Marital Blitz

Do you remember the fall 2004 gay-bashing festival? In 13 states, voters agreed to add to their constitutions a phrase like this one: "Marriage is between one man and one woman." The gay-bashing came afterward, when Democrats and liberal pundits declared that greedy gay folks had brought those initiatives on themselves with their foolish pursuit of marriage equality -- and were therefore responsible for John Kerry's loss. Political scientists have since debunked the claim that anti-marriage initiatives brought Kerry down. But here's the bad news: The anti-marriage initiatives are back.

This fall, Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMAs), which declare that "marriage is between one man and one woman," and SuperDOMA amendment initiatives, which also ban "marriage-like" recognition of same-sex pairs, will be on the ballot in Alabama, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. They're also likely to qualify for the ballot in Arizona, California, and Colorado. At the same time, marriage-equality lawsuits are percolating up through the courts in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Washington; at least one is likely to win soon, giving culture warriors an excuse to roar out still more marriage-protection proposals. Worse yet, once these initiatives pass, family-values folks will renege on their moderate rhetoric and use them to try to ban any legal recognition, no matter how small or even symbolic, of same-sex couples.

Here's the good news. First, 2004's DOMA and SuperDOMA amendments were misread. They did not represent an anti-gay backlash; in fact, public opinion toward lesbians and gay men is warming more every day. Second, the "gay agenda" now has a new plan for winning over the long haul. For years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) legal groups have been the most successful branches of what's loosely called the gay movement. As a result, there's been a winning air war -- but too few ground troops to solidify some of those wins. Now the political groups are catching up. LGBT organizations have developed a strategic plan to win marriage equality -- and along the way, anti-discrimination laws, zero-tolerance for school gay-bashing, and more.

A 15-year strategy has been agreed to by all the major organizational players. Funding is in place, and new tactics are being developed and tested in this year's biggest clashes with anti-gay groups. As a result, says Rodger McFarlane, executive director of the LGBT-focused Gill Foundation, "for marriage, there is a strategy, movement coherence, and funding at scale." Along the way, LGBT groups are planning to change the political climate in ways that will force politicians to support gay rights.

And the best news? As part of those tactics, LGBT groups are helping to build a new progressive coalition from the ground up.

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Understanding that 15-year plan requires understanding the context: Despite the fact that Americans keep voting for DOMAs, there is no anti-gay backlash. Rather, each year more Americans think lesbians and gay men should be treated as full citizens. In 1977, Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans believed you shouldn't be fired just for being lesbian or gay; by May 2003, that figure was 88 percent. In 1992, 59 percent of Americans thought lesbians and gay men should serve openly in the military; in 2005, that figure was almost 80 percent.

With this public support, in 2005 -- right after 2004's putative anti-gay "backlash" -- there was tremendous LGBT progress. Illinois and Maine passed anti-discrimination laws. California's legislature voted to gender-neutralize marriage -- a historic first -- despite Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto. Massachusetts' legislators upheld marriage equality. Connecticut's legislature passed a civil unions law. Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Topeka -- hardly liberal bastions -- passed LGBT antidiscrimination laws; Virginia's governor and Salt Lake City's mayor extended health-insurance coverage to government employees' same-sex domestic partners; and Alaska's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that -- despite the state's DOMA -- local governments must offer equal benefits to employees' married spouses or same-sex partners. That's why the religious right is so eager to run anti-marriage measures. "We were so close to winning completely on basic nondiscrimination that the discussion had to go to this completely new level in order to shock and create pause among the general voters," said Thalia Zepatos, a National Lesbian & Gay Task Force field organizer in California.

DOMAs are sneaky: They don't mention lesbians and gay men. If Americans think about same-sex marriage at all, they're torn between the basic American belief that "fair is fair," and the gut sense that "marriage has always been this way." DOMAs appeal to the latter idea. The pro-DOMA campaigners explicitly tell voters that the measure doesn't insult lesbians and gay men, but merely protects the word "marriage." After 30 years of running anti-gay ballot initiatives, the religious right has finally found a winning phraseology. After all, who's hurt when you tell people who can't get married, that they really, really can't get married?

