|People poured into the streets to show their hate for Prop 8 when it passed, but whatâ€™s our strategy for getting rid of it? Photo by Rex Wockner.
Commentary by Michael Petrelis
If you count the devastating California Prop 22 loss in 2000, which does not show up on list of gay marriages propositions weâ€™ve lost, our list of such setbacks is 32, not 31 times we failed to persuade voters to uphold gay marriage principles. The 32 number is part of the more than 100 gay-specific measures weâ€™ve lost. With so many failures hanging around our necks, we need to debate other ways of approaching the measures, and I wish to offer a few radical ideas for consideration. But first, a short history lesson.
On election night in November 1988, I was in Portland, Oregon, at the headquarters of the group fighting ballot Measure 8, a prop that rescinded job protections for gay executive branch employees. The non-gay visible campaign was waged by Oregonians for Fairness, OFF, and they ran away from admitting the measure was about gays. Instead, OFF framed the debate as one of human rights, and the prop passed with 53% of the vote. I complained about the invisibility of gay people from the media strategy and OFF leaders told me to go away.
Twenty long, losing years later, on election night in November 2008, I was in a ballroom at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, rented by the No on Prop 8 executive committee, as results from national and state races came in. It was clear Prop 8 would pass and the California gay marriage experiment was coming to a end.
Just as in 1988, the official non-gay group fighting Prop 8 did everything in its power to deny the issue was about gay people and gay marriage, and the measure passed with 52% of voter approval. Using the same vague closeted campaign strategies, we had moved the needle one percentage point in two decades. But on election night 2008, I didnâ€™t wait around to hear the speeches of Gay Inc leaders. Iâ€™ve heard enough of their empty rhetoric.
Our messaging, and it starts with the branding of the names of the groups battling the measures, is premised on the toxic notion that there is something wrong with being a gay group. By omitting gay from the name, we not only send a self-stigmatizing signal to heterosexuals, we also donâ€™t connect to the large segment of the out gay community that doesnâ€™t emotionally connect to Equality-This or Fairness-That.
We saw in Maine a continuation of this problem with Protect Maine Equality. While PME made cosmetic changes to the media messaging by including actual gay people in TV ads, the underlying foundation of the campaign was one of equality and fairness, and those concepts donâ€™t resonate with moderate or older voters. Our bar has been set so low for so long, that in 2009 (!) it is a big deal for one of these efforts to show and talk about real gays.
Of course, simply having the gay word in the groupâ€™s name isnâ€™t enough for effective and bold advocacy. Witness GLAAD and NGLTF. And it wonâ€™t necessarily be enough to win the next state ballot measure if the lead organization is called Gay Marriage Equality Now. However, with so many ballot failures staring us in the collective face, I would like to see us experiment with how we engage the electorate, if only to restore some dignity and proud liberation to our movement, two components sorely missing from the equality and fairness methods.
Given our triple-digit losses, intransigent commitment to doing the same old campaign and not enough new thinking from Gay Inc, there is the real probability of setbacks in the next batch of state initiatives. I think we will at best, if weâ€™re lucky, move the needle slightly in our favor. As we know, in Maine, our opponents moved the needle fractionally in their direction since the Prop 8 vote, an alarming development that should force us to radically reconsider these campaigns.
A few radical ideas:
1) Our chief organization fighting the prop puts gay in the name and embraces the fact it is gay-specific.
2) Vague equality and fairness arguments, which arenâ€™t moving enough voters, are kept to a minimum.
3) Early on, admit we want the existence of gay people and our diverse families included in school curricula.
4) Have multiple TV ad campaigns, one soft and fuzzy like Hallmark greeting cards, another feisty and humorous, and a third gritty and hard-hitting about the toll discrimination has on gays.
5) Brighten up the signage with lighter, more welcoming colors. Incorporate the rainbow flag. Add words like gay marriage, and toss in a few human faces or stick figures.
6) Hire consultants who will show up to the gunfight at the OK corral with more than a dainty set of tweezers and nail clippers.
7) Set up many debates with opponents and learn from how Harvey Milk used debates to defeat the Briggs Initiative.
8) Be prepared for the other side to use lies and distortions in TV spots, and attempt pre-emptive moves.
9) Keep patronizing know-it-all gay lawyers who speak in legalese off TV.
10) Avoid labeling opponents skeevy or bigots or hateful. They may indeed be all of those things, but calling them that isnâ€™t bringing voters to our side.
11) On election night, when itâ€™s clear our side has lost, donâ€™t do like Prop 8 and No on 1 leaders and refuse to concede. Denial is not healthy or pretty.
12) With enthusiasm, fully embrace the wide diversity of the gay community and really put our creative fabulous nature to work.
13) Have a Plan B for when we lose. Leaders of the CA and Maine initiatives were absolutely clueless on this front. Two things happen on election night. You either win or lose. We never seem prepared to lose.
14) Make sure post-election rallies and community forums are scheduled for after the election loss. Enough with the â€śchicken without a headâ€ť post-election style of leadership.
15) Talk to pot heads. While gays have suffered too many ballot failures, people who smoke and promote medical marijuana win with voters. The Maine pot prop won with 59% of the vote. What are they doing right and how can we learn from them?
These ideas may not be enough to produce an honest-to-Goddess win, but theyâ€™ll go far to instill out and proud gay visibility to multi-million dollar campaigns, and when we lose, weâ€™ll at least lose as rightfully assertive gay people standing up for ourselves.
The author blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org