John Kerry supporters woke up last Wednesday wondering how their candidate lost the election, with some gay Democrats blaming the passage of state constitutional amendments and some exit polls that showed moral values as trumping the economy as the most important priority for some voters.
With pundits openly wondering if the legalization of gay marriage resulted in a backlash that cost the Democrats a closely fought election, community organizers and leaders, many of whom regularly advocate for same-sex marriage, began to formulate a response to the ominous question: Did the gays lose this election for John Kerry?
On Monday night, at a fiery town hall meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center in Manhattan, an over-capacity crowd in the main hall began to formulate some answers and discuss the direction of the gay movement after four years of extraordinary gains as well as tremendous defeats.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, opened the gathering with a sobering analysis of the electoral returns in the eleven states that passed same-sex marriage bans.
“Putting a fundamental human right up on the ballot is wrong,” said Foreman. “If we put on the ballot today the freedom of press, the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, not to mention choice,” he added, referring to a woman’s right to an abortion, “we would lose those freedoms in the majority of states.”
Of the eleven states, eight were considered red, favoring Bush (Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah), and three were considered toss-ups (Ohio, Michigan, and Oregon) going into the election. In those states on Election Day, according to Foreman, 21 million votes were cast, with 14 million voters in favor of gay marriage bans and seven million against them.
“This was an uphill struggle for us,” Foreman said. “Only one of them, Oregon, had anything close to the resources it needed.”
Foreman said that it was “a total and complete homophobic lie” that same-sex marriage was the wedge issue responsible for Kerry’s defeat.
“In fact, Kerry did better than Gore in the three battleground states with amendments on the ballot. Furthermore, it was the other 39 states that brought us down,” Foreman said.
Foreman then rhetorically asked who circulated the lie. The words “Karl Rove” and “Right Wing” flashed on a screen behind him. “Duh,” Foreman replied. “They want to take credit for this.” The next screen showed the names of California Sen. Diane Feinstein and Pres. Bill Clinton, two prominent Democrats who have raised concerns in recent weeks about the impact of the same-sex marriage issue. According to Foreman, many progressive leaders told major Democratic donors that the gay marriage issue is to blame for the loss rather than admit that “their own message, their own campaign, and the way they spent money” was at fault.
“It wasn’t just the right. It was some of our own friends,” Foreman said, in explaining that mainstream Democrats were looking for a political scapegoat.
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, largely agreed with Foreman’s analysis, asserting that Democrats “certainly weren’t saying that about us when they were accepting millions and millions of dollars from our community for the election. Someone needs to remind them that if we give it, we can take it back.”
Not everyone in attendance focused on the marriage issue. For Ana Oliveira, executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the most crucial issue in this year’s election was health care. HIV continues to be the most pressing issue for the LGBT community, she said. In a second Bush administration, Oliveira said that she expects to see a reduction in affordable health care due to less state involvement and a larger cost shifted to individuals. She indicated that she is concerned about a reduction in research to find a cure for AIDS and she warned of an enrollment cap on entitlement programs like Medicaid, which she said is the largest source of funding for people living with HIV/AIDS. Coupled with a rise in the cost of medications and “censorship” of prevention information prevention, Oliveira presented a bleak prognosis.
Richard Kim, representing Queers for Economic Justice, described the passage of the 11 constitutional bans in a broader political context.
“What happened on November 2,” Kim said, “was not just the Christian right mobilizing the so-called ‘values voters’ with anti-gay initiatives, but a sweeping assault on immigrants, minorities, the working class, public services, women, you name it. It was an affirmation of empire, pre-emptive military strikes, corporate cronyism, an expansive police state, and an economic plan that redistributes wealth from the poor to the rich.”
Another panelist even questioned the legitimacy of the election.
“Bush didn’t win,” said Trishala Deb of the Audre Lorde Project. “I don’t think he won either election and more deeply than that I question to what extent we live in a democracy at this moment at all.”
Many audience members lined up to ask questions. The first agreed with Deb and pointed to voting irregularities in Ohio. Another audience member said, “I don’t think that we lost this election and I don’t think we necessarily need to give up this fight yet. The elections have not been certified,” suggesting that many attendees were deeply disgruntled with the prospect of another Bush term.
Other attendees offered strategies on how a Democrat could win in 2008 despite a seemingly virulent anti-gay national environment. Michael Adams, an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued that challenging the successful amendments in the courts was a viable part of a larger political strategy.
“We do have opportunities in the courts, but we have to think this through,” Adams said, announcing that Lambda will challenge Georgia’s amendment, while warning that legal battles must be carefully chosen to avoid establishing “bad law” or irreversible legal precedents.
“The other side has gotten great at convincing people the courts have no legitimate role, that the only way we get ahead is with so-called ‘activist judges’ helping us out,” Adams said.
One panelist, Nan Hunter, a law professor, suggested a “secular values discourse” with “pinkos,” or potential supporters living in “pink states” like Ohio, and Florida, where Bush narrowly won. Contrary to several who spoke out, Hunter urged voters to work with the Democratic Party and to push the Democratic leaders as far to the left as possible.
“I think we should take them over, not abandon them,” she said.
Kim had another idea.
“We need to become more like the Christian right,” he said. “But I don’t think that means we adopt their values. We need to get smart and adopt their strategies.”
Kim called for a broad progressive agenda, including economic equality, non-discrimination, and housing and immigration reform, as a means of coalition-building to achieve broader support for marriage equality.
Others reiterated that theme, mentioning efforts with unions, minority groups, religious liberals and the anti-war movement.
“If it is only LGBT people in New York State asking for our civil rights, we lose,” Van Capelle said. “We win when we get people who are not gay and lesbian to start caring and thinking and acting.”
Others suggested a more militant approach.
“National boycott! Don’t buy shit for Christmas,” one woman yelled into the microphone, a tactic not everyone favored because of its potential to boomerang on the many working-class LGBT employees in the targeted states.
“The more we sacrifice, the more we sacrifice,” offered one woman, a boycott opponent.
“It’s time for civil disobedience,” said one man in a jean jacket and sweater. “It’s time we placed ourselves in front of the fire house.”
The idea circulated of protesting at the Capitol at the inauguration as well disrupting upcoming congressional hearings, like ACT UP and Code Pink, the anti-Bush feminist group, did at the Republican National Convention this summer when activists blocked Eighth Avenue and disrupted Bush’s and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney’s acceptance speeches.
By the end of the emotional meeting, it was clear that perhaps more venting than concrete organizing had occurred, with many also noting the extraordinary unity and reason for hopefulness within the LGBT community.
“Anybody who is thoroughly tested and as tough as we are, can certainly be tough enough to weather another four years of
this administration,” Van Capelle said.