DOMAs have been so successful that, like potato chips, no state can pass just one. Between 1995 and 2003, 40 states put DOMAs on the books -- before Massachusetts opened marriage, before 13 states in 2004 passed all-but-redundant anti-marriage constitutional amendments. Consider Virginia, where the legislature passed its first DOMA statute in 1997, beefed it up to a SuperDOMA in 2004, and now has a SuperDOMA constitutional amendment on the 2006 ballot.

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The 2004 marriage initiatives and the subsequent Democratic gay-bashing had a salutary effect on LGBT organizations. "People had a strategic epiphany that [victory] wasn't going to come in an avalanche," said Evan Wolfson, founding director of the national group Freedom to Marry. "We would need a fifteen-year plan, not a two-year plan. That sunk in in a much more grounded way, with a sober awareness that it would be much longer and harder."

The 2004 votes woke the community up to the fact that the LGBT legal superheroes (Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders; National Center for Lesbian Rights; and ACLU's Gay Rights Project) could not defend their marriage gains. "[W]ith all the brilliant legal scholars that we have -- and there are many -- for whatever reason, there's been a blind spot on the political side," said Marty Rouse, who as director of MassEquality helped stop the Massachusetts legislature from putting the Goodridge marriage decision, which opened marriage to same-sex pairs, up for a popular vote. At the same time, the LGBT community has been bitterly reminded that Democratic politicians will join in the anti-gay attacks -- unless LGBT groups make clear that doing so has a serious cost.

It's hard to convey the level of cold concentrated fury left by, say, Kerry's backstabbing in Massachusetts in 2004 and 2005, when he supported a state constitutional amendment that would undo the Goodridge marriages, or by Tennessee Democratic Congressman Harold Ford's vote in favor of a Federal Marriage Amendment. In one interview after another, LGBT advocates emphasized that gay money is no longer flowing to just any Democrat who asks. "We will reward our friends and punish the wicked," said Rodger McFarlane of the Gill Action Fund.

LGBT forces have decided to bulk up politically. "What can we build now to win our freedom?" is the question of the moment, said Rouse. "We can't wait for the Democratic Party. We have to do this for ourselves." That's possible in part because of money. A generation of frontline LGBT political activists are now in major funding positions, as they weren't before. Consider the transformation of the important Gill Foundation, launched by Colorado software entrepreneur Tim Gill in 1994 after his state passed an anti-gay constitutional amendment (later overturned by the Supreme Court). In 2004, Gill hired a new executive director: the colorful and impatient activist Rodger McFarlane. Under McFarlane's leadership at the Gill Action Fund, the foundation's 501(c)(4) sibling, Gill has been funding in-depth research on opinions and voting behavior. McFarlane has also begun convening all the major LGBT organizational players in hopes of coming up with long-term plans on marriage equality, federal legislation, and faith-based organizing -- which he will then help fund.

Elsewhere, LGBT political activists Urvashi Vaid and Tim Sweeney have stepped into key funding positions at family foundations committed to LGBT issues. These players are rounding up still other funders -- progressive allies like Gara LaMarche at the Open Society Institute and wealthy individual lesbians and gay men -- to fill out the war chest. At the Arcus Foundation, Vaid just gave $3 million -- a record donation for LGBT rights -- to the Task Force's movement-building, training, and organizing efforts. Others are funding the Equality Federation, a brand-new coalition of LGBT state groups that helps local activists meet and swap experiences, tactics, insights, and resources. All politics are local, especially LGBT-related politics. So, therefore, are the approaches to winning marriage equality. The strategy -- which has been developed and agreed to by people involved in every major LGBT organization -- is what Wolfson is calling the "2020 Vision," as outlined at the Task Force's Creating Change conference last fall. By the year 2020 (give or take five years), the goal is for 10 states to have full-marriage equality; 10 states to have civil unions or the equivalent; 10 states to have nondiscrimination laws and be repealing (or peeling back the effects of) their anti-gay marriage amendments; and the final 20 states to show progress.

An informed look at the national map shows that all these goals are achievable. Five state courts -- in Washington, New Jersey, California, New York, and Connecticut, probably in that order -- could easily rule in favor of marriage equality in one to five years. (Washington's decision, expected for months, could come any moment.) All the New England states could move to marriage equality -- some by legislature, some by judiciary. That optimism is solidly founded: No New England state has passed a DOMA constitutional amendment; public opinion favors LGBT equality; the region shares Boston's media market and has seen that married same-sex couples haven't hurt Massachusetts; each state has a relatively well-organized LGBT presence; and each state's constitution is hard to amend.

