After every unsuccessful campaign, there needs to be an assessment of strategy, priorities and leadership within that campaign. What went wrong, what went right and how do we move forward. While it is appropriate and cathartic to protest the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), if we spend too much time directing our energy on this anger we will miss the opportunity to regroup. I’m all for a boycott of the state of Utah and I think that there needs to be an immediate request made to Robert Redford to move the Sundance Film Festival out of Utah. But what is critical is that we assess the campaign. If we disintegrate into the same intolerance that was used against us- is that useful?
As we assess the campaign it is imperative that it not devolve into finger pointing. We do not want to see the McCain- Palin campaign’s embarrassing exercise into pulling one another down. Even if it was delicious to listen to all of the trash talk about Governor Sarah Palin; it should exemplify exactly what an unsuccessful campaign should not do during its post mordem. Let’s not spend time wagging fingers at Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese or Equality California Executive Director Jeff Kors for their leadership styles or Rosie O’Donnell for her lack of support of the No On 8 Campaign.
I have to admit to having a vested interest here; I was married on September 26th to my partner of 20 years and I want to see my marriage recognized. But we owe it to our community writ large to have a thoughtful assessment so we can move forward. In 1998 the California organization that represented the L/G/B/T community in Sacramento- LIFE Lobby- collapsed. A few of us came together and in the autumn of that year we founded the California Alliance for Pride and Equality- CAPE- which evolved into Equality California. As the organization began- we were careful to listen to our community and to take the lead from the grassroots, not only from our community’s leaders.
Admittedly I have been “out of the loop” for a number of years, but I would posit the question- Did this campaign rise from the grassroots or did it start at the top? As I look at the web site of Equality California- I am struck that an organization that began with a commitment to grassroots involvement has no staff dedicated to grassroots. This is not necessarily a criticism but merely an observation that needs further exploration. One could make the same argument about the Human Rights Campaign on whose Board of Governors I once served.
Much will be made of the fact that 70% of African American voters voted for Proposition 8. Recently, Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell- Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University- was interviewed by MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow about the irony of shattering one civil rights barrier for African Americans while raising the barrier higher for the L/G/B/T community. She noted that while African Americans tend to be liberal on a variety of social spending and political measures, they are notoriously conservative on religious social issues and that the bigot brigade mobilized black voters to defeat equality and fairness.
Since they were going to be in the voting booth anyway, it seemed like a good chance for them to take a moment and vote to amend the constitution to restrict the rights of gay men and lesbians. One vote for Obama to be the first African American president of the United States and another vote to keep gay men and lesbians subjugated to second class citizenship.
It was just over 40 years ago in 1967 that the Supreme Court decided Loving. v. Virginia. This case declared that the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law was unconstitutional and recognized the right of black people to marry whomever they wished. Harris-Lacewell notes that the anti-miscegenation laws, which banned blacks from marrying whites, codified our second class citizenship. These laws defined blackness as a kind of cancer or infection that had to be contained by state action. The ban on interracial marriage treated black people like a public health problem rather than as full and equal Americans.
After the 1964 Civil Rights Act granted black people access to public accommodations and the 1965 Voting Right Act protected the right to vote, we still needed the 1967 Loving decision to fully declare African American equality before the law. The language that opponents of gay marriage now use to “defend marriage” is nearly identical to the arguments used by racists who opposed the Loving decision.
The history of anti-miscegenation laws and anti-gay marriage laws is striking. Why didn’t the similarity resonate? Dr. Harris-Lacewell expressed concern to Maddow that the “No on 8” campaign did not do enough outreach to the African American community – specifically to the African American churches. She said that she had asked leaders about this and that the reaction was – “They would never talk to us”. “Did you ever ask?” she retorted?
If we have learned anything about a successful campaign from President-elect Obama’s brilliantly run organization is reliance on the grassroots. Has our community remembered the importance of the ground game and of community? President-elect Obama spoke of gay rights in venues not very welcoming of the idea. Did we learn to go into communities and speak to people who may not be very welcoming but who could learn from us and eventually support us? There is a world of difference from getting leadership of the Civil Rights movement to support LGBT equality and getting the African American community to support us. Back in the 1990’s the L/G/B/T community was successful in getting endorsement from civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, Dorothy Height, Coretta Scott King and John Lewis, but I think we neglected to move past the leadership into the community.
I don’t think that any of us has answers to what we could have done better, but it is worth examining- not just by the community’s leadership but by our community. While much of the fight on gay marriage will move back to the courts, we need to have a community dialogue and it needs to be about moving forward not about blame- we owe ourselves and our movement the opportunity to have this important and difficult conversation.