Nan Hunter

Marriage after Maine

Filed By Nan Hunter | November 05, 2009 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: election campaigns, gay marriage, Maine

As heartbreaking as it was for the people on the ground and as callous as this may sound, Maine 09 was just another move in the two steps forward, one step back dance that social change movements are. The overall strategy on marriage has been to win in enough states to create a tipping point before seeking a nationwide resolution. Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the big gamble of a case now in federal court in California, might change that strategy, but a loss in any one state won't. Instead, what comes out of Maine are little lessons that are new and big questions that are old.

The little lessons are tactical points: Heavy turn-out is not necessarily a good sign for a minority rights issue. Religiosity isn't everything (Maine is one of the four least religious states in the country). A huge fundraising advantage may be necessary but definitely is not sufficient. And we should trust only automated polling - when people respond to other people instead of to computers, a chunk of them say they will vote to legalize gay marriage, then actually cast their ballots against it.

More importantly, following the jump are three major issues reinforced by the Maine experience as ones that people need to wrap their minds around.

  • Marriage is different. For lots of progressives and lgbt people, marriage is simply the next frontier in an expanding civil rights movement. (Personally I dissent from the view that legalizing marriage is the apex of our goals, but I digress - that's another post.) We visualize it as linear because that is how we conceptualize it. But for a huge number of other Americans (at least if they are over 35), marriage really is different. Really different. Really. Maybe our team should consider ways to acknowledge that feeling without endorsing it.
  • Time may be on our side in the long run, but in the very short run of an election campaign, time feeds doubts about jettisoning the status quo. Both in Maine and California, early polls showed the good guys winning, but that lead evaporated in the run-up to the election. Draining a swamp of fear and prejudice can't be done with a three-month campaign, even a smart one.
  • Lastly, if the post-election surveys that are about to be done (if they haven't begun already) indicate that the homosexuals-indoctrinating-children-in-schools attack was as effective in Maine as it was in California, the gay marriage forces may want to consider an inoculation against that, even if the inoculation is painful. Let parents of young children register with the school if they want to opt their children out of teacher-initiated discussions of gay marriage. Not out of discussions of gay people and their families, but solely and specifically discussions of marriage. Most parents won't do it; most teachers won't be affected. Polls in California showed that it could make a difference.
Cross-posted at hunter of justice

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Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.
Although I am a big supporter of same sex marriage, do you think that the approach in Washington State (all the rights under state law of marriage except the name "marriage) is a way to go? It seems that even in this instance, the opponents used the same tactics and accusations as if it were called marriage.

its too risky to try everywhere. Clearly it doesn't dilute their attacks. Our energy needs to be on ENDA right now. Certainly if it comes up again, and we have to fight to defend it, lets fight to defend it, but lets put our focus on passing ENDA now, unless they otherwise bring the fight to us!

I certainly don't think that we should abandon marriage campaigns for civil union campaigns. Nor do I think that we should put aside relationship issues for ENDA, although I do think that once ENDA becomes law, the focus on discrimination in employment will magnify and that will be healthy for the movement in many ways: it puts on ground where there is strong majority agreement; it addresses the single most important pocketbook issue for the entire community; and it also will help combat one of the worst zones of violence against us, which is harassment in the workplace.

Overall, the movement has to continue pursuing all of these goals. My point in this post is that an effective equality argument is not as simple and self-evident as we may have thought. In general, I think that the lgbt groups have demonstrated an impressive degree of sophistication in many respects, but I think we need to keep raising the bar for our own efforts.

The argument about teaching same sex marriage to children is not about parental control over curriculum. It's about denying the existence of homosexuality. It's that conservatives think that homosexuality is all about sex, even though "King and King" and "And Tango Makes Three" is not about sex. When LGBs are portrayed as anything but sexual deviants, more people are sympathetic to our cause.

i've been telling people that there is a "sky no fall down" theory that plays here: same-sex unions and marriages are happening, in one jurisdiction at a time, and if "sky no fall down" in the process, it becomes harder and harder for the opposition to keep making the same "sky fall down" arguments.

as far as portraying gay folks as deviants: it's the same problem. when your sister isn't a monster, but the "god hates fags" guy says she is, it starts to look absurd,and that's been happening for a few years now, which is why cindy mccain is such a controversial--and scary--figure for ultra-conservatives

This is an incomplete and unclear analysis. The end result of the anti gay marriage vote is a lack of legal protections for ourselves, our spouses, and our children.

Another result is a continued environment of distrust and hatred of LGBT people, this environment is reinforced and increased when the anti gay mob has a win.

There is no appeasing the mob, 34 years of activism has taught me that painful lesson. There is NO appeasing the mob. Nothing we offer other than disappearing completely will satisfy these folks. The reality is the mob wants to open camps and put us and our families out of sight and out of mind.

