By Ben Wolford
Fusion staff writer
A Proposition 8 protester paraded a sign with those words around downtown Houston Nov. 15. The Houston demonstration was one of scores that day in all 50 states, Canada, England and Australia, speaking out against the California vote to ban same-sex marriage.
Photographers were there, too, taking thousands of pictures of thousands of signs and thousands of faces. Hordes of people filled streets in a First Amendment fashion not seen supporting an American civil rights movement since the ‘60s.
To scan the millions of images on a Google search of “Proposition 8 protests” is sharply captivating. There are mad, screaming faces with bulging neck muscles. There are faces surrounded by police in riot gear. There are contemplative, quiet faces. There are kissing faces.
But can they all be the face of this fresh, re-energized gay rights movement?
“That’s a good question,” says Molly Temple, a University of California at Los Angeles student who’s been active in opposing Prop. 8. “I think that there is a certain amount of unity, but I think maybe if we were to collect a little more and create a larger force, there could be more of a visible movement. There are a lot of little things popping up in different communities.”
But at least people are angry.
That’s what long-time activist Fred Karger says. “I’m glad we lost. We needed that wake-up call.”
The call came courtesy of 52 percent of Golden State voters who passed Prop. 8.
“I think I was shocked and hurt but not terribly surprised,” says Peter Carley, counselor in residence at the LGBT resource center at UCLA. “It was a majority voting on a minority right, and I think in this case people generally voted from fear rather than knowledge.”
The atmosphere at UCLA’s campus Nov. 5 was gloom mixed with hope, Carley says. “The students were really active, really engaged and really devastated … There was kind of an emotional and moral exhaustion. Although it was a bittersweet moment because, you know, the Barack thing was great. There was finally someone reasonably progressive in the White House.”
Temple saw a similar reaction — people weren’t happy.
“There was a lot of disappointment and devastation and not to mention a bunch of protests,” says Temple, a second-year world arts and culture student. “Some demonstrations ended up happening at or around UCLA where students were involved. I went to a couple.”
The reactive protests at UCLA were just a sample of something bigger, a collective barrage of independent revolts. It was obvious from the headlines: “Police, demonstrators clash at Prop. 8 protest,” which the Los Angeles Times ran the next day. The San Francisco Chronicle reported people marching on city halls across the country Nov. 15.
But even those were warning shots for the campaigns in the works.
Karger has campaigned for gay rights since about the time Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, was assassinated in 1978. He says he’s never seen such a surge of involvement.
Karger himself went for the throat with his group, Californians Against Hate. They dug up public records of how much money individuals and firms gave to yes-on-Prop.-8 campaigns. A commercial on the group’s Web site introduces a white-haired woman and the text, “Elsa Prince of Holland, Michigan gave $450,000 to eliminate same-sex marriage in California.” Then a little boy tossing a baseball looks up to ask, “Why did you give so much money, grandma?”
“My goal was to make it socially unacceptable to take away the rights of a minority,” Karger says. But the more common tactic, it seems, is to make it socially acceptable to be that minority.
Equality California came up with the idea of tell-three.org in response to the passage of Prop. 8. The aim of the campaign is to get gays and lesbians to tell three non-LGBT people about their lives.
“Yes, the 15-year-olds of this country are overwhelmingly supportive of our rights,” the Tell 3 Web site reads. “But if we don’t want to wait around for today’s teenagers to become middle-aged before we get equality, we’re going to have to get more people to support us.”
Similarly, Temple and other UCLA students created multimedia stories that look intimately into gay and lesbian couples’ lives and posted them at 13lovestories.com. “I think I fell in love at first sight,” says Maribeth in Temple’s audio slideshow, “Jean & Maribeth.”
“One of the problems that we recognized in the ‘No on Prop. 8 Campaign’ was that there were no actual faces shown, no actual stories shown, or LGBT families or people in the community,” Temple says. “And so (13 Love Stories) is kind of putting a face to this issue.”
Rights activists in Ohio show the face in a different sense.
