Guest Blogger

We May Win, but at What Cost?

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 09, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: California, marriage, prepare to prevail, Prop. 8, san bernardino

[alain_dang.jpgEditor's Note: Alain Dang is a marriage activist based in Cupertino, CA (Silicon Valley), and is currently working to build support for marriage equality in communities of color. Prior to moving back to California, he was a policy analyst with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The piece below are his own thoughts, and he is not speaking for any organization.]

The recent LGBT leadership summit in San Bernardino left a very bad taste in my mouth. Much has been posted on blogs trying to gloss over the concerns of LGBT communities of color, who were effectively silenced and steamrolled by proponents of 2010. Posts on a variety of blogs characterized the meeting as the community coming together. I beg to differ.

It began with a re-writing of history. Was I wrong to think that the leadership summit was about coming to a decision-making process about moving forward on marriage equality? Apparently I was under the wrong impression. Because it all came down to this, perfectly encapsulated by the constant cries out for "I want a date!" That was my take-away from the meeting.

The proponents of 2010 co-opted the discussion at every turn, using scare-tactics, mis-information, revisionist history and mob rule that would make Karl Rove proud. They purposefully dismissed and denigrated any sort of "so-called" expert, i.e., campaign consultants, if they didn't fall in line and support their position. If the facts were not to their liking, well, then, anecdotal evidence and their "feeling" that we will win should have been evidence enough for the community to put up the resources and gird for battle next year.

The audience reception to the Prepare to Prevail presentation was polite, at best. However, Love Honor Cherish used their time not to present their plan and make the case based on its merits, but rather attack Prepare to Prevail and go into campaign mode and use every emotional appeal to whip the room into a frenzy of "2010! 2010!" I was appalled by the personal attacks spoken from the podium. It was clear they expected everyone to "fall in line" under their leadership. They offered zero empirical evidence that anything they proposed was achievable. I was offended by their accusation that those who had legitimate concerns about proceeding hastily were defeatists. It was also clear they had no support from communities of color, education groups, labor, or any other coalition partners necessary to win a statewide election. When both groups were asked specifically about what work was being done in communities of color, you could see 2010 proponents scrambling to confer to come up with a generic response. The primary spokesperson for LHC was obviously not ready for primetime, employing the problematic and simplistic analogy to the Civil Rights Movement, and throwing in a completely inaccurate reference to Rosa Parks (to a chorus of boos). As a community, we need to be careful to honor and respect movements that have preceded us, and while we apply lessons learned from other movements, each is unique and quick comparisons have the potential to exacerbate tensions between the LGBT community and coalition partners.

Of course, because the room was stacked, they ate it up. I was left stunned by what I had just witnessed. If there was any hope of respectful dialogue or of the community coming together, it was dashed by LHC's invective and campaign of personal destruction. They, and 2010 supporters, knowing the summit was being streamed live, even used that fact to co-opt the proceedings. At one point, while we were debating taking a (non-binding) straw poll at the end of the day, someone commandeered the microphone and basically said, "Our opponents are watching us online laughing. If we don't take a vote now on 2010, they win." By the end of the day, there was no clear consensus on anything, and a coalition of the willing charged ahead to create a campaign plan (with the caveat, expressed by some, that there be no veto power when and if presented after their upcoming meeting in Los Angeles).

I understand the passion in the room, but the histrionics were over the top. There was a serious miscalculation and underestimation of our opponents and the political landscape next year. This decision to engage in a ballot initiative cannot be made in a vacuum. Our community does not understand the power that reactionary, conservative ballot initiatives have in shaping the electorate. It was a gun control ballot initiative that torpedoed Tom Bradley's bid for governor in 1982 (semi-debunking the origins of the "Bradley effect." It was Prop 187 that helped Pete Wilson win reelection, even though his approval ratings were horrible. The possibility of a 2010 initiative to restrict services to undocumented immigrants was outright dismissed as "not a problem." It is a problem, because that initiative will pull conservatives out of the woodwork to vote for that initiative and at the same time, against our rights. We do not yet have meaningful partnerships with immigrants' rights groups. There was no strong coalition in place in 2008, and one does not exist for 2010. (It should be noted that the room was at most, 8% people of color, no one publicly identified themselves as representing any union or labor organization, and fewer than 15% were from Northern California, even though half of the pro-marriage equality voters needed for victory reside here.)