Conservative and what is called values voters feel deeply troubled at the loss of American prestige on the world stage. They see themselves as the losers to a diverse range of people and beliefs that are disturbing to and disrespectful of the post WW2 America of rising incomes, increased opportunities, and greater security for families.

All the cultural shocks of the 1960's to 9/11 reinforced their feelings that their hard earned way of life is under assault by immoral and evil forces and people, a conspiracy if you will of liberalism, non-Christian beliefs, and economic losses. A conspiracy that directly impacts the health and welfare of their families and communities.

One way to fight back and regain some respect is to go to war on LGBT people. Conservative and religious media and leaders support this attack on LGBT people with propaganda, lies, and blistering hate speech. 30 years of this assault on LGBT people creates an illusion that this is right and just, after all, WE are regaining the moral upper hand.

Our existence and our success in creating successful and meaningful lives in spite of this anti LGBT assault is a deeply felt affront that threatens to invalidate conservative and religious values and in the minds of conservatives,threatens the very roots of a mythical America they love and cherish.

There is no dialog or discussion with these true believers, moral right and God are on their side.

Oddly, our success in establishing and creating positive lives in spite of overwhelming social and legal oppression only serves to reinforce irrational and unfounded conservative and religious beliefs.

Again, our successes are a deeply felt threat by conservatives and religious fundamentalists. The more visible LGBT people are, the more rights and responsibilities and legal protections that we obtain, the more threatened conservatives and religious fundamentalists (fascists) feel.

This self-fulfilling spiral of fear and intolerance does not respond to positive and upbeat election campaigns. They are not listening. They know we are evil. They know we are out to destroy their family and community. No amount of fact and reason will breach this wall of willful ignorance, denial, and fear.

Changing conservative and religious fundamentalist attitudes about LGBT people has been a glacial process. Much change has occurred because the older generations of intolerant believers have died.

LGBT people are on the last mile of a long, difficult and violent journey from darkness, oppression, and exclusion to light, legal protections, and inclusion.

ENDA will pass. DADT will be repealed. Obama will not be reelected. The Democratic Party will see LGBT people and their talent and money leaving. Gay apartheid will fail. Marriage Equality will prevail.

We must remember we are on the last mile. We can measure our successes by the continued increase of anti-gay voices and violence, these are the voices of a dying dinosaur, too big and too inflexible to survive in a changed environment.

Have faith, eat a cupcake, hug a friend, we are getting close to the promised land.


I agree that there is no appeasing "the mob," but I don't agree that 53% of Maine voters or 52% of California voters can correctly be described as simply "the mob." Extreme rightwingers or religious ultra-conservatives are not worth the time spent focusing on them, because they will never be convinced. But they - like we - are a small minority.

The only way to make social change is to change the minds of people who are not gay but who are fair, which we have done at warp speed, compared to other civil rights movements. My suggestions are framed as ways of easing the inevitable transition to a more democratic model of marriage and more legal equality overall for lgbt people. That's the point.

I would add two more points to your list, that sort of feed off of them and have been talking and thinking points of mine.

First, the campaigns run by us talk about what is in it for *us*. Consistently. That's a mistake in political efforts. You always shold talk about what in it for them -- in this case, for the straight and cis folks who will be most of the voters. Our opponents do that -- and the message they give is one of fear -- this scary thing is what's in it for you, in other words.

Second, we absolutely must get more of us to run for office. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if we win, but the act of running will force people over time to stop looking at us on the basis of what they think, and focus more on what is known. The more LGBT folks who run, openly, the better the chance we are elected. And once we are elected, then we have a much stronger impact and influence than we will have otherwise.

First, the campaigns run by us talk about what is in it for *us*. Consistently. That's a mistake in political efforts. You always shold talk about what in it for them -- in this case, for the straight and cis folks who will be most of the voters. Our opponents do that -- and the message they give is one of fear -- this scary thing is what's in it for you, in other words.

DING DING DING! Dyss wins the prize for one of the most telling observations I've seen on any of the sites since the election. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that I thought the same thing... *grins*)

Thanks, Dyss - I very much agree with your two points.

coloredqueer | November 6, 2009 10:57 AM

Thank you for not bashing people of color including LGBT ones and President Obama for Maine.

It may be true that the DNC or President Obama could have done more, but I think it's fantasy to imagine that it would have had any real impact on the Maine vote. Just ask Jon Corzine.

