All Eyes on California this November

Published in: September-October 2008 issue.


“A VICTORY WON, but the battle has just begun.” That was Sarah Reece’s message to supporters of same-sex marriage who had gathered on an early summer evening at the East-West Lounge in West Hollywood for a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) meeting. Reece, the state field director of Equality for All, the organization coordinating the California campaign to defend the newly won right for same-sex couples to marry, is hardly a household name. Yet the success of her behind-the-scenes efforts, and those of others working with her, to organize at the grassroots level could be the key to defeating a ballot initiative that would make it unconstitutional in California for same-sex couples to marry.

The state Supreme Court on May 15 made California the second state, after Massachusetts, to allow same-sex marriage, and set the stage for this fall’s campaign. Opponents of same-sex marriage, anticipating that the court would rule against them, had already collected the requisite 694,354 signatures (eight percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election) to get an anti-marriage initiative on the ballot in November. The amendment would overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in the only possible way, by changing the state Constitution to define marriage as between “a man and a woman.” In her remarks, Reece, a veteran of over a decade of community and electoral organizing for GLBT issues in places like Cincinnati, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Miami-Dade, Florida, encouraged the crowd of a few dozen people to get involved because she said the future of the gay rights movement hinges on defeat of the initiative:

If we lose this vote in California, it’s going to set back the national LGBT mission at least a decade, and some people say 25 years. We’re already seeing anti-transgender campaigns popping up in Colorado and in Montgomery County [Maryland]. We’re going to see them in other places. This is going to happen in state after state. If we lose this we’re going to see adoption bans in all the states. We’re going to start seeing revocation of even simple employee nondiscrimination laws. So, this campaign has bigger ramifications than just making sure I can get married, and that I stay married. As California goes, so goes the nation. The opposition is watching us to see where the cracks in our community are [that]they can go after if we lose this. And make no mistake, they’re watching us very closely.

Ordinarily, Reece’s remarks might be dismissed as rhetoric designed to fire up the GLBT political activists who attend HRC functions and are often asked to give money for political causes and candidates but rarely to be foot soldiers in grassroots electoral politics. This time, however, with evangelical conservatives organizing the religious faithful with pulpit pitches to vote for preservation of traditional marriage “between a man and a woman,” a strong grassroots effort is the only way to secure the defeat of the amendment on November 4.

Statewide, especially in gay enclaves like San Francisco and West Hollywood, the summer has been a time of euphoria for marriage rights activists. At the annual June gay pride celebrations in West Hollywood and San Francisco, same-sex celebrations proliferated; some caught the attention of the mainstream national media. In San Francisco, Democratic Assemblyman Mark Leno, who has been chief sponsor of marriage rights legislation in the state Assembly, told the throng of thousands gathered at the Civic Center that “we’re here to cheer” and “to celebrate the love of every same-sex couple in California.” Leno encouraged both those who want to marry their partner and those who want the right to marry someone in the future to join the fight against the initiative. “We’re not going to let them take this away from us,” Leno said.

Supporters of marriage equality, however, have voiced concern that not enough is being done in the campaign’s early stages to get support from straight Californians who might be inclined to oppose the ballot initiative but need convincing and targeting. That feeling came out at the West Hollywood gathering. Randy Glass, a longtime HRC activist in Los Angeles, pointed out that gay rights groups historically have proven less than effective at recruiting straight allies. “I’m getting a little hint of that happening with this campaign as well,” Glass said. “I don’t think they’re being targeted and I think they’d love being part of the campaign.”

Public opinion polls conducted after the Supreme Court’s ruling demonstrate the volatility of the issue. A Los Angeles Times/KTLA poll taken two days after the ruling found 54 percent of registered voters oppose same-sex marriage, while only 35 percent support it. A few weeks later, however, the Bay area–based statewide Field Poll, with a larger sample, showed the opposite result—54 percent of those responding oppose the initiative banning same-sex marriage, while forty percent said they would support it. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has said that he backs the Supreme Court’s ruling and that he views the referendum as “a waste of time.”

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has come out against the ballot initiative. “I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states,” Obama wrote this summer in a letter to the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, a San Francisco gay rights group. However, Obama’s opposition to the California initiative and others does not mean that he supports same-sex marriage: he has said that he is opposed to same-sex marriage but supports civil unions and domestic partnerships. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has announced his support for the initiative.

