The next steps against Prop 8

September 16, 2009

Ragina Johnson and Elizabeth Terzakis report from a summit meeting in California where LGBT activists discussed the way forward toward repealing Proposition 8.

MORE THAN 75 activists representing dozens of organizations gathered August 29 to plan for a struggle to repeal Proposition 8--the same-sex marriage ban passed in California last November--in 2010. The event, titled "Working Together for Equality," was a step forward for the movement to achieve equal rights in California.

Attending organizations included Yes on Equality!, chapters of Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA), Love Honor Cherish (LHC), GSAFE: Gay-Straight Alliance for Equality, San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME), One Struggle One Fight (OSOF), various Democratic Clubs from throughout California, Equality Network, International Socialist Organization (ISO), RENWL, and the Courage Campaign.

Also present were representatives of various religious communities, unaffiliated people who have been organizing around LGBT issues for decades--including some who worked against the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 ballot measure that would have prevented gays and lesbians from working in public schools--as well as younger activists from around the Bay Area.

Protesting Proposition 8 after it passed last November
Protesting Proposition 8 after it passed last November (Brian Cruz | SW)

Molly McKay of MEUSA and Rick Jacobs from the Courage Campaign delivered statements of solidarity and encouraged their members to become involved in the work, despite the fact that the groups didn't take up leadership positions in the campaign. Both organizations have stressed the importance of winning equality and educating Californians on LGBT rights, whether an initiative to repeal Prop 8 appears on the ballot in 2010 or 2012. As McKay said:

[M]any Marriage Equality USA chapter leaders from across the state...attended and all agree that the vibe of this group is very positive, supportive and collaborative. The model of the statewide coalition structure developed is a good one--and the interim leadership group they formed includes many new grassroots activists--as well as names you will find familiar. Together, they represent a nice cross-section of the community."

What was accomplished

Some participants expressed concern about the potential for success given the real limitations of the organizational forces that are fully onboard for a 2010 campaign, and the daunting task of collecting a million signatures in a couple months' time. "We all want it in 2010," said Kyle Schmaus of the ISO in San Francisco. "We want full equality now. But we also want to be realistic about what it's going to take to make it happen."

The meeting, one of the most collaborative and democratic of the campaign so far, was a big step toward the necessary coordination of forces. Through it, an 11-member Interim Advisory Group (IAG) was elected. A diverse group of 2010 supporters including grassroots activists from communities of color, straight allies, seasoned LGBT organizers, and legal and financial professionals, the IAG will serve for about six weeks, until an official statewide signature-gathering leadership team can be voted in.

IAG members include Kelechi Anyanwu, an activist and accountant from San Jose; Lester Aponte from the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association of Los Angeles; John Henning from Love Honor Cherish (Los Angeles); Zakiya Khabir (SAME and ISO in San Diego); Chaz Lowe from Yes on Equality! (Sacramento); and straight ally Jane Wishon of Los Angeles.

With nine representatives from Southern California and only two from the Bay Area, attendees and delegates at the meeting encouraged the newly elected IAG to expand and include more Northern California activists.

IAG candidate Zakiya Khabir also noted the need for more representation of communities of color. "Racism creates divisions in society that are real and that will take real work to overcome," she said. "LGBT people are people of color and vice versa. We need to link our struggle with struggles for immigrant rights and health care and against police brutality if we want to build trust and bring more voices to the table."

The IAG is charged with fundraising and launching a Political Action Committee, or PAC, which California law requires to start an electoral campaign. One of the biggest concerns about going back to the ballot in 2010 is over whether sufficient money can be found to fund the campaign. Courage Campaign's ability to raise $136,000 in a few days to "finance the research necessary" for this project is a hopeful sign, and the formation of the IAG puts a structure in place through which people can donate specifically to the grassroots effort to Repeal Prop 8 in 2010.

There was also discussion over whether the IAG should be responsible for deciding on the ballot language. Two groups--Love Honor Cherish and Yes on Equality!--have already submitted placeholder text. Now that leadership from both groups--as well as many other proponents of a 2010 repeal effort--are part of the same coalition, having the IAG determine the ballot language makes the most sense (given time constraints) and would be the most democratic way of determining this important question.

Not surprisingly, there is a debate about the ballot language itself. Based on polling data, some activists argue for provisions in the initiative to ensure supporters of the ban that churches won't be required to perform same-sex marriages, and that issues concerning same-sex families would not be taught in schools. The details of these arguments can found online in Love Honor Cherish's "Blueprint for Equality."

According to the polls, including one or both of these provisions moves a few percentage points' worth of voters away from their anti-same-sex marriage position.