The message from the Christian Right has been the same since Anita Bryant. However, our community, populated with some of the best minds in for-profit media, marketing and messaging have not had a concentrated conversation on how to take on the "they're coming after your children" message such that it resonates and changes hearts and minds. I am clear that the language of LGBT activist culture, as much as I hate to say it, is not ready for prime time. That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but we fail time and again and just plain don't know what will work. And for human beings, especially those in leadership positions, "I don't know" can be some of the most difficult words to say.

We do know that coming out and having one-on-one conversations with family and friends is very effective, and is the biggest contributor to the close percentages we've seen in California, Maine and elsewhere. What we need to find is the strategy and the basket of tactics that "drop out" of the strategy that gives us the 5-10% more we need for an assured win.

I am sure that we can solve this puzzle, but I worry that our organizational leaders at all levels – be they grassroots or "Gay, Inc." – are unwilling to drop the egos and admit they have limited expertise in this area. A meeting, similar to what turned out to be the Dallas Principles, focused purely on messaging would be one of the best things we could do right now. We just need to make sure that the participants are not just the same organizations, bloggers and philanthropists. We need people like Creative Directors from places like Saatchi and Saatchi, market researchers from MRI and crisis PR experts from places like Porter Novelli.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 6, 2009 12:41 PM

"Marriage is different......really different".

That's a somewhat different from saying: "the question of rights, obligations, and benefits" that flow to heterosexual couples from civil marriage are different........really different>"

While it would seem that in many if not most states, popular sentiment for civil unions/domestic partnerships remains more against than for, the "M-word" issue does seem to make a difference.

And although Washington is not Maine, one cannot totally ignore the differences in referendum outcomes, where its not unreasonable to say that the only difference had to do with nomenclature.

That's not to discount valid arguments concerning alleged "separate but equal" distinctions. It is simply to say that despite high-principled legal arguments about the role of the courts in enforcing the Equal Protection Clause on behalf of minorities, the reality comes back to the power (though maybe misguided and abused) of the "People" to reflect both their lofty and prejudced veiws.

If those viewpoints include those concerning "the M-Word", our movement needs to continue to evaluate whether and how to deal with it.

It intrigued me that anti-gay folks have shifted from "gays want special rights" to "marriage is a special right -- for straights only."

I wonder how effective it was for the anti-gay folks to argue, "If marriage equality wins, Catholics become bigots." Is this fear palpable among folks who otherwise consider themselves to be fair-minded?

On the homosexuals-indoctrinating-children-in-schools front, it seems to me that our pushback assumed that voters understand how competent teachers handle family, religious, and cultural diversity in the classroom. And, that they understand the role of curricula in the schools.

I'd expect as much from seniors recalling their schoolteachers from the 1940s or earlier, and that they might not be reachable. But, Boomers and younger, rural parents, as well as Catholic parents with limited exposure to public schools, could be reached with more content-rich video and write-ups showing how teachers are trained and how they deal with diverse families. It's only natural, after hearing the Yes On 1 arguments, that less-informed folks see the public school blackboard as a pulpit and the curricula as ideologically-driven. It's no surprise that the Attorney General's assurances about the curricula not changing didn't matter to them.

In parallel with that, an opportunity was missed in Maine to appeal to Catholic traditions of fairness and respect in their own schools: Non-Catholic kids have always been a minority there, but the church has generally prided itself on welcoming those families. Having a few "foreign" (different) families in the mix has never tarnished the faith; admitting that some families don't accept all of the Catholic assumptions hasn't polluted the educational system. It's the same thing that families with same-sex parents were asking of Mainers -- not to overtake or rewrite anything -- but to participate.

Since I am not certain about what led to the defeat of gay marriage in Maine, maybe I should keep my mouth shut. But I'm going to give my two cents worth anyhow.

One of the persons commenting on this article mentioned how folks have to feel comfortable coming out. This is especially true in the trans community where the goal of many is to go stealth. Even in states where there are laws on the laws on the books that protect people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, people still live in constant fear. Donna Rose talks about the unholy trinity of fear, guilt and shame about being gay or trans. If people know us, they will be more reluctant to vote against us.

The other point I would like to make is a campaign in Colorado a couple of years ago in support of gay marriage. Our community was so badly fragmented there was no cohesive effort in support of gay marriage. Most of the speeches in favor of it were like preaching to the choir. That's not going to change minds where they need to be changed.

I think this happened in California, and it may have been what happened in Maine. We are right in our position on gay marriage, and eventually we'll have that ability. We need to be open about ourselves, and explain that our marriages will not harm that of heterosexuals.

Perhaps fear is something we should find in our own tool box. Can we convince the 10% middle-of-the-road voters that they have more to fear from a Q-community that is denied, than they do from the far-right communtunity? Maine was decided by just over 3% of voters, and my state of Florida was even less of a margin last year.

What are fence-sitters most afraid of? Let's give it to them.