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Gay Leaders Try to Reframe Struggle for Marriage Rights
Published on Wednesday, November 10, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Gay Leaders Try to Reframe Struggle for Marriage Rights
They'll reach out to Middle America
by Carolyn Lochhead
 

WASHINGTON -- From adopting a NASCAR dad to embracing the moral rhetoric of the 1960s civil rights movement, gay and lesbian leaders are rethinking their message and market after last week's sweeping election losses, but they are refusing to retreat on same-sex marriage.

The Nov. 2 election was "a wake-up call for gay and lesbian Americans and organizations," Patrick Guerriero, president of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, declared in a new mission statement.

"We lost," Guerriero said. "If we listen to those attempting to sanitize or sugarcoat the post-election analysis, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and destined for setbacks ahead."

Jeff Trammel, co-chair of gay and lesbian outreach for Sen. John Kerry, the defeated Democratic nominee, said he finds himself "in the very odd position of actually giving some credibility to something Tony Perkins (head of the Family Research Council) said, that gay marriage was the 'hood ornament on the car of family values.' "

"One inescapable conclusion is that we have not framed the issues right with the American public," Trammel said. The "big lesson" of the election is "figuring out how to talk about issues in a way where you're not for or against gay people ... how the nation addresses our role in society is really the key issue, and we as Democrats have to talk about that in a way that connects with Middle America."

The election losses for gay and lesbian organizations were stunning: 11 new state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, the election of four new Republicans to the Senate, including two, Tom Coburn in Oklahoma and Jim DeMint in South Carolina, who are unfriendly to gay rights, and the re- election of President Bush, who has endorsed a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Among the strategies under discussion:

  • Courting Republicans who now dominate Washington and are indebted to the social and religious conservatives who helped provide a record GOP turnout rather than devoting the lion's share of money and lobbying to liberal Democratic allies.
  • Continuing a strategic legal attack using "the right plaintiffs in the right place at the right time," as David Buckel, director of the Lambda Legal Marriage Project, put it, to challenge the new state marriage bans and to continue the push for marriage rights in more liberal jurisdictions, including California, New Jersey and New York.
  • Going on the offensive with state ballot initiatives to expand inheritance rights, hospital visitation and other benefits for gay and lesbian couples rather than defending losing battles against same-sex marriage bans.
  • Finding new allies in the religious community. "We have allowed the radical right to usurp and control the lexicon of family values, faith and morality," Guerriero said. Trammel agreed, saying it is "extremely important" to "not let people who are anti-gay seize the mantle of religion and morality."
  • Creating a new message for moderate to conservative voters who may be uncomfortable even using the words gay and lesbian by personalizing the issue with mainstream gay couples who are raising children or caring for elderly parents.

Those are the "middle third" of voters who are "reachable but not yet reached," said Evan Wolfson, director of activist group Freedom to Marry and one of the early leaders of the same-sex marriage movement. Polls show about a third of the country supports full marriage equality, another third not only opposes same-sex marriage but considers homosexuality immoral, and a middle third is not yet firmly decided.

"Many are people of faith, who live in red (Republican) states," Wolfson said. "Those people in the middle, with those conflicting tugs, are wrestling with this question now, and they deserve the time and the discussion and the stories of real people to help them rise to fairness. It's our job to have that conversation with them."

To be sure, most gay leaders insist there was some good news on Nov. 2.

Exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters favored either civil unions or same-sex marriage, far outpolling the 35 percent who wanted no legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Just five years ago, civil unions were considered a radical export from the blue state of Vermont. But days before the election, Bush told ABC's "Good Morning America" that he supported civil unions and flatly disagreed with the Republican Party platform on that issue.

"I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do," Bush said.

Despite these successes, however, the setbacks were enormous, most gay leaders acknowledge.

Lambda Legal, a group pressing the legal fight for marriage, concedes that the proliferation of state constitutional amendments poses big hurdles, often denying more than just marriage rights. Constitutional amendments are much more difficult to overturn than legislated laws.

"We have many more families in jeopardy now," Buckel said. "Before, in some states, there was some hope that families could work with elected officials to try to (convince) them of the need for family protections such as health insurance or something as fundamental as being able to visit a loved one in a hospital."

Like many lawyers behind the drive for marriage in the courts, Buckel emphasized that state constitutional marriage bans and "defense of marriage" acts are not new -- and so cannot be blamed on the Massachusetts state court decision this year to allow same-sex marriage -- but began spreading in 1996 after Hawaii's high court considered marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples before voters rejected the idea.

But many contend the latest election demands a new approach.

Scott Huch, a member of the "Austin 12" group of gay Republicans who met with then-Gov. George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign to discuss gay issues, suggested, only half-jokingly, that "hairdressers and dancers and sweater- folders and waiters from Dupont, Boystown, WeHo, Chelsea and the Castro could 'adopt' mechanics and farmers and NASCAR fans and hunters in the red states. Talk about gay adoption."

Guerriero suggests hosting "rural barbecues and town hall meetings for honest discussions with people who disagree with us. ... Like it or not, Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen and Rosie O'Donnell will never convince the Iowa farmer, the South Carolina veteran or the West Virginia coal miner to be on our side."

While accepting their defeats, gay leaders were also eager to counter speculation by social conservatives that same-sex marriage was responsible for Bush's win and Kerry's defeat.

Such statements are "false spin being put out by our opponents seeking to claim a mandate for bigotry," Wolfson said. As for the 11 ballot measures, he said, "No civil rights movement wins early votes before there's been enough discussion and time for fair-minded people to come around, as exit polls show that they are.

"If ending discrimination were as simple as turning to the majority and asking, 'Will you please end this discrimination,' and the majority votes yes, we wouldn't have civil rights movements."

Gay Republicans agreed there should be no backtracking on marriage. "What we are fighting for is very conservative," said GOP activist David Greer. "Thirty years ago, it was about sexual liberation. Now we're fighting for the right to settle down. What is more conservative than that?" 

Copyright © 2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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