Sunday, November 15, 2009

Radical Ideas for Future
Gay Ballot Props

If you count the devastating California Prop 22 loss in 2000, which does not show up on list of gay marriages propositions we've lost, our list of such setbacks is 32, not 31 times we failed to persuade voters to uphold gay marriage principles. The 32 number is part of the more than 100 gay-specific measures we've lost. With so many failures hanging around our necks, we need to debate other ways of approaching the measures, and I wish to offer a few radical ideas for consideration. But first, a short history lesson.

On election night in November 1988, I was in Portland, Oregon, at the headquarters of the group fighting ballot Measure 8, a prop that rescinded job protections for gay executive branch employees. The non-gay visible campaign was waged by Oregonians for Fairness, OFF, and they ran away from admitting the measure was about gays. Instead, OFF framed the debate as one of human rights, and the prop passed with 53% of the vote. I complained about the invisibility of gay people from the media strategy and OFF leaders told me to go away.

Twenty long, losing years later, on election night in November 2008, I was in a ballroom at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, rented by the No on Prop 8 executive committee, as results from national and state races came in. It was clear Prop 8 would pass and the California gay marriage experiment was coming to a end.

Just as in 1988, the official non-gay group fighting Prop 8 did everything in its power to deny the issue was about gay people and gay marriage, and the measure passed with 52% of voter approval. Using the same vague closeted campaign strategies, we had moved the needle one percentage point in two decades. But on election night 2008, I didn't wait around to hear the speeches of Gay Inc leaders. I've heard enough of their empty rhetoric.

Our messaging, and it starts with the branding of the names of the groups battling the measures, is premised on the toxic notion that there is something wrong with being a gay group. By omitting gay from the name, we not only send a self-stigmatizing signal to heterosexuals, we also don't connect to the large segment of the out gay community that doesn't emotionally connect to Equality-This or Fairness-That.

We saw in Maine a continuation of this problem with Protect Maine Equality. While PME made cosmetic changes to the media messaging by including actual gay people in TV ads, the underlying foundation of the campaign was one of equality and fairness, and those concepts don't resonate with moderate or older voters. Our bar has been set so low for so long, that in 2009 (!) it is a big deal for one of these efforts to show and talk about real gays.

Of course, simply having the gay word in the group's name isn't enough for effective and bold advocacy. Witness GLAAD and NGLTF. And it won't necessarily be enough to win the next state ballot measure if the lead organization is called Gay Marriage Equality Now. However, with so many ballot failures staring us in the collective face, I would like to see us experiment with how we engage the electorate, if only to restore some dignity and proud liberation to our movement, two components sorely missing from the equality and fairness methods.

Given our triple-digit losses, intransigent commitment to doing the same old campaign and not enough new thinking from Gay Inc, there is the real probability of setbacks in the next batch of state initiatives. I think we will at best, if we're lucky, move the needle slightly in our favor. As we know, in Maine, our opponents moved the needle fractionally in their direction since the Prop 8 vote, an alarming development that should force us to radically reconsider these campaigns.

A few radical ideas:

1) Our chief organization fighting the prop puts gay in the name and embraces the fact it is gay-specific.

2) Vague equality and fairness arguments, which aren't moving enough voters, are kept to a minimum.

3) Early on, admit we want the existence of gay people and our diverse families included in school curricula.

4) Have multiple TV ad campaigns, one soft and fuzzy like Hallmark greeting cards, another feisty and humorous, and a third gritty and hard-hitting about the toll discrimination has on gays.

5) Brighten up the signage with lighter, more welcoming colors. Incorporate the rainbow flag. Add words like gay marriage, and toss in a few human faces or stick figures.

6) Hire consultants who will show up to the gunfight at the OK corral with more than a dainty set of tweezers and nail clippers.

7) Set up many debates with opponents and learn from how Harvey Milk used debates to defeat the Briggs Initiative.

8) Be prepared for the other side to use lies and distortions in TV spots, and attempt pre-emptive moves.

9) Keep patronizing know-it-all gay lawyers who speak in legalese off TV.

10) Avoid labeling opponents skeevy or bigots or hateful. They may indeed be all of those things, but calling them that isn't bringing voters to our side.

11) On election night, when it's clear our side has lost, don't do like Prop 8 and No on 1 leaders and refuse to concede. Denial is not healthy or pretty.

12) With enthusiasm, fully embrace the wide diversity of the gay community and really put our creative fabulous nature to work.