Even though same-sex marriage supporters appear to be in better shape in California with their campaign than has been the case in other states, organizers say they take nothing for granted and have ambitious plans for the fall. The Marriage Equality campaign plans to open three main hub offices—in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco as funds permit, with satellite offices in smaller cities. Marriage equality supporters plan a “massive virtual phone banking campaign” in those smaller cities. The campaign is also recruiting business owners and prominent individuals to endorse the campaign and provide support. Both sides expect to spend between ten and twenty million dollars on the campaign this fall, with the marriage rights campaign hoping to outspend or at least match the amendment’s supporters.

AS IMPORTANT as California’s vote is this November, it is only one battleground state. Voters in Arizona and Florida will also decide whether to amend their states’ constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. For Arizonans, it is the second opportunity in as many years to consider the issue. In November 2006, Arizona became the first state in the U.S. to defeat a proposal to put in the state constitution a provision banning same-sex marriage. Florida’s constitutional amendment would also prohibit civil unions and most likely domestic partnerships. In Florida, it takes sixty percent support to pass a constitutional amendment in an initiative campaign, and polls show the contest could be close.

State legislatures and courts also are grappling with the issue, while some significant court rulings are possible later this year. In Maryland, the legislature considered a marriage equality bill but did not pass it. In New York, same-sex marriage legislation has passed the Assembly but not the Senate. Court cases on marriage rights are pending in Vermont, New Jersey, and Connecticut. (Iowa has a court case on marriage rights, but no decision is expected this year.)

This latest round of legislative and judicial lobbying would expand earlier battles won on marriage in Massachusetts and in other states to create civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage has been legal for Massachusetts residents since 2004. Vermont enacted civil unions in 2000 as a result of a state Supreme Court ruling that said the legislature must provide same-sex couples “the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law.” In 2005, Connecticut became the second state to adopt civil unions. New Jersey has been issuing licenses for civil unions since February 2007. Also in 2007, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch signed a law approving civil unions. The civil union laws in New Jersey and New Hampshire recognize civil unions performed in other states.

On the West Coast, California and Oregon allow same-sex couples to register as domestic partners and claim state benefits conferred on married straight couples. Hawaii and Maine have more limited laws that create registries conveying specific benefits to same-sex couples, such as hospital visitation rights and inheritance without a will. California’s domestic partner law is unaffected by the marriage debate. Thus same-sex couples in California can now be married or in a domestic partnership, or both.

What ever happens in California, it seems clear that future battles will be decided at the state level on factors unique to each state. This emphasis on state action is necessary, in part, because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages. This law also allows states to ignore gay marriages performed elsewhere. A total of 45 states, including California in 2000, have passed DOMA-like laws modeled on the federal law. Twenty-six states have gone a step further, amending their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. A federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage has failed to muster the two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate needed to send the issue to the states for ratification.

In California, a coalition of marriage equality organizations, including such non-gay groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, is fighting the ghost of the unsuccessful effort in 2000 to prevent passage of an initiative, Proposition 22, which put forth a statute defining marriage as bond between a man and woman. In the vote in March of that year, Prop 22 was approved with 61.4 percent of the vote. Only six counties (Alameda, Marin, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, and Yolo) opposed the initiative, all but one (Yolo) located in the San Francisco Bay area. It was this 2000 proposition that the California Supreme Court declared unconstitutional last May.

Marriage rights backers say the state and national sentiment against gay rights has undoubtedly softened since 2000, and polls show younger voters in particular are less receptive to anti-gay campaigns. Reece told HRC members at the East-West Lounge, an upscale West Hollywood bar, that the campaign is going to have a message that emphasizes respecting people and their rights. Key phrases will include “don’t change the constitution to treat people unfairly,” marriage as a “fundamental freedom,” and “regardless of how you feel about gay and lesbian folks, it’s not fair to treat people differently.” It is an argument that must be won on principle, Reece insisted: “We’re not going to spend a lot of time talking about intellectual arguments like, let’s not change the constitution. We change the constitution in California all the time. Folks actually really don’t care about that argument. But they do care about marriage being a freedom of choice, giving a fundamental freedom that we now all enjoy.”


Christopher Burnett is an associate professor of journalism at California State University, Long Beach.


Read More from Christopher Burnett