Early Emerging Lessons & What’s Next for Marriage in California

December 4, 2008

In the New Year, throughout the state, in each of the major geographic regions, there will be gatherings of interested community members and organizations to help craft strategies for moving forward. The first meeting, open to all who care about marriage equality, is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 6 pm in The Center’s auditorium (3909 Centre Street). Whether you were involved in the last campaign or not, whether you have ever been involved in any political or advocacy work or not, whether you communicate through Facebook, email or more old-school methods, I hope you will consider attending and offering your energy, thoughts, ideas and leadership.

The devastating loss in California is barely four weeks old and already it has begun winding its way into the landscape and narrative of American and LGBT movement history.

In 2000 the San Diego County vote on Prop 22 was 63% Yes – 37% No. In 2008 it appears it may finalize at 54% Yes – 46% No. That represents huge gains in eight years, but not enough.

The San Diego LGBT Community Center and The Center Advocacy Project hosted an in-person community town hall the week following the election in order to solicit campaign comments, criticisms and feedback, and to begin to collect ideas for moving forward in San Diego. More than 350 people attended, and The Center Advocacy Project website continues to collect and record any and all feedback and suggestions at http://www.centeradvocacy.org (CAP blog) in order to hear from all who have thoughts to share.

Part of every one of our now 30 (!) losing campaigns has been the vital question: why and how did we lose? That question from Prop 8 has preoccupied bloggers, LGBT publications, some progressive newspapers, a few mainstream publications and the minds of most LGBT and LGBT-supportive citizens. Many are simply moving on now, while others continue to search for answers.

In every campaign thus far, and this one seems no exception, the easy, first answers to why we lost have sometimes been either based on incomplete or inaccurate information, or are so campaign-specific that they quickly become irrelevant and forgotten in a wave of disappointment and rage. Few remember those other 29 campaigns or any of their lessons.

After 40 million dollars and the lifeblood of hundreds poured in for more than five years, we all deserve more this time. And the biggest thing we deserve is to learn what this loss has to teach us.

The No on 8 campaign came closer to victory than any campaign in our history. It raised more money and more volunteers, and garnered more votes for equality across all demographics than we have ever before achieved. But it did not result in victory. And we must learn the larger lessons if we want to win in California or any other state. If any of the lessons are lost, we are doomed to repeat the outcome until we learn each of them.

Early Lessons Learned

Infrastructure. Every Sunday night during the No on 8 campaign we watched as our own poll numbers dropped. Every Sunday night! Do you know what enormous force it takes to drive poll numbers? It wasn’t a new ad, nor was it a new headline that reliably drove our numbers down every week. It was an incredible organizing tool.

It is a national, statewide and local organizing tool. It is comprised of people who do not necessarily share a neighborhood, a job, a school, or even the details of faith, but do feel connected in some basic way and feel some unity of purpose.

1,500 churches, each with 500 to several thousand families on their membership rolls, meeting weekly, can effectively communicate a message, a fundraising need or a strategy. That is the infrastructure that beat us and we must build it for ourselves, both in the real and virtual worlds.

Technology and online grassroots organization. The last few weeks post-election have taught us that there is vast capacity and creativity in the on-line communities: the people, the ideas and the technology. There is much to be learned about the potential that can be built and unleashed through the interface of on-line grassroots organizing with existing capacities. Not only are there thousands of unaffiliated on-line activists, there are also thousands of LGBT and progressive organizations, groups and lists that could be better connected to each other locally, statewide and nationally. We must find new and creative ways to connect all of these and build a community infrastructure that encompasses them all — and that can win. This means a shift in organizing strategies informed by the masters of those new strategies and supported by those with the infrastructure to sustain and grow them.

It is already clear that any future campaign will need to provide more opportunities for more people to get involved at the grassroots/voter contact/visibility levels. Both new technologies and old school methods will be required.

Money. We have learned many lessons about the need to finance our movement and our candidates, but the real lesson of investment we have not yet fully learned. Successful social change in the new millennium costs money. We need early, well-financed, educational, coalition-building campaigns and early campaign dollars — money that must come from all of us, not just a few amongst the wealthy.

How did they beat us? With $20 million that poured into their campaign $100 to $1,000 at a time in August. We couldn’t and didn’t catch up until October. Why not? Because we don’t yet understand the lessons of Emily’s List — early money buys more of everything and late money buys little except regret.

This movement and campaign can teach us three painful but important lessons about money: investing early in ground work pays a better dividend than waiting for the crisis; early campaign money will determine who gets to define the issues and the debate, and that side generally wins; and it will always take more than anyone imagined possible.

Our LGBT rights movement has not yet learned to invest heavily early, instead of ending up in the reactive position. Moreover, we continue to count too heavily on very large donations from a few rather than many, many smaller donations from all who care about fairness and equality.

Aligning Our Base. Much of our attention post-election has focused on communities where we have fewer friends and less support. Less attention has been focused upon the critical need to deepen and strengthen our relationship with our allies: people who support a woman’s right to choose, labor, environmental allies and other progressive causes and voters. We did not get every vote we could have from the progressive base — and it may well be the case when all the votes are counted that those base votes were absolutely critical to winning in such a close campaign.