This attitude is symptomatic of the sense of entitlement and privilege on display in San Bernardino. Why should our straight allies, educators, communities of color, labor, care about marriage equality? It was presumptuous for the LGBT community to expect support in 2008 when the LGBT community is absent in the discussion of other communities' struggles. So think carefully about 2010. Have those relationships with communities we need on our side to win been cultivated? A campaign without prominent support from communities of color will be a failed campaign, and that weakness will absolutely be exploited by the opposition. I was rocked out of my seat when, on more than one occasion, it was asked, "Do we need people of color to win? Can't we just register thousands of new, young voters?" It was quite evident in the room that the LGBT community in California needs to have a frank, honest discussion about race because pretending it's not an issue in the marriage campaign is naïve.

So I'm tired of being bashed for wanting to achieve equality by building a progressive movement in California. This is not about 2010 versus 2012. This is about doing the work necessary to attain, and then, defend, our full equality. It's like cramming for an exam. You may stay up all night reading 10 weeks of material in one night, and pass the exam. But what happens if you have to take another exam in the same subject? Had you prepared and learned the material all along, no problem. Instead, by taking the shortcut, you have to re-cram for the next exam. It's the same in politics. If you build a broad coalition to support marriage equality, it will be much easier to prevail and then defend our victory. It is not realistic to assume that we can just go back to the ballot box year after year until we win.

I do want to commend all the presenters for Prepare to Prevail. I felt they were composed, passionate about achieving marriage equality, and understood that the campaign to achieve full equality is part of building a strong and lasting progressive movement. I also feel that LHC owes the community a public apology for their attacks on those who had a different opinion than theirs. Vigorous debate is healthy. Attacks are destructive.

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Unfortunately, business as usual.

Chitown Kev | August 9, 2009 3:51 PM

Obviously, many white gay activists in California have learned little or nothing from the failures of the No On 8 campaign, especially in communicating with communities of color and specifical with GLBT POCs.

Not surprising at all.

Thing is, the anger from the Prop 8 campaign has not passed. Anger can be a useful emotion when channeled properly. If channeled unproperly, it's just a big hot mess.

I live in flyover territory, so my opinion counts for little, I suppose. But I say.

Leave the marriage equality battle on the East Coast on down into the Mid-Atlantic where it seems to be trudging along just fine (crossing my fingers on Maine!) You might even allow for a Midwestern state or state or 2 (I'm thinking chiefly of Illinois) to give it a go. The more I read these very reports, the more certain I am that California may not be ready.

Sonnie Swenston | August 9, 2009 4:12 PM

Given what you say (I wasn't there, but watched much of the day's webcast), there is a lot of irony regarding the attitude and action of such a group, and that they go by the name "Love, Honor, Cherish."

Such actions only assure the future success of our foes. Let's get it together, folks!

Thanks for this post. I'm always amazed when I hear that "labor is ready for 2010". Um not the labor I'm talking to. They are ready to fight like hell for a good Governor, and having this on the ballot in 2010, is a diversion they would prefer not to have to deal with.

I recognize that my own language was emotional and I could have phrased bits more politely, but I wanted to convey the intensity of my feelings.

I sat there and watched as every mistake in the Prop 8 battle was about to be repeated in the 2010 effort. Coalition building takes time and energy, but it is absolutely necessary to win any electoral battle in a state as massive as California. Unions, educators, communities of color...these coalitions should already be in place for a 2010 battle, but they're not. To succeed, these groups need to be in a place organizationally where they can say, "marriage equality is a labor issue, an education issue, etc." We're not there yet.

And working in communities of color will take a lot of resources. I challenge Courage Campaign, Equality California, Love Honor Cherish, whoever, to put their money where their mouth is. All campaign research, polling, focus group testing of messages, need to be done in multiple languages in order to reach the broadest audience and build the broadest coalition. This means spending money to poll voters in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, at minimum...these languages. Then I might believe that these "leaders" want to run an inclusive campaign (which everyone proclaims to).