents can collect more than 120,000 signatures by June 5 (90 days after the legislative session ends) they will be able to stop the bill from going into immediate effect and instead force the bill to go to a referendum vote in November, where the public will decide.

Anti-gay forces did this back in 2009 to the legislature’s “Everything But Marriage” domestic partnership bill, delaying protections for gay couples for months and wasting the state millions of dollars back in 2009. In the end, voters said thanks for checking, but broader protections for same sex couples were just fine with them, really. Referendum 71 passed 53%-47%.

At first glance, they’re fighting another losing battle.  Early polls show gay marriage support at an all-time high. Young and progressive voters feel passionate about this issue, and may even be passionate enough to turn up to the polls. (A fact that was probably not overlooked by Washington Democratic strategists when pushing this bill.)

On the other hand, I’m a queer who’s been paying attention to gay rights for longer than one election cycle. It’s my job to be cynical about these things.

I recall those heady, innocent days of September 2008. Two months before Election Day, Prop 8, the bill to overturn gay marriage, was polling badly, 55% to 38%. Gay marriage had been legal in California for months. Every major newspaper endorsed marriage equality. Google and Apple did too.

Couples were deliriously happy. Wedding tourism was booming.

The conventional wisdom was that straight Californians weren’t going to destroy all that. Maybe they weren’t necessarily ready for gay marriage, and they wouldn’t have voted for gay marriage if given the initial choice, but they weren’t just going to look at all this happiness–happiness that was demonstrably not bringing about the apocalypse–and vote it away.

Frank Schubert, the man tapped to spearhead the Prop 8 campaign knew what he had to do. One reporter summarized his strategy:

It was important to make gay marriage not just an issue about gays getting married, but about religious freedom, an ‘activist’ Court, and the potential threats to children.”  The more the water was muddied, the more opportunities voters had to latch onto a rationale for voting for the ban that wasn’t purely homophobic.”

Prop 8

The Prop 8 campaign found stories they could twist into suitably apocryphal rallying points. An earlier New Jersey case, disputing a local ministry’s attempt to claim a boardwalk pavilion as public access property with all the attendant tax breaks while still refusing to allow same sex couples to hold civil union there, was picked up by church groups and conservative columnists and twisted into a story of pastors being forced to perform gay marriages in church sanctuaries.

And surely, the more realistic pundits agreed, even if it hadn’t happened exactly like that, it was only a matter of time until it did. A slippery slope rationale was still a rationale.

Conservative Evangelical and Catholic churches, who have long nurtured a persecution complex, latched onto this lie with gusto. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true. It fit into a much larger mythos that went far beyond the modest constraints of reality.

The anti-gay forces also attacked, with predictable fervor, a San Francisco elementary school that allowed its students to go on a field trip to make a surprise visit to their teacher at her wedding to her longtime partner.  The hysterical reactions were unsurprising. Gay people existing, in public, acting like they were just as worthy as straight people, was spun in the hands of Prop 8 proponents as an act of aggression against Christians, impressionable children, and all of society. Do you want your six years old learning about gay marriage? Do you want them thinking it’s okay to turn out that way?

Anti-Prop 8 forces were moderate political campaigners. I don’t think it ever really occurred to them to answer, “Yes.”

The official Vote No yard sign

Instead of confronting homophobia head on, the campaign tried to play it safe, and steer the terms of the debate around to fairness.

In October, while momentum was turning in Prop 8’s favor, one of the first television ads No on Prop 8 ran was a short conversation between two women. One admits she’s not so sure about this gay marriage thing. Her friend looks pensive. “I understand why you feel that way, but are you willing to eliminate rights and have our laws treat people differently?” “No!”

This was about the meekest, blandest way to make the case against Prop 8 imaginable.

And the meekness wasn’t just reserved for the messaging. Many in the “No on Prop 8” side were blindsided by the sheer amount of money the Roman Catholic and Mormon Churches poured in from outside the state. By the time the top-down structured “No on Prop 8” campaign put out a call for fundraising help to the blogosphere and social media networks, the same circles that were helping to push Obama to victory, it was simply too late.

In the end, the official No on Prop 8 campaign never quite figured out how comfortable it was with gay people. Instead, they tried to other, less controversial appeals to inertia, fairness,  and distrust of government intrusion into private lives.  Honest, touching testimonies of gay couples’ love and the ugly realities of gay oppression fell by the wayside.

We may have a chance to find out if a bolder pro-equality campaign could have made the difference.

Back in Washington, here and now, a UW poll revealed that should the legislature pass the gay marriage bill, 55% of respondents would vote to keep it in place, and only 38% would vote to revoke gay marriage. That’s encouraging, until you recall that it’s the exact same numbers Prop 8 polls were showing two months out from the election.