New Jersey, a DOMA-free state, is also likely to get marriage equality sooner rather than later. Opinion polls consistently show 55 percent of the state's voters favor full marriage equality. The legislature has passed and then beefed up a domestic-partnership law, and a marriage lawsuit is moving steadily through the state's friendly courts. Oregon's savvy and muscular LGBT group will almost certainly win civil unions, and by 2020 could even repeal its anti-marriage amendment -- and go the distance.

In the bottom 20 states -- predictably the South and the northwestern plains states -- the goals are more modest. "Can every state support marriage?" Rouse says. "Absolutely not. Can they pass nondiscrimination bills? I think that's possible. Alabama is the only state in the country where not one gay person has a right. Why not fight for a nondiscrimination law in Birmingham? Even if we don't win but put up a good fight, that sends a message." This kind of effort takes political muscle with local city councils and in state legislatures, precisely the kind of muscle that LGBT organizations are now building.

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As in most progressive movements these days, LGBT organizations are moving staff and funding toward the states. There, the top priorities between now and November are holding the high-profile gains in Massachusetts and California, where a DOMA and a SuperDOMA may be headed toward ballot boxes, respectively. The key tactics in both states are: build progressive coalitions, invest in faith-based organizing, talk to voters one on one, and play hardball politics.

California offers an outstanding political model. In 2000, its voters passed a simple DOMA. The state's LGBT forces came up with an incremental strategic response: Year after year, the Democratic legislature added responsibilities and recognitions to its domestic-partnership registry. By January 1, 2004, California's domestic partnerships became the equivalent of Vermont's civil unions -- albeit for a citizenry of 34 million rather than 621,000, making it the most important same-sex partnership law in the nation. Since California courts have found that this registry does not violate the DOMA, two feuding religious-right coalitions are now circulating petitions trying to get enough signatures to ask voters to amend the state constitution by restricting marriage to different-sex pairs and by dumping the domestic-partnership registry.

To date, no DOMA has been defeated in an open popular vote. On the other hand, the California electorate strongly supports the state's domestic-partnership registry -- by 72 percent in one poll. So LGBT advocates in California have been working on the "Equality for All Campaign" since fall 2005. The key component: building progressive coalitions. Last year, LGBT organizers and volunteers helped progressive allies defeat Schwarzenegger's initiative slate, especially the "parental notification" bill, which would have required teenage girls to tell their parents before getting an abortion. In return, those groups are already training their organizers and educating their members to fight the threatened SuperDOMA.

Women's groups and unions have been behind gay rights for quite awhile, although organizing for each other on the ground is a breakthrough step. But the coalition also includes groups representing people of color, which have been slower to embrace LGBT rights. For instance, California's is the first national NAACP chapter to endorse marriage equality; the NAACP has been using its lobbying power for marriage in the legislature, and will deploy ground troops in the campaign. The same goes for the United Farm Workers (UFW): Dolores Huerta, one of UFW's founders, is a vocal ally, and is credited with winning over Democratic assemblymember Simón Salinas on the marriage equality bill; and the ufw has donated staff member Christine Chavez, granddaughter of César, to organize Latino and labor communities for marriage equality. Similar work is being done with Asian American and Pacific Islander groups.

Progressive and moderate religious groups are stepping up to help defeat California's SuperDOMA. Hundreds of congregations have been celebrating their members' same-sex bonds, and are now helping defend those families via an umbrella group called California Faith for Equality. In Massachusetts, the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry has been an essential partner in hanging on to the Goodridge decision. Ministers and rabbis in the Bay State have testified to their legislators, encouraged their congregants to write letters, persuaded fellow religious leaders to back (or not oppose) marriage equality, and told the media that their God thought marriage equality was morally urgent. Faith-based organizing worked so well in Massachusetts -- and is critical for LGBT success, since lesbians and gay men are regularly called sinful and immoral -- that it's high on the organizing checklist nationally and for every other state.

In California, activists have another strategic goal: two million conversations with individual Americans about why gay and lesbian couples need and deserve access to the sacred M-word. LGBT groups are helping train their coalition partners to talk to family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. After measuring tactics in a wide variety of communities, from Anchorage to Houston to Atlanta, talking to likely voters one-on-one is "the only thing I know so far that works," said Dave Fleischer, Task Force political director.