“College and university students who believe in equality issues for (LGBT) Ohio are registering student teams with us and committing to design and participate in public service projects in their community,” says Peter Caborn, deputy director for Equality Ohio. “So, for example, a team of students from Kent State could register a CAUSE team with us and let us know that they have the intent of donating 10 hours a week to the animal shelter.”
CAUSE stands for College and University Students for Equality. Caborn says the project, which so far has no Kent State volunteers, aims to show Ohioans gay and lesbian citizens “are giving back to their community no less than other people,” as they push for, among other things, equal housing and employment legislation.
All the activism must have inspired something in the air. Iowa’s Supreme Court and Vermont’s state legislature each decided five days apart in April that same-sex marriage should be legal in their states. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, it already was. That makes 46 states that still restrict marrying rights, 46 battlegrounds and 46 chances to make 46 strides toward equality.
Patrick Egan, a researcher in politics and public policy at New York University, co-authored a study after Prop. 8 passed to find out which demographics voted which way. Nothing surprising there. Seventy percent of those who attend a religious service each week voted in favor. Eighty-one percent of Republicans voted in favor. Sixty percent of those without friends who are gay or lesbian voted in favor.
“In other research that I’ve done, that result is pretty consistent that members of those groups — conservative Republicans, more religious folks — all tend to be most opposed to the idea of legal same-sex marriage,” Egan says.
In light of these statistics, two California students, Ali Shams and Kaelan Housewright, proposed a measure for the ballot of next year’s November elections that, if passed, would reword state statutes to make “marriage” a social ceremony and “domestic partners” the legal term. That would effectively dodge the same-sex marriage issue altogether, which, Shams and Housewright hope, would cater to the religious voters.
Meanwhile, other actions build up in California’s legal channels. Since Prop. 8 passed, the California Supreme Court has been preparing for and listening to arguments challenging the changes the election authorized. Any ruling from the court must come no later than June 2.
On March 5, it held a hearing to discuss appeals to overturn Prop. 8, but the court didn’t seem likely to reverse the election results.
“… What I’m picking up from the oral argument in this case is this court should willy-nilly disregard the will of the people,” the New York Times reported Justice Joyce L. Kennard saying to the attorneys appealing Prop. 8. They seemed more likely to budge on another issue: whether pre-existing same-sex marriages will remain valid.
In May of last year, the court ruled same-sex marriages legal when they hadn’t been previously. Between May and November, an estimated 18,000 marriages were performed.
Carley, a husband and father of two children, was one of those 18,000 couples. He says he has feelings of being in limbo while waiting for the court decision. “But it doesn’t change how I feel about my husband or my kids,” he says. “We’re still a family. So they can try, but they can’t really take it away from me.”
Despite the outcome of any current protests, campaigns, ballot items or court rulings, Karger says reverberations from Prop. 8’s passing will speed movement toward equal rights by a generation. “If we’d plodded along like we have been doing — winning legal cases state-by-state, here and there — it might have taken two generations to really get full equal rights, federally. But I think this is going to take 20 years off our battle. I know it.”
Egan’s research shows it’s headed that way. Support for legalizing same-sex marriage has grown over the last eight years. “What happened in California is that a pretty favorable debate regarding same-sex marriage happened statewide,” he says.
“Probably the best example is to look in Massachusetts where the state supreme court required the state to start issuing licenses to same-sex couples, and after a big statewide debate, the state legislature resisted changing the constitution to prohibit that,” Egan says. “As people see that this happens, and the sky doesn’t fall, a substantial proportion of people change their opinion.”
Who knows? Maybe individual grassroots movements are more effective than the conventional unified approach. As Karger says, “We don’t have a Martin Luther King Jr., but I don’t think we need one. We just need to continue with the progress we’re making.”
Maybe unity doesn’t have to mean a march on Washington. Maybe it’s not marching at all.
Carley says it’s telling a story.
“I think we might win the next time,” he says. “If we get clearer in presenting ourselves and presenting our stories, I think people will really take a second look at it.”