Even more important is the second question, asking respondents which response best describes their own position towards gay marriage: more legal recognition, the same, or less? A mere 43% percent say they believe gay couples deserve full marriage rights. 22% favor our current “everything but the name” situation, and a whopping 32% want same sex couple stripped of some or all of their current legal recognition.

That’s a lot of people who are either already on board with the gay-hating agenda, or who could be swayed to vote no, believing that current protections are enough.

So what can we do?

Thankfully, the social terrain is different than it was in 2008, and Washington is a different state than California.

And Washington United for Marriage has done a lot to learn from the mistakes of Prop 8. Their first act was to organize a series of town hall style meetings to spur grassroots and netroots enthusiasm, and center the focus of the debate where it belongs, on the lives and experiences and rights of same sex families. These meetings have been held all over the state, not just the urban Puget Sound. And they are encouraging actual, real live gay couples to show up to these meetings and talk about how having the right to marry will effect their lives in concrete ways. Editor’s Note: You can read my (Riley’s) write-up of just such a meeting in Bellingham here.

An ad that went viral across the internet this fall represents the path not taken by No on Prop 8.

The 2 minute short film puts the viewer in the shoes of its main character as the camera–you–fall in love with a young man, from the first shy smile and nervously scribbled phone number, through the dates and romance and family grief and fights and make ups. Only when he proposes marriage to you does the camera pull back to reveal that you’ve been watching, been immersed in, a love story between two men.

Such an ad would have been almost unimaginable four years ago. Which is a shame, because the very things that make it too bold for a mainstream campaign are the very things that make it work: it’s a simple narrative of love starring a same-sex couple, not talking about them, and it invites, even compels, you to identify with them, not just tolerate them.

This is the path to victory, and it’s also just plain smart on the macro level. This battle goes beyond winning one election. It’s about changing the culture so that LGBT people don’t have to live in fear, or live under inequality. Being othered, by society and by the state, takes a toll on queer individuals that has an impact far beyond the immediate realm of gay marriage. When a group is so routinely bullied and rejected that depression, poverty, and substance abuse run rampant in the community, especially among people of color, the issue is obviously much bigger than the word “marriage.” This about deciding whether we’re okay with bigotry in this society.

The greatest political strength of gay marriage is that it is a easy choice to protect equality, with no downsides. It’s a simple narrative, and it’s about love, in a political landscape that offers little simplicity and even less love.

Let’s hope, moving forward, that we take nothing for granted in this fight, and keep that in mind. We owe gay youth that much.



  1. Good commentary. Thanks for the video link.
    I had no idea you identified as queer!

    • Oh, sorry, the whole “guest columnist” thing went over my heard…!
      Apparently one cannot edit or delete comments after posting them.

      • No worries, a few other people missed it too. Yes, this is my good friend Elise from down in Seattle. I love that video, it is pitch-perfect for convincing the most grumpy of homophobes.

  2. Well stated, Elise, and thanks to you Riley for providing the space. Let’s have a big crowd from Whatcom County at Marriage Equality Lobby day on February 16

  3. I agree that the No on prop 8 people messed up, but when Elise in Seattle suggests that a better campaign idea is more “…Honest, touching testimonies of gay couples’ love…” I would caution that Seattle gives a false sense of reality as to the voters feelings on this. As you noticed, a much higher amount of people statewide support equal partnership rights than there are who support using the word marriage.

    In the pursuit of 51% of the vote, you might not be able to build that coalition entirely out of people who will feel warm and happy seeing testimonies of gay love. Many people who are more than happy to vote in favor of it, would do so in relation to limiting government tyrany, and letting people have options, so their yes vote would not be a specific endorsement of any one group. ie you don’t gotta like or support homosexuals, islamics, or any other group to be in support of the government treating every taxpayer equally.

    So let me be straight with you (ar ar), there are yes votes available on this issue who would swing the other way (ar ar) if two men showed up at that voters door to solicit their vote, and gave eachother a big hug and sloppy passionate kiss to prove a point.

    Is that fair? Is that how we wish the world was? Heck no.
    But do you want 50% or not?

    The California campaign was partly right, they just messed up on many fronts. I just don’t think that a “flaunt it” strategy will retain the “fairness and tolerance votes” that will ensure this vote wins.

    • I don’t think Elise is arguing for a “flaunt it” strategy, but rather presenting the central message not as fairness or equality, because that is a message that is been turned around by the religious right, but instead you present a “pro-family, pro-love and commitment” message. You get the voter to identify with the LGBT community, therefore changing the dynamic. I find the most interesting factoid is the biggest determining factor for whether or not you support marriage equality is . . . Do you know someone personally who is gay? Gallup found that is a larger factor than race, gender, age or political persuasion. By basing a message around introducing and identifying bigoted communities with gay individuals, it changes minds.

