On Tuesday, North Carolinians voted in favor of an amendment that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions. North Carolina is the last southern state without such legislation, and some gay-rights advocates described the bill as an attack not just against gays but against all unmarried couples and their children. Yet some high-profile activists chose to sit out the fight, underscoring deep divisions in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement.
North Carolinians voted in large numbers in favor of Amendment 1, which formally defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. This came as a huge blow to a coalition of civil-rights groups in North Carolina, who have been fighting the legislation since it first appeared on the ballot last September and who, together with their opponents, have spent a combined $3 million on the fight. These critics of the bill have blamed the loss on a wide variety of culprits, from the Republican lawmakers who introduced the ballot to religious leaders who threw their weight behind it.
But while most of these opponents are familiar foes of gay-rights legislation, the activists also pointed to a lack of support from members of their own community.
"I think the movement is fragmented," said Pam Spaulding, a blogger and one of the most prominent gay-rights activists in the state.
Spaulding, whose website calls attention to gay-rights philanthropists that haven't contributed time and resources to the fight against the amendment, is among many activists who have expressed disappointment in the lackluster show of support by traditional allies of gay-rights legislation. One such ally is Freedom To Marry, the nation's leading organization advocating for same-sex marriage.
Freedom to Marry initially tried to keep the bill off the ballot, but after that effort failed they withdrew their support. It's not a strategic investment, the organization says. It would rather spend its money in states where same-sex marriage is a tenable possibility.
"There are many battles underway this year," said Evan Wolfson, the founder and director of Freedom to Marry, adding that it has put people on the ground in states like Maine, Minnesota and Washington, where same-sex marriage is either on the ballot or up for a possible referendum.
North Carolina hardly presents such an opportunity. After all, same-sex marriage is already illegal there, and this law goes even further, making it unconstitutional. If gays ever win the right to marry in the South, says Wolfson and others, it will be when the Supreme Court rules on the issue or the federal government steps in.
Even if advocates were to beat back the North Carolina amendment this year, he said, it would merely mean "waking up alive." And while waking up alive is a good thing, he went on, Freedom to Marry has its "eyes on the prize of winning marriage nation wide."
Another ally that has incurred criticism is the furniture magnate Mitchell Gold, a gay businessman who has given substantially to other efforts. He lives in North Carolina, but doesn't like the way that the activists who opposed the amendment framed the debate. For example, on the website of The Coalition to Protect NC Families, the group leading the battle against the law, a banner warns that the amendment could harm women, children and domestic violence victims. But it makes no explicit reference to gay rights at all.
The group wanted to "de-gay" the cause, said Gold.
"They didn't want to talk about the fact that this is hurting gay people," he said.
"Part of their whole thing was we're going to do this campaign and even if we lose we're going to educate people," Gold added. "So what did you teach people in the state? What you taught people in the state is that this law might hurt heterosexuals in a domestic relationship. What did this campaign teach the North Carolina community about gay people?"
Gold thinks that groups should teach people about religious opposition to gay rights, or as he put it, "religious bigotry," and he plans to donate money to that effort.
Jeremy Kennedy, the campaign manager for The Coalition to Protect NC Families, suggested that it would be a bad strategy to focus on gay marriage and religion. "We're not asking you to make a religious or moral decision about marriage," Kennedy said. "We're asking you to make a decision about whether this amendment will hurt people, and it will."
Gold said he's contributed to other groups opposing the amendment, and Freedom To Marry says they've supported the cause, at least in principle, and they've written emails "rejecting this cruel and discriminatory amendment."
But some activists think that isn't enough. Adam Bink, the director of online programs at the Courage Campaign, a group that has been working to get voters to the polls in recent weeks, says that the movement can't afford to give up on gay couples who don't have the relatively good fortune to live in Minnesota or Maine.
Said Bink, "I think it's really important that we don't leave any state behind."
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