But both provisions are concessions to conservative forces, and neither is worth the potential harm they could do to the movement and to LGBT families. Reiterating something that is already a part of federal law--that religious institutions are not required to perform same-sex marriages--undermines the efforts of religious LGBT people who are trying to gain acceptance in their denominations. And banning references to same-sex marriage in schools devalues LGBT families, will undo efforts to prevent the kind of bullying that led 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera of Georgia to hang himself last spring, and violates the academic freedom of teachers.

Plus, no poll of future preferences can indicate the impact of a grassroots movement to gather signatures and reinstate civil rights. The progress of equal marriage legislation in other states, the upcoming National Equality March in Washington, and locally organized rallies, marches and acts of civil disobedience have the potential to shift voters' opinions quickly.

Campaign Structure

Several groups of activists submitted plans for how a signature-gathering campaign should be organized. After much discussion and debate, the "Davis Plan" was selected.

The plan is organized around 10 geographical regions, linked according to traffic patterns and proximity, and allotted delegates in proportion to voter population. It proposes staffed regional hubs for organizational meetings and signature gathering/drop off.

There was some dispute over whether staff should be paid. According to One Struggle One Fight member and National Equality March organizer Kip Williams:

Many people, especially our young leaders and organizers, pour their hearts into this work at great cost to their health, their jobs, their relationships and their security. We need an incredible volunteer turnout to gather signatures and build the campaign to restore equality, but we also need to support and sustain our organizers with a fair wage and health insurance. If we expect a world of respect and dignity, we have to treat our own people with respect and dignity as well.

While the Davis Plan is well-thought-out and sensible, not all of the regions indicated were represented at the meeting. It remains to be seen how the necessary connections will be made and whether the unrepresented regions will agree to the structure.

The regions that were represented agreed to hold town-hall meetings to elect representatives to a statewide Advisory Council by the middle of September. The meeting in San Francisco will take place September 19 from 1-3 p.m. at the Metropolitan Community Church.

State of the movement

One of the most significant outcomes of the meeting was the recognition on the part of organizers that the push to reinstate equal marriage is a civil rights movement.

This point was made early in the day by keynote speaker Ace Smith, a veteran campaign strategist and leader of Hillary Clinton's 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign in California, Texas and North Carolina. As Smith said:

This is a civil rights movement. You can't script it. You have to let people go. They have to be able to organize freely. Capturing lightning in a bottle--it either happens or it doesn't. You have to let it happen. It's what you're seeking to achieve, but you don't do it by planning a typical campaign...You can't be thinking about how to tweak this message and this sentence. You have to understand you're going to make some people uncomfortable.

As for whether 2010 or 2012 would be a better time to conduct a campaign, Smith said, "You can't pick the precise time to do something. Political graveyards are full with people who were waiting for the right time." He spoke of the need for constant pressure and making the best use of Internet technology to push the campaign forward. "We can use the new tools at our disposal like the Web, can have people download petitions to get their friends and classmates to sign, do fundraising online," Smith said.

When a representative of Grassroots Equality Network asked whether civil-disobedience or direct action had a place in the movement for marriage equality, Smith's answer was clear: "Definitely! This is a civil rights movement!"

That more people are starting to think this way was obvious later that same evening by the crossover attendance at a vigil for Tyli'a Mack, a transgender woman murdered in a hate crime in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week. The "vigil" occupied the intersection at 18th and Castro Streets--where activists have gathered for political rallies since the time of Harvey Milk.

On this evening, along with many to come, the legacy of Harvey Milk and Tyli'a Mack were both honored with participants chanting "Whose lives? Our lives. Whose streets? Our streets."

The need for activism is also being made clear by the actions of Democratic Party politicians. In 2004, Gavin Newsom used his position as mayor of San Francisco to put himself at the front of the fight for equal marriage by legalizing same-sex marriage in the city.

More recently, however, gubernatorial candidate Newsom has hid behind "splits in the movement" to take a non-position on whether to repeal Prop 8 in 2010. At a town hall meeting in Santa Ana on August 11, Newsom said, "We need to have consensus and...a strong foundation of support" to move forward in 2010, "and without that, it's probably not the right time...I do not support doing that if we're divided. There's no other way we can win. We have to be pragmatic and political in our process."

In 2004, Newsom was less "pragmatic" and more concerned with doing what he could to win equal rights. It's unfortunate--but not surprising--that his stance has "evolved."

Meanwhile, the positions of President Barack Obama and other Democratic Party notables on LGBT rights have ranged from erratic to contradictory. In June, for example, Obama became the first president to use the word "transgender" in a proclamation about LGBT Pride Month. But within days, his Justice Department made a legal defense of two measures Obama claims he opposes--the Defense of Marriage Act and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy against LGBT people in the military.

Because of the politicians' unreliable and inconsistent support for equal rights, LGBT activists will need to build a movement that is independent of both political parties and all other organizations that don't have full equality as their first priority. The movement must pressure politicians to live up to their best moments--like Newsom in 2004--but never trust them to do our work for us.

Further Reading

From the archives