13) Have a Plan B for when we lose. Leaders of the CA and Maine initiatives were absolutely clueless on this front. Two things happen on election night. You either win or lose. We never seem prepared to lose.

14) Make sure post-election rallies and community forums are scheduled for after the election loss. Enough with the "chicken without a head" post-election style of leadership.

15) Talk to pot heads. While gays have suffered too many ballot failures, people who smoke and promote medical marijuana win with voters. The Maine pot prop won with 59% of the vote. What are they doing right and how can we learn from them?

These ideas may not be enough to produce an honest-to-Goddess win, but they'll go far to instill out and proud gay visibility to multi-million dollar campaigns, and when we lose, we'll at least lose as rightfully assertive gay people standing up for ourselves.


Ed Sikov said...

"Talk to pot heads. While gays have suffered too many ballot failures, people who smoke and promote medical marijuana win with voters. The Maine pot prop won with 59% of the vote. What are they doing right and how can we learn from them?"

This is really quite brilliant. That people vote yay for mj to end suffering and nay for gay marriage should tell us that if people see the toll that direct, pointed discrimination has on gay people, some people might think: "Well, I certainly don't want to HURT anybody."

Unknown said...

given all the fear associated with pot, how it may be a gateway drug to a life of heroin addiction and other crazy ideas, it amazes me how pot heads keep winning the ballot props. while we rack of loss after loss.

hey ed, thanks for the support of at least one of my radical ideas.

Bob Summersgill said...

Is it clear that any arguments are actually changing votes? The yearly advances that we make in the polls seems to just be related to the shifts in age demographics. In campaigns, the fear campaigns seem to move votes away from us, although the shift is probably short term. If our campaigns fail to shift votes, we may need to wait for demographic shifts to catch up. Three more years in California and six in Maine to get a tie.

Now that we are experts in what doesn't work, it is time to experiment with all sorts of radical ideas.

Anonymous said...

The debates Harvey and Sally had with Briggs changed few voters' minds. A week before the election, Prop 6 was slated to win in a landslide, carrying even S.F.

The game changer came when former governor Ronald Reagan urged Prop 6's rejection six days before the election. The Field Opinion Poll claims it has never measured a sharper shift in public opinion in less than one week.

I'd like to claim I had something to do with Prop 6's defeat, but I can't, and nor can Milk. That defeat came from ONE person: Former governor Ronald Reagan.

To pretend otherwise -- or to deny the FACTS -- does none of us any good. And to distort reality by the fiction that the debates between Briggs and Milk/Gerhardt did anything to effect the outcome is a LIE we tell those who believe in OZ. Check with WaPo reporter Mark Shields: He'll tell you the truth, as he covered the story.

Anonymous said...


You homo-sexism is appalling. Every time you mention Prop 6 you identify Harvey Milk

but OMIT San Francisco State Prof. Sally Gerhardt

who was every bit a debater -- if not better received -- than Harvey and PRESENT in every debate, including the statewide KRON broadcast the week before the election. Do women not exist in your political reality?

Unknown said...

hey gay species,

you're missing the larger point, which is not who was at the briggs debates for our side, and who was better sally or harvey, but that debates took place in that briggs initiative. while in 2008 there were no debates between no on 8 and the antigay forces.

argue all you want about my alleged homo-sexism, or who was the better debater in the 1970s, i just don't know how that makes for a better campaign in the future where we win.

Anonymous said...

The debates did not matter. You seem to suggest they did. They did NOT. They brought out both sides and preached to the choirs.

Six debates, plus the statewide televised debate, occurred, and it moved political sentiment less than 5 points over four months. If the debates were so damn important as you suggest, why did they not move more sentiment?

You're missing the point. A SINGLE POLITICIAN made the difference, and because his name was Ronald Reagan, his clout moved more political sentiment in less than one week than all our efforts over four months. A THIRTY point swing in one week was -- and remains -- a powerful testament to "principle," and Reagan debated no one. He urged Prop 6's defeat on the basis of equality and justice.

One week. 30 points. No debates. Just courage of conviction, timed for maximum benefit. The landslide FOR Prop 6 shifted into a landslide AGAINST Prop 6 in SIX DAYS. Because some matters are a matter of principle.

Unknown said...

i've made many suggestions, debates with opponents just one idea, and you're fixated on the debate back during briggs. go on all you want about the history and ignore my other ideas, i will still promote the notion that debates NOW are a good thing. they may not be _the_ answer to winning, but their is much value in them.