Asleep for Knight

In the early days of gay bashing, when California’s right wing spewed mean-spirited initiatives that pushed for the firings of gay teachers (the 1978 Briggs Initiative) and the quarantining of people with AIDS (the 1986 LaRouche Initiative), the gay community knew how to win. It mobilized people and defeated each homophobic measure.

But these days, it‘s different. Now, the radical right no longer talks about the ”politics of faggotry.“ It has learned how to censor its crazies and sugarcoat its hatred with corporate panache. Likewise, the gay community -- growing more slick -- has lost much of its rage and people power. Failure to mobilize the gay community this time around is spelling big trouble for efforts to defeat what activists agree is the most dangerous attack on its political survival in recent years.

Proposition 22, known as the Knight Initiative, says in a mere 14 words that ”Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.“ The proposition is a reaction against gay and lesbian efforts in other states to legalize same-sex marriage. TV and print ads pushing Proposition 22 feature heterosexual families cherishing marital life and make no mention of gays or lesbians -- the implied foe targeted by the smiling Christian faces.

What’s so clever and dangerous about Proposition 22 is that it capitalizes on the entrenched Judeo-Christian view most people have of marriage (that it should be protected from same-sex couples) while building on the ambivalence -- if not downright unease -- many gays have with the heterosexual institution of marriage. ”Proposition 22 is every bit as threatening as any of the other anti-gay initiatives,“ says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a board member of the No on Knight campaign in San Francisco. ”If Pete Knight prevails, the far right will feel like it has a mandate to push what will become an ever-increasing anti-gay agenda. Our community and our friends must see that this is not merely a symbolic initiative.“

Eric Bauman, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club and a No on Knight board member, is worried that ”right-wing legal organizations have successfully used Knight-like laws in court to revoke hospital-visitation rights, domestic-partnership benefits, and child-custody and adoption rights in Illinois, Florida and Virginia.“ Quoting Governor Gray Davis, who came out against Proposition 22, Bauman insists that the measure is not about marriage, but is about dividing Californians, promoting hate and violence toward lesbian and gay Californians, and legalizing discrimination.

But if Proposition 22 is a wolf in sheep‘s clothing, why are gay people so silent and why are there no massive demonstrations? The question is aggravating veteran activists who are starting to panic and blame the No on Knight campaign. A recent Field Poll shows a slim majority of 52 percent support the measure pushed by state Senator Pete Knight, a Palmdale Republican. Proponents have raised about $5 million, twice as much as opponents.

”With the pathetic efforts of No on Knight to educate gays about the implications of this serious attack, we’re seeing the corporatization of the gay and lesbian movement,“ says ACT UPL.A. founding member Peter Cashman. Adds activist Miki Jackson, ”Gay and lesbian activism has become Gay and Lesbian Inc. It‘s a battle waged merely by phone calls and e-mail.“

The lackluster campaign has turned into a case of missed opportunities, regardless of the outcome of the election. Community activist Carol Anderson, co-chair of the California Alliance for Pride and Equality, a new statewide grassroots organization, said a chance to help a new generation of young gay Californians has been lost.

The No on Knight campaign is nothing compared to the fiery reaction provoked by past efforts to limit gay rights.

In 1986, when Lyndon LaRouche sought to quarantine AIDS sufferers en masse, almost no gay or lesbian person could minimize paranoid fantasies of Nazi-like goons transporting thousands of sick or infected people to internment camps. Back then, Michael Weinstein, who is now president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, was a leader of the No on 64 campaign. It ”came at a time when gays and lesbians were not sure of the public sentiment around AIDS and we felt that we were fighting for our lives,“ says Weinstein. For that campaign, Weinstein, along with a handful of other activists, went over the heads of the timid No on 64 campaign run by the gay moneyed establishment and put together an activist countergroup, the Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee. They staged a 4,000-person march on September 15, 1986, on the LaRouche headquarters, that Weinstein calls ”our debutante ball.“

The 1986 effort brought national attention to the failure of Los Angeles to create a network of health care for people affected by HIV, and spawned the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, now the nation’s largest multimillion-dollar AIDS-community-based health agency. Additionally, that effort led to a more militant, left-leaning action committee, organized by the late Mark Kostopoulos, an energetic young member of the Lavender Left, that eventually became ACT UPL.A.

By contrast, the effort to defeat Knight isn‘t translating into broad gay-community involvement or outrage. Part of the reason for the failure of political vision is no doubt rooted in No on Knight’s lack of funds. It has been focused primarily on the 9 percent of undecided mainstream heterosexual voters. Another factor, says Stonewall‘s Bauman, is that the right has done a better job this time of capturing public sentiment.

”What’s different about this measure, as compared to the Briggs and LaRouche initiatives, is that the issue of same-sex marriage is overwhelmingly unpopular,“ says Bauman. ”The right has a simple argument, which is that they are not trying to take something away from anyone. We, on the other hand, are in the difficult position of having to dislodge voters from the central notion of the initiative. We have to focus on the greater impact of this initiative beyond the question of banning legally performed out-of-state marriages.“

Organizers from the No on Knight campaign take issue with criticisms coming from their own community, pointing to field offices in San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento. ”You may not see the people working in phone banks across the state calling voters and educating them,“ argues No on Knight‘s Tracey Conaty, ”but dedicated people are calling, going door to door, talking to voters one-on-one, to get them to the polls to vote. Our effort is comprehensive and widespread, and, while it may not look like a spectacle, it’s tightly focused and organized.“

While she believes that her campaign stands a good chance of winning, she is worried that gays lack the magic ”silver bullet“ of support from the likes of Ronald Reagan and the Catholic Church, who came out against Briggs. Knight‘s measure has the support of the Catholic Church and conservative people of color.

Veteran activist Ivy Bottini, who led the No on 64 campaign, is critical of the lack of fire in the current campaign. ”They are running No on Knight like it’s an Assembly race.“ Yet she would not want to be leading the current campaign. ”I wasn‘t exactly running to be the No on Knight campaign manager, even though I saw the attack coming -- let’s face it, it wasn‘t a sexy issue.“

Bauman suggests that success may be keeping gays on their couches. He characterizes 1999 as a ”watershed year“ in which gays and lesbians, after 20 years of activism, saw the Fair Employment and Housing Act include sexual orientation. In addition, the nation’s first statewide domestic-partner registry was established in California. Laws were passed to protect gay and lesbian children from harassment and abuse in schools and to end a ban on adoption by gay couples. ”We did all that legislatively,“ he says, calling it ”tremendous incremental progress.“

If Proposition 22 wins, it will be a dark day in California. Says Weinstein, ”Here in California, the bastion of liberalism, we are giving the message that it‘s okay to turn the clock back, and that will no doubt embolden the thugs.“

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