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,"

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