The word "marriage" is an essential part of the message. That's new. In previous years, many state groups have run their anti-DOMA campaigns by avoiding "marriage." Based on polling, state groups put out variations of the messages "Don't discriminate" and "Don't amend our sacred constitution." Research showed that no one bought it. "We need to be up front and talk about marriage," said Christopher Ott, executive director of Action Wisconsin. "We need to make them feel that if they pull the wrong lever they are going to be hurting their friends and neighbors." Organizers stress that even if voters disagree on marriage equality, the SuperDOMAs would do much more, barring families from any other legal recognition.

But the biggest lesson of 2004 and 2005 may be this: Play hardball politics. Every LGBT organizer now agrees that Massachusetts is the model to follow -- because LGBT forces actually won. In November 2003, in Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down a decision that opened marriage to same-sex pairs. In March 2004, the Massachusetts legislature proposed a DOMA constitutional amendment that would overrule the court if it passed the legislature twice and then was approved by voters. In the first vote, the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts legislature passed the DOMA 105-92. The political group MassEquality went all out to reelect friends and defeat enemies, the vast majority of whom were Democrats. "We spent more money on direct mail than the state Democratic Party spent in 2004 Massachusetts elections," said Rouse. It also conducted polls, sent money and volunteers into the political campaigns that most needed help, and sat down with other progressive groups to talk about endorsements. MassEquality reelected its friends handily, even in contested races. And it replaced an opponent -- Democrat Vincent Ciampi, a longtime legislator whose seat was considered safe -- with an openly gay man.

The legislature got the message. On the next round it defeated the DOMA, 157-39. A new citizen-initiated DOMA is threatened for the 2008 popular ballot. As LGBT groups are taking aim, Massachusetts' legislators are far more helpful than they were before.

LGBT groups are taking the Massachusetts show on the road. A year ago the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the best-funded LGBT organization, hired as its new president Joe Solmonese, who had spent 12 years at EMILY's List (two-and-a-half years as CEO) building coalitions and electing candidates, and who brought his politically savvy rolodex with him. Within six months, Solmonese had hired ministerial activist Harry Knox to help organize faith communities and Rouse as HRC's national field director to help state groups create their own organizing plans. (All this has surprised observers, since the group has long been criticized for its singular inside-the-beltway focus, and since HRC's commitment to marriage equality has often been considered suspect.) The Stonewall Democrats, who also replaced LGBT opponents with supporters in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, have been holding "Santorum retirement parties," fund-raisers to take down the Pennsylvania senator who compared homosexuality to "man on child, man on dog" sex. They're preparing the usual panoply of campaign tactics -- list enhancement, voter ID, get-out-the-vote methods -- in key Pennsylvania districts to tip the balance for Democratic candidate Bob Casey. According to Eric Stern, the group's executive director, similar local efforts are underway to help gay-friendly Democrats win in such states as Arizona, Maine, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Progressives and Democrats must come to grips with the fact that "gay marriage" is not going away. "The right wing is driving this," explained the Task Force's Fleischer. "We don't have the ability to pull it off the table, even if it were the wisest thing in the world." In the U.S. Congress, Republicans may reintroduce a Federal Marriage Amendment at any time, dragging LGBT resources away from the states and back to DC. In the unfriendly states, most of this fall's DOMAs will pass, as will most of those proposed for 2008. At the same time, in the friendly states, LGBT groups will keep winning their other battles (including marriage rights) via both legislatures and courts. Even in unfriendly states, newly hatched statewide LGBT groups are now working to expose and repeal the SuperDOMAs' more extreme effects, and to move forward on more popular measures like antidiscrimination.

At a minimum, advocates will begin to demand that nongay progressives and Democratic politicians refrain from the kinds of attacks they made in 2004 and to talk about progressive family values in ways that advance, rather than hobble, LGBT rights. After all, except for a few hard-right believers, most nongay voters rank same-sex marriage at the very bottom of their list of political concerns. There's no point in pandering to the other side's base and suppressing your own. So repeat after me: "I believe in fair and equal treatment for all American families. Now, why do you think my opponent wants to change the subject from & [pick one: Medicaid prescription disaster, Katrina aftermath, Iraq war, DC corruption, et cetera]?" Now you're back on track.