One day after U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 and made headlines globally, Eric Garcia, an affable front-desk manager at a West Hollywood gym, is folding white towels and preparing to close for the night. A handsome gay man in his 30s who sports a black Mohawk, Garcia, like many younger gays, doesn't consider himself an activist or very political. Hearing about the decision, he's happy, but the issue doesn't deeply interest him.
"It's not something I'm passionate about," says Garcia, of Hollywood, who grew up in the Bay Area. "I'm not really looking to get married, and it's just a certificate — I don't need a piece of paper to tell me I'm married. But I do understand there's a larger principle. The whole thing is about equality, and [Prop. 8] is unconstitutional."
Among the generation of often successful gays now coming up — young enough to benefit the most if full marriage rights are granted — Garcia is one of many who holds an expansive view of what the battle is all about.
Jason Luck is a gay fashion stylist in his early 30s who grew up in Los Angeles, moved to Iowa for 16 years and now lives in West Hollywood. He sees the long fight over Prop. 8, the 2008 ballot measure that ended the court-granted right of gays and lesbians to legally marry in California, as a "battle over everything that the gay community represents and everything that we are."
Stephanie Frank, a 20-something film producer from Lexington, Kentucky, who lives in West Hollywood, also believes much bigger things are at stake than simply her right to marry another woman. "It's just one issue," she says, "but it's a catalyst for other ones."
Matthew Mishory, a filmmaker in his 20s who grew up on the Westside and lives in West Hollywood, says marriage has been something of a side issue for him and his friends. "Prop. 8 is more about fighting against homophobia than fighting for gay marriage," he says.
For 20- and 30-somethings such as Garcia, Luck, Frank and Mishory, the fight over gay marriage isn't about marriage at all.
After Walker handed down his ruling last Wednesday, Chad Griffin, the gay 30-something president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which organized and helped to fund the lawsuit that challenged Prop. 8, spoke at press conferences not merely of marriage rights but of "state-sponsored discrimination" and "equal rights."
For many younger gays, marriage is really about becoming first-class citizens, and the legal fight over Prop. 8 has been a barometer of progress toward that goal.
"To me," says Luck, "it shows that things are changing. It's another battle we are winning."
But as that struggle moves forward, young gays such as Garcia and Mishory, who are not activists but are watching the issue closely, want to see gay-rights organizations do a better job of engaging gay people their age. "It's the responsibility of the movement to reach out to us in different ways," Mishory says.
That's a critique that gay-rights groups such as Equality California, GetEqual and Courage Campaign seem to have heard quite a bit, especially after young gays and lesbians consistently complained about being left out of the loop during the failed campaign to defeat Prop. 8 in 2008.
"It's our job to engage people," says Rick Jacobs, founder of the Los Angeles–based Courage Campaign. "Our job is not to tell people what to do. Young gays and lesbians have work, they have boyfriends and girlfriends, they go on dates, they have a life. So we have to engage them."
Gay-rights groups have come up with different strategies for making that happen — from better use of social-networking tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter to more opportunities for volunteerism, which involves direct interaction with the public instead of just sitting in a room working on a phone bank.
Already, young gays and lesbians, particularly young men, wonder if the seriousness of marriage — in contrast to less culturally weighty civil unions and domestic partnerships — will change the way gays approach long-term relationships. "Maybe men will become more committed," says Luck, who would "love" to come home to a husband every night. "Men aren't always the most committed, so maybe that would change."
Last Wednesday night, Mishory, who has a mop of black hair and boyish good looks, stood in West Hollywood Park several yards from a stage set up for a rally to celebrate the courtroom victory of anti–Prop. 8 attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies. Thousands of people surrounded him. Dressed in dark gray pants and a red T-shirt with the words "Legalize Gay" emblazoned across it, Mishory noticed the heavy presence of people in their 20s like him.
"Twenty-somethings are very connected to this issue," Mishory explains. "They were coming of age when [San Francisco Mayor] Gavin Newsom allowed gay marriages in 2004."