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."
But six years ago, the key issue for young gays wasn't that gays and lesbians were entering into serious, long-term relationships, says Mishory. Rather, it was the fact that for a few weeks, when Newsom pushed to allow about 4,000 couples to be married in San Francisco, gays and lesbians were finally treated as equals.
That historic period confirmed what many young gays today believe about themselves: Unlike older gays and lesbians — who faced far greater stigma growing up, even from family, friends and colleagues — they do not see themselves as social outcasts.
"Younger gays don't see themselves as a subculture anymore," says Mishory, who makes gay-themed movies. "They have goals in life just like anyone else, and they want many of the traditional things that the mainstream has to offer."
Luck wants to wake up in the morning with his husband by his side, kiss him goodbye as they go off to work, and then meet up for dinner at night and talk with his spouse about how their days went.
"We deserve the same rights as anyone else," Luck says. "We should be able to get married and raise children and do everything else."
But in 2004, the California Supreme Court voided the marriages in San Francisco. That's when Mishory and his peers realized that society didn't yet see them as equals and part of the mainstream. In May 2008, the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage as a result of a lawsuit, and 18,000 were legally wed in California — and remain so today. But when voters passed Prop. 8 months later, a cycle of homophobia had developed, angering Mishory and his friends.
Frank is one of them. "Prop. 8 was a shock for me," she says. "Before Prop. 8, my friends weren't into marriage. But once people were told, 'No, you're not going to have that,' they got adamant about it. They wanted that right."
Garcia, who works with younger people as a volunteer for an AIDS-awareness program, wants the younger gays and lesbians, who have not yet come of age, to have the right to marry. "If we have that option," Garcia says, "then there are no issues of equality. Kids won't feel they're unequal or separate from the rest of society. I want them to know they can marry whoever they want."
But paramount to the young is the pursuit of social lives and careers. At the same time, however, gay-activist groups aren't effectively pulling in these nonactivist-but-aware young gays for their support and ideas. Young gays openly criticized the big, longtime gay-rights groups that largely failed to reach out to them before the ballot-box passage of Prop. 8. Since then, Mishory says, he's finally begun to see some modest outreach efforts from the traditional gay groups run by established leaders.
Coming on the heels of those established leaders and groups, the newer, grassroots gay organizers, such as Rick Jacobs and Robin McGehee, have taken a more prominent role in California since Prop. 8 was approved by voters 52 percent to 48 percent. Using social-networking tools and blogs, Jacobs, in his mid-50s, and McGehee, 36, who co-founded the direct-action gay-rights group GetEqual, try to pull in younger gays by keeping them updated and inviting them to join activist campaigns.
"We want people to take the fight into their own hands," says McGehee, sounding a theme Jacobs also supports. "We use those tools to ramp people up and to get them out in the street."
GetEqual has held protests in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and San Francisco, notifying backers via e-mails, Facebook and Twitter. GetEqual members heckled President Barack Obama this year at a Los Angeles fund-raiser for not moving faster to repeal the ban on openly gay members of the military. They made national headlines, keeping the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the national spotlight.
Jacobs, founder of Courage Campaign, set up the blog Prop8TrialTracker.com, which published blow-by-blow accounts of the Prop. 8 federal trial in San Francisco. And his NOM Tour Tracker campaign asks Courage Campaign members to counterprotest anti–gay marriage rallies across the country sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage. As a result, gay-marriage advocates often outnumber opponents at the events, and the confrontations are featured on Prop8TrialTracker.com.
Jacobs' blog is hugely popular: In seven months, the site received 2.6 million page views.
Equality California, the major gay-rights organization that unsuccessfully fought to defeat Prop. 8 in 2008, also has been pumping up its street-volunteer program in such places as Orange County, East L.A. and South L.A. — areas where large numbers of black, Latino and conservative white voters said no to gay marriage by voting yes to the measure.
The volunteers knock on doors and talk directly with people who may not be in favor of same-sex marriage, an effort launched in June 2009 and aimed at a still-unformed but possible pro–gay–marriage ballot measure. Over the past year, 4,000 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have volunteered, says EQCA marriage director Marc Solomon.
Solomon, who used the door-to-door method to protect marriage equality in Massachusetts, says volunteers believe they are making a difference, and 80 percent return to help. He sees it as the "most effective way of reaching people who aren't with us." Despite last week's ruling, Solomon says EQCA will continue its canvassing — in case Walker's decision is overturned on appeal by the Ninth Circuit and a pro–gay–marriage California ballot measure is pushed forward in response.
With the prospect of Walker's ruling becoming the law of the land, not everyone in the gay community is thinking of traditional-style marriages and spouses who share tidbits of workday life over dinner. Some critics charge that marriage will be one more nail in the coffin of a unique gay culture that is increasingly assimilating into the mainstream.
But their voices have been less robust than in years past, particularly with recent findings that marriage may make gay partners — especially men — more committed to each other, thus decreasing dangerous, promiscuous behavior.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men who have sex with men are still the population "most severely" affected by HIV, accounting for 53 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. and 48 percent of all people living with HIV. In 2008, the San Francisco–based Gay and Lesbian Medical Association published a paper that found, among other things, that marriage helps to "protect and promote the mental and physical health" of gay men and women; wards off "psychological distress and mood and anxiety disorders" that arise from being a victim of discrimination; and "increases development options for lesbian and gay adolescents and young adults, who could envision marriage as a key element of their adulthood."
"For me, marriage is deeply important," says McGehee. "We've never had a true foundation to support long-term relationships."
As the battle rolls on, young gays and lesbians are not only fighting for equal rights but, in the eyes of many, for healthier, more fulfilling lives.