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by John Corvino
The Gay Moralist
Proposition 8 passed, revoking marriage rights for gays and lesbians in California and setting back the gay-rights movement throughout the country.
So did similar bans in Florida and Arizona, not to mention an Arkansas ban on adoption or foster parenting by unmarried couples. Supporters of the latter ban–written expressly to thwart “the gay agenda”–apparently believe that it is better for children to languish in state care than to have loving gay parents.
With the pressure of the election behind us, we can step back and talk about long-term strategy. What must we do to convince majorities that our love is just as worthy as theirs?
Some will complain that we shouldn’t have to convince them. In an ideal world, that would be true. In the real world, it’s useless whining. Let’s face it: complaining that we shouldn’t have to fight for fundamental rights never helped anyone secure their fundamental rights.
Here are my top five strategic suggestions as we move forward.
1. Tell our stories. A striking feature of the various anti-amendment campaigns was the invisibility of those they were supposed to help: gay people. I’m grateful for straight people who support our rights. But straight people can’t directly illustrate the palpable ways in which our families matter to us.
For every time the “Yes on 8” campaign showed that little girl telling her mom how she learned in school about two princes who got married, I wish “No on 8” would have shown a little girl asking her mom why Aunt Ellen and Aunt Portia can’t get married. Or a little boy asking his two adoptive dads–who sacrifice to make his life better–why they can’t get married.
I’m guessing that focus groups showed that images of actual gays turn off swing voters (which, if true, would be further evidence of the stigma we still face). I’m skeptical about focus-groups–focus groups, after all, gave us New Coke.
But whatever was true for the campaign, it’s time now for the long view. Over time, people tend to be more pro-gay the more they know actual gay people.
2. Cut the vague talk about “rights” and “discrimination.” It’s wrong to take away rights, right? Well, sure–but we need to be more specific than that.
Gay-rights opponents cleverly granted the premise that it’s wrong to take away rights, and then argued (falsely, but effectively) that marriage equality meant taking away THEIR rights, specifically their parental and religious rights, or that gay adoption interfered with a child’s right to a mother and father.
It’s not enough, therefore, merely to demand “rights” or to oppose “discrimination.” We need to flesh out why these rights matter and why this particular discrimination is harmful and wrong. That requires talking about the moral value of our relationships–and not just talking about it, but showing it (see #1).
3. Use words like “bigot” and “hate” sparingly. There is no doubt that some of our opponents are hateful bigots. (I’ve got the mail to prove it.) But 5.7 million California voters?
No. Most of those who voted yes are people you’d recognize as your coworkers, your neighbors, your grandma. Misinformed? Absolutely. Shortsighted? Without a doubt. But generally not hateful.
Furthermore, as a strategic matter, labeling widespread religious and parental concerns as “hateful” doesn’t typically convert those who harbor them.
4. Don’t let opponents hide behind religion. 83 percent of weekly churchgoers voted in favor of Prop. 8, and they contributed a large percentage of the $36 million raised to promote it. 90 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics voted against it.
To be sure, there were progressive religious organizations and individuals who strongly opposed the amendment. We should continue to harness their enthusiasm: God, after all, can be invoked by all sides of the political spectrum. But we should also recognize the dangers inherent in accepting beliefs “on faith.”
In my view, America is due for a healthy dose of religious skepticism, as well as a vigorous conversation about what religious freedom means and why.
5. Patience, yes; complacency, never. Time is on our side. California marriage-equality opponents drew 61% of the vote in 2000 but only 52% this year. Voters under 30 heavily opposed Prop. 8.
Meanwhile, ordinary gay and lesbian citizens are motivated like they haven’t been in some time. They are peacefully demonstrating outside churches and city halls; they are donating time and money; they are coming out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
Ironically, opponents’ efforts to “protect children” from learning about gay people has not only catapulted us to the front of the news, it has increased our determination to make our everyday presence known.
We need to do that for our own dignity. But we also need to do it for those children, who deserve an equal chance at “happily ever after” regardless of their sexual orientation. Keep fighting the good fight.