Further, we have not successfully registered every voter or turned out all of those voters on Election Day. In a presidential campaign with voter turn-out at the highest level in decades, one in five California voters still did not vote. Many of those voters are LGBT or LGBT-supportive voters.

Ethnic and faith community relationship development. The time to build a relationship with your neighbor is not when you need his signature on a new fence permit — or his/her vote. While much outreach prior to the campaign and during the campaign was conducted, it is clear that more relationship development is desperately needed in order to build a winning coalition.

We have allowed the right-wing extremists to hijack the national faith agenda and to continue to target ethnic communities through that faith. For the last 10 years we have watched while the agenda of the most extreme right has come to define all faiths. Gone are the ministries of justice, of hope and of compassion. Those are not the voices that lead the faith movement. They have been replaced by the screeching voices of fear, of hate and, above all else, of victimization. And we have watched it happen. We have allowed those voices to define what is “tradition,” what is “love,” what is a “rightly lived life,” what is “family,” and what is democracy.

If we don’t fight back, if we don’t help to embolden the communities of faith to reclaim their values and stand up and say “no,” we will continue to lose.

We must invest our energies in those who understand faith as a driving force for justice and for equality and help them to take back their faith and install new leadership.

By the same logic, ethnic communities are our communities. LGBT does not equal white. Thousands among us are Latino, African-American, Chinese, Filipino and Native-American, and we desperately need their voices, wisdom and strength. Moreover, the struggle for justice is not only an LGBT struggle; it is a struggle for racial, gender and religious freedom. It is a struggle for the soul of American democracy and our energies need to be invested in all communities that struggle towards that “more perfect union.” We need to be invested every day as a full partner, not only when we find we need their votes. This is a commitment that will require planning, time, energy and an overall commitment to the ongoing development of much deeper and broader relationships. Either we strategically invest in and commit to this or we continue to suffer the consequences.

Voters and polling. In spite of the fact that a measure such as this had never before been defeated anywhere in the nation, many believed that victory for No on 8 was a foregone conclusion. This belief was reinforced and fed by public polling that, throughout the campaign, over-stated the degree of support for LGBT equality and under-estimated the likely response of conflicted voters when the inevitable attacks occurred; attacks that always occur in one form or another. This was not the first time that public polling over-stated the support of the voters for equality. In fact, it has happened in almost every single campaign we have lost — and most predict it will happen again.

Like many contentious social issues, the public mood in many urban areas appears to divide 40% yes – 40% no with 20% “leaning” or “uncertain” or “conflicted.”Unlike many other types of ballot campaigns (bonds, etc.) most of the voters (80%), have strong opinions about marriage equality from the beginning, and a small minority will dictate the outcome. In the No on 8 campaign, equality received 8% of the 20%, but we needed 11% of the 20%.

We need a much deeper understanding of what kinds of polling and turnout models can better predict the outcomes in LGBT equality ballot measures. Moreover, we need to educate the entire progressive community about these polling discrepancies so that public polling does not again lull us all into a false sense of security.

Telling our Stories. We all hope for a day when the ultimate, uber-creative team can design a 30-second commercial that tells the story of our struggle and our strengths, our decency and our shared humanity.

That day will come when we have told our stories already, in our own ways, in our own voices, to the hundreds who surround us — to our neighbors, our elected and appointed representatives, our co-workers, our families, the families of our children’s friends, our congregations and our friends — and have helped to teach all of those people to re-tell our stories to their own ever-broadening circles. On that day, a powerful, persuasive commercial will be possible, because it will do what all successful commercials do: remind uncommitted voters of the importance of something they already know.

Ongoing education campaigns must focus on teaching us to find the courage not to censor our own lives. We must find the courage not to leave our conservative aunt off of our holiday letter list, to include the fact that we were married, that we are grieving a terrible loss of our rights. We must take those everyday opportunities to tell the truth about our lives rather than continue to hide in the terrible, oppressive silence of omission. The loss on 8 has already emboldened many to begin to tell their stories and truths to those who oppose marriage equality, and the outcomes have been surprising!

Political issue campaigns last 4-5 months and are successful or not based on the previous/ongoing work of their movement. We are not there yet on marriage equality with the majority of voters and California reminds us that we have work to do. That work begins with a full understanding of all of the lessons and moving forward with a plan to address those challenges.

Please join us in the New Year as we attempt to craft solutions and a plan for moving forward to win full equality. Please also see any of the following for updates on upcoming events and programs:

CAP Facebook page

1) MILK Movement, Dec. 5
Honor the memory of Harvey Milk.

2) Day Without a Gay, Dec. 10
Join the economic boycott by spending nothing.
jointheimpact.wetpaint.com/page/Day+Without+a +Gay

3) Light up the Night for Equal Rights, Dec. 20
Join a demonstration that will make an impact on the private sector.
jointheimpact.com/l ight-up-the-night-for-equa l-rights/

4) Urge your legislators to support the invalidation of Prop 8.

Dr. Delores A. Jacobs
CEO, Center Advocacy Project