Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jane Wishon is a straight mother-of-three who has been married nearly 33 years. She actively campaigned for No on 8 and has started a cause for straight allies on Facebook. Jane also volunteers for AIDS Project LA, and twitters @janewishon
August 29, 2009 may just be remembered as the dawn of the new California marriage equality movement. That's the day that the surprising op-ed piece by the co-chairs of Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club (a prominent 2012 proponent) appeared in the Sacramento Bee and called for a coordinated strategy with those who are driving towards a 2010 proposition to repeal Prop 8.
More than 80 LGBT and ally activists gathered in San Francisco to build a coalition, select interim leadership and agree on a plan for organizing the upcoming signature gathering for 2010. And, perhaps most surprising of all, several of those at the meeting represented organizations that had, only weeks before, declared that the battle for marriage equality will be unwinnable in 2010.
Let me put the importance of those events in perspective.
How Dark Is Dark?
July 2009 was undeniably a dark time for the California LGBT movement. You may think that the lowest point for LGBT rights in the last year was the day that Proposition 8 passed, but as terrible as that day was, the outright hostility that marked the lead up the July 25 Leadership Summit in San Bernardino threw doubt on whether Proposition 8 would ever be challenged successfully.
Anti-gay forces across the nation were dancing and cheering as California's LGBT leaders pointed fingers at each other and proclaimed that the battle for Marriage Equality was not winnable in 2010.The National Organization for Marriage, Focus on the Family, and similar groups sent triumphant emails to their members proclaiming that the battle for California had been won and that it was time to move on to other states to quash gay marriage rights for good.
Meanwhile, the July San Bernardino meeting devolved into a complete mess that brought new meaning to the term chaos. While both the 2010 and the 2012 camps expressed valid concerns about the others' plans, they defended their perspectives with the fervor and passion usually seen in fundamentalist religious groups. Votes on how to organize, when to organize, and even whether to organize for marriage equality showed no clear consensus.
The one bright spot? All agreed that they would continue to work for the restoration of marriage equality in California.
Meanwhile, you could practically hear the champagne corks popping in anti-marriage equality camps.
A Hint of Dawn
August 9, 2009 is the day that light began to creep back into the California marriage equality movement.
The former Coalition for 2010, now renamed Coalition for Marriage Equality to be more inclusive, hosted a meeting in Los Angeles to discuss next steps. The meeting was billed as an opportunity to begin planning a new campaign - whether for 2010 or 2012 - and it managed to do something that was desperately needed. It brought together activists from both camps (as well as some who had not yet decided) in a meeting that was well-organized, structured, respectful, and meaningful. Steve Hildebrand, top strategist in the Obama campaign, spoke to those assembled about necessary next steps. Real goals and objectives were adopted and real discussions occurred without devolving into a 2010/2012 argument.
At least for those few hours, the California LGBT community showed that it can come together without the acrimony that had marked recent months. Meanwhile, Courage Campaign found that Californians were willing to donate for 2010 by raising over $70,000 in 48 hours, once there were signs that the movement was getting organized.
In the weeks following the Los Angeles meeting the google groups and conference calls were ablaze with energy and discussion. We needed to get organized, Hildebrand had explained - but how to do so? A plan was created to pursue a dual approach:
- an immediate leadership structure to oversee the signature gathering and fundraising for 2010
- a greater, all inclusive leadership structure for the California LGBT and ally community that is blind to the 2010/2012 debate
As one activist stated, all meetings would be considered coalition building opportunities and open to all.
So, "What happened in San Francisco?" Glad you asked.
Another nationally known political consultant, Ace Smith, took the time to explain campaigns to the grassroots activists. And, for a second meeting in a row, a consultant told the crowd that this is a civil rights issue, so traditional wisdom does not apply. Like Hildebrand, Ace Smith told the grassroots that he believes there is no reason to wait - that this is a winnable battle for 2010. Citing Bill Clinton and Barack Obama's campaigns as examples of times when conventional wisdom counseled "wait," yet elections were won, Smith reminded us that there is no crystal ball to foretell the outcome of an election.
Smith further explained that there is a need for a two-pronged campaign structure that uses strong leadership while enabling the grassroots. Yes, there must be an executive committee that is nimble and able to act quickly, as in responding to new tactics by the opposition. When asked for his advice about what to do when the opposition runs ads that make false claims about gay marriage being taught in school, Smith replied that it is important for the campaign to act quickly to tell the public that those are lies. He pointed out that the public does not like being manipulated or lied to.
That said, Smith also counseled that we embrace our grassroots activists and their energy. "This is a civil rights movement. You can't script it. You have to let people go. They have to be able to organize freely, let themselves go. Capturing lightning in a bottle, it either happens or it doesn't, you have to let it happen. It's what you're seeking to achieve, but you don't do it by planning a typical campaign."
Taking Ace Smith's advice, the assembled activists heard and discussed presentations of 5 potential organizational models. By the end of the day there was consensus (Yes, consensus) for a model dubbed the Davis Plan that calls for 10 regions in the state to elect representatives to a leadership body. Those representatives will be joined by representatives elected by diversity caucuses and those appointed by the top LGBT organizations in the state. That combined body will elect an executive body that will then hire or appoint specialists as needed. This structure has the potential to morph into a leadership structure for the campaign. The framers of this structure, John Patterson of RENWL in Los Angeles and Linda Waite of GSAFE in Davis, were asked to fine-tune the plan in collaboration with the authors of the other plans.
Acknowledging the need for leadership while the positions in the Davis Plan are populated, activists self-nominated for an Interim Administrative Group (IAG). This group will form a Political Action Committee (PAC) and serve as interim leadership going into the signature gathering. The activists also empowered the IAG to add to their own number to balance it geographically once it determines specific skills that will be needed.
The new IAG is nicely diverse, except for geography - which will be addressed this week:
- Kelechi Anyanwu (San Jose)
- Lester Aponte (LA)
- Aaron Bloom (LA)
- John Cleary (LA)
- John Henning (LA)
- Misha Houser (Orange County)
- Zakiya Khabir (San Diego)
- Lisa Kove (San Diego)
- Jordan Krueger (LA)
- Chaz Lowe (Sacramento)
- Jane Wishon (LA)
So, why do I think that the darkness has passed?
- The discussions at the meeting were robust but never disrespectful of other perspectives.
- Individuals and organizations who had previously counseled against 2010 were present at the meeting in solidarity and with an eye towards the broader coalition-building meeting planned for later in the fall. Their attendance did not construe support for 2010 and no mention of that divisive debate occurred.
- Supporters of 2010 specifically left room at the 2010 table for those organizations who have declared for 2012. No more "us vs. them" mentality.
Perhaps the whole dawn metaphor was wrong. After all, the hard work has only just begun to repair the terrible damage done to the LGBT community and California State Constitution. And, even when we do prevail at the ballot, the challenge of changing hearts and minds will continue until full acceptance for the LGBT community is the reality as well as the law.