Darlene Huntress, Equality Maine’s public policy director, on the night in 2009 that the state’s voters repealed its new marriage equality law. | FLY ON THE WALL PRODUCTIONS
With marriage equality on the ballot, in one form or another, in four states this November — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington — “Question One,” a new documentary about the pitched battle over a 2009 referendum that overturned Maine’s marriage equality law passed earlier that year, couldn’t be more timely.
In what directors Joe Fox and James Nubile aptly describe as “War Room” fashion — a reference to D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ gripping chronicle of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign — “Question One” takes viewers behind the scenes of both the Yes on One and No on One campaigns, with interviewers and camera crews embedded with the anti-equality as well as pro-equality teams.
In a story that takes us from the marriage law’s enactment in May 2009 through the November election, when it was overturned by just under a six-point margin, we meet two leaders each from the opposing sides, plus a volunteer from each camp. Fox is gay, and the film he and Nubile made pulls no punches in portraying the pain repeal caused in LGBT-headed households and for Maine’s gay and lesbian community generally. But what is perhaps most striking in their documentary is the three-dimensional and at times sympathetic quality they lend to each of their six primary “characters.”
Linda Seavey, the owner of a small accounting firm in southern Maine, devotes time to dropping off yard signs supporting the repeal effort to allies in her community. Several times, we see her locked in prayer with others who share her opposition to marriage equality, and while it’s hard not to chuckle when God’s help is sought in ginning up voter turnout, Seavey seems sincere when she says, “We took God out of this country a long time ago… and we need to put him back in.”
“I really worked very hard to capture these people’s characters,” Fox told Gay City News. “We worked very hard to find characters that did not fall into the usual hayseed stereotype.” Explaining that he grew up gay, Jewish, and adopted, he added, “I struggled to find my identity. I always felt like I was the outsider looking in. These are the same kinds of struggles some of these people are going through.”
Those supporting the effort to roll back equal marriage rights, he said, “grew up with a view that homosexuality is evil” and then, “‘Alice In Wonderland’-like, were asking themselves, ‘We’re really voting on gay marriage?’”
He added, “The Linda Seaveys, I used to always laugh at. But her driving around with her yard signs, that’s how we lost.”
The most intriguing character in “Question One” is Marc Mutty, the policy director for the Portland Catholic Diocese who was the public face of the Yes on One campaign. A man with supremely high self-regard, he often comes across simply as self-pitying, saying of the campaign, “This has been a fucking son of a bitch. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it,” and worrying he would be remembered as “Maine’s chief bigot” for a cause he never seemed all that attached to. “We’re at the mercy of the bishop,” he said. “I would not have done it. This is not of my choosing.”
Still, Mutty ached to get credit when his campaign triumphed. After the Sacramento-based PR guru who steered Proposition 8 to victory in 2008 — and played what Fox described as essentially the role of puppet-master the following year in Maine — mounted a stage there on Election Night to claim victory for Question One, Mutty was left complaining, “Frank Schubert has really done a very good job of stealing the limelight.”
In fact, tension between Mutty and other local Maine folks and the Schubert team out of California was a central theme in “Question One.” After a blizzard of ads warning Mainers that their children would be taught about gay marriage and gay sex in schools — claims Mutty admits on camera were “hyperbole” — he desperately tries to forestall an ad Schubert plans that would warn parents about sex toys education. In the end, the Yes side compromised on an ad that Fox — and many other observers of the 2009 campaign — said might have been decisive: “It’s Possible,” a spot that assured voters they could “be tolerant of gays… without dismantling traditional marriage.”
Recalling that he heard phone-bank volunteers with the Yes on One campaign struggling to answer the anxieties of voters who worried they might harm their gay and lesbian fellow citizens, Fox said the ad “ gave them permission. It sort of absolved them of guilt.”
For gay audiences, of course, it will be far easier to empathize with those on the losing side in the 2009 fight. We see a videotape of Equality Maine’s public policy director, Darlene Huntress, 23 years earlier, toasting her sister at her wedding for finding a man as good as their father. Recalling her sister dancing with their father that day, she said, “I didn’t let myself think about” the likelihood that a similar scene would never play out in her own life.
Sarah Dowling, raising a seven-year-old daughter with her partner Linda Wolfe in Freeport, says she can’t imagine going through the referendum fight “without God.” But she leavens her religion with humor. “God made us in his image,” she says. “So I’m pretty sure God is a middle-aged lesbian.”
Jesse Connolly, the political organizer who headed up the No on One campaign, is mostly about polling, projections, and analysis. But on Election Night, when he refuses to concede, and the next morning when he does, we see his tears and believe him when he says the defeat will take a long time to get over. It’s just as touching, though, when he says proudly, “I am happy I was part of this campaign. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
QUESTION ONE | Directed by Joe Fox and James Nubile | Fly on the Wall Productions | Chelsea Clearview Cinema | 260 W. 23rd St. | Oct. 19-25 | Clearviewcinemas.com
The 7 p.m. screening each night at the Chelsea Clearview will be followed by a rotating series of talk-backs with panelists including director Joe Fox, Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson, author Andrew Solomon, and former NFL player Wade Davis. For a complete schedule of talk-backs, visit tinyurl.com/98mtlee.