      I noticed you highlighted that Elise lives in Seattle, I can testify she grew up in a very conservative community in Thurston County, and is well aware of the challenges of persuading the undependable.

    • Thanks for the comment, Huey. I genuinely appreciate the alternative perspective.

      I have a few points I want to make, though.

      1. Anti-gays will accuse gay people of forcing our sexuality on them no matter how cautiously we proceed. To them, we’re “flaunting it” by existing.

      2. As Riley said, the greatest indicator of support for gay rights is knowing gay people. It has nothing to do with seeing passionate sloppy kisses, it has to do with knowing us. Identifying with us. Seeing our struggles as essentially the same as their struggles, just with infuriating legal inequality on top of all the usual struggles of surviving and supporting a family and paying the bills.

      4. Americans love equality and “limiting government tyranny,” but we have an ugly habit of voting against those things if the person whose rights are up for debate is a scary Other.

      It doesn’t make gay people look like less of a scary Other by having a campaign that refuses to talk about us or correct misconceptions about us. It just makes it look like we have something to hide.

      And treating undecided voters like homophobes who will never get over their homophobia sells them short, and it sells the community short.

      5. I tend to be a big believer in the idea that whoever can present the most compelling narrative to the voters wins the election. Yes on Prop 8 found a narrative that allowed them to strike at people’s fears, and No on Prop 8 never found a better one.

      “Pro-family, pro-commitment, pro-community,” as Riley put it, is better than fear. It’s hopeful, it rejects and upends the other side’s framing of the debate and puts it on our terms, and best of all, it’s true.

      • Differing good insticts apply to different parts of the electoral equation. Everything is a balance, and the more comprehensively you have looked at the levers and buttons, the better the campaign might be.

        I’ll be more specific: I received a mailout during ref.71 that I thought was il advised. It was rampant with pictures of various happy intimate looking gay couples. It reduced my enthusiasm to vote the right way. I love gay people, but this was not the part I wanted to tell my government to act about. My vote as part of the public government votership was being asked to rule on the love, not on the fact that the government SHOULD NOT be able to rule on the love. The love shouldn’t be up for judgement, and this frame made the vote synonamous with the voters being empowered to call one brand of love right or wrong, legal or not. That misses the point for so many voters. I wanted to tick a box that said “government can’t judge love”, not a box that said “this type of love gets the seal of approval at this time, some other type may or may not receive government and public accreditation at some other time”.

        For many voters, it’s not a gay thing, it’s a powers of government thing. You will not get those votes if the vote is made to be “is gay okay?”. Even if those voters personally think that gay is okay, they don’t want that frame to BE a vote that can win or lose. Then all sorts of other groups’ rights would hang in the balance of whether they were “ok” rather than what the limits of government tyrany should be over personal lives. The latter is a more popular issue over the voters who will make or break the 50% mark on this issue. I’m trying to help here.

        For example, if there was a law on the books that prevented a specific sexual practice between consenting heterosexual m/f couples, and the campaign was to legalize it, I would have been equally uncomfortable by a photo of a man and woman cozied up together on a couch with a smirk on their face. Because then, you are not selling me the constitution and fairness and legal equality… you are selling me a hummer, and it makes think “for god sakes, get a room!”. Not because I disaprove, but because my support for the vote is exactly because it ain’t the government’s business and is certainly not my business. A story about happy couples and their hummery relationship is not the argument that resonates to me. My personal approval should not be what I am voting on. My support should be about the fact that my personal approval should be IRRELEVANT.

  4. We’re now at the point where those who oppose equal marriage are dusting off an argument so old, it once was called “reverse discrimination”– by those whose bigotry was obvious to everyone but themselves.

    The argument goes like this: My rights are being infringed upon because of these other people’s newly enforced rights. This argument whines about efforts to enforce anti-discrimination protections, portraying such encroachment as an assault on that great American fair play virtue: the right to discriminate because I believe my religion says I can.

    Apparently there are photographers out there who because of their religious faith, could not possibly stomach getting paid to take pictures of same-sex newlyweds; yet, will be forced to do so or run the risk of being sued for discrimination.(

    Well, I hope anyone smart enough to read this blog will waste no business on such fools. My highly talented, professional and LGTB-friendly daughter will be able to take beautiful pictures of your event without drama or bullshit.

    Nice job Elise.

  5. […] wage slave living in Seattle and is tracking many of these issues closely. For her previous post, see here. Guest Columnist: The Gender […]

  6. […] wage slave living in Seattle and is tracking many of these issues closely. For her previous post, see here. Guest Columnist: The Gender […]

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