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Setting the (Gay) Wedding Table 

Wiser, more diffuse, battle-savvy gay-rights groups craft a 2010 ballot measure for California

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009
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At 7 p.m. on a clear, balmy night in West Hollywood, the gym bunnies, drag queens, high school and college students, power gays, lipstick lesbians, middle-aged activists, blue jean–wearing bears and assorted gay friendlies had gathered once again. The nighttime rally on May 26 was the last, soul-aching event of a day filled with press conferences and protests, where gay-rights leaders and their straight allies denounced the California Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld Proposition 8 and finally banned, without question, gay marriage in the Golden State.

“We come from a stock of people who have been thrown down but are ready to get up and fight — again and again and again,” West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran yelled into a microphone as he stood on a flatbed truck parked in the middle of San Vicente Boulevard near the Pacific Design Center.

The crowd of several thousand people clapped and cheered, and then Lt. Dan Choi, who had recently been discharged from the Army because he came out as a gay man on national television, took the mike, declaring, “I’m a soldier! And love is worth fighting for!”

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Newspaper photographers aimed their cameras and snapped away, radio reporters held up their microphones, TV-news cameramen shot as much coverage as they could, and print journalists and bloggers scribbled in their notebooks or tapped on BlackBerries. The heart-wrenching scene, where gay and lesbian couples held each other tightly, some with children sitting on their shoulders, looked like past sad nights following gay-rights losses. But whether people knew it or not, something much larger was playing out before the crowd and press — a new campaign to pass a pro–gay marriage ballot measure in California was making its prime-time debut.

From celebrities Drew Barrymore and Kathy Griffin, who stepped up to the microphone on the flatbed, to a married gay couple sharing their story about raising an adopted son, to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking in Spanish to the Latino community, to the Rev. Eric Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Council of Los Angeles, offering prayer and support, the rallies and press conferences unfolding throughout L.A. on the same day were a well-orchestrated single event meant to reach out to California voters and to set the table for a gay-marriage victory at the ballot box in 2010 or 2012.

“You need to talk to people’s compassion and empathy,” says Darry Sragow, a respected Democratic consultant in Los Angeles, “so the best spokespeople for this kind of campaign are gays and lesbians and their straight friends and family.”

The coordinated effort in West Hollywood and throughout California, including a gay-marriage summit of sorts in conservative, farming-oriented Fresno on May 30, showcased the kind of campaign structure many gay-marriage advocates want to see built for the new ballot measure, in which cash-rich, mainstream gay-rights organizations work closely with their less wealthy grass-roots counterparts.

“The campaign will be wildly different from the last time around,” says Torie Osborn, former executive director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and co-founder of Camp Courage, a training seminar for grass-roots activists that’s been traveling around the state. “It will unleash this growing, and huge, grass-roots effort.”

But things aren’t all smiles and sunshine in the gay-rights world in California. Hard feelings from the “No on 8” campaign’s failures still linger in the gay-rights movement, and very different grass-roots and mainstream organizations, such as Equality California and Courage Campaign, are jockeying for a better position so they can ensure themselves a seat at the campaign’s power table. Activists of all stripes differ on what kind of political pro should be tapped to actually run the campaign.

And, while all of this has been playing out, a little-known gay-rights group based in politically savvy Sacramento has suddenly become a major power broker — by very cleverly and very quietly filing the first official ballot language for a pro–gay marriage measure for 2010.

“We really see ourselves as moderators of the situation,” says Chaz Lowe of Sacramento, co-founder of a brash new group that is taking action without waiting for the old guard — Yes on Equality. “That way, there doesn’t have to be infighting between Equality California and the Courage Campaign.”

The gym bunnies, bears, drag queens, power gays and lipstick lesbians in West Hollywood and California want a winning campaign to restore their legal right to marry. Some of them may not closely follow the inside moves of their own civil rights movement, but what unfolds now is critical. The decisions made in the coming weeks, and the leaders who emerge, will lay the foundation for the defeat or victory of a pro–gay marriage ballot measure.

 

Robin McGehee, a plain-talking, hard-charging lesbian and mother of two, typifies the new grass-roots movement in California’s gay-rights struggle. A 35-year-old college professor in Fresno, McGehee married her longtime partner when it was still legal and threw herself into the anti–Proposition 8 cause. After she spoke at a “No on 8” rally in her hometown last fall, Roman Catholic church officials took away her position as president of the parent-teacher association at her son’s Catholic elementary school.

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