What a difference eight years -- and an evolution -- make.
Waking up the day after the 2012 election was far different from that experience in 2004 -- and 2008.
On the day after the election in 2004, LGBT Americans awoke to an uncertain -- and scary -- world. The president of the United States, George W. Bush, ran for reelection with a vicious campaign demonizing gay people. Moreover, state after state adopted hateful constitutional amendments by wide margins -- 11 states in total, including the battleground of Ohio. As The New York Times' James Dao reported in November 2004, homophobic leaders took credit for Bush's Ohio win because they'd tapped into anti-gay sentiment among evangelicals in the state:
And on Election Day this month, voters in 11 states, including Ohio, overwhelmingly passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
Mr. Burress's organization gathered 575,000 signatures to put the Ohio measure on the ballot in fewer than 90 days, then helped turn out thousands of conservative voters on Election Day. Their support is widely viewed as having been crucial to President Bush's narrow victory in that swing state.
"In 21 years of organizing, I've never seen anything like this," Mr. Burress, 62, said in an interview. "It's a forest fire with a 100 mile-per-hour wind behind it."
It did feel like the anti-gay forest fire was whipping across the country. It was frightening.
Around that time, I started writing at AMERICAblog. I really felt insecure about my well-being in a country where our leader felt comfortable using us as a wedge and something to be maligned. That sentiment was shared by many of my gay friends. We felt like open season had been declared on the gays, at last politically. But blogging provided a chance to fight back. In April, John Aravosis got a tip from Dan Savage that Microsoft, under pressure from anti-gay activists, was backing away from its support of anti-discrimination legislation in the state of Washington. At that time, corporate America was one of the only enclaves of anti-discrimination support, so a signal that Microsoft, as one of the leaders of the new economy, would back away from supporting equality posed another threat. We fought back from the blog -- and within days, it was a national story. Microsoft ended up doing the right thing.
Over the next couple of years, we made some advances in states, notably in Connecticut, where civil unions passed, but we lost key court battles over marriage in Maryland, Washington and New York.
We knew we needed a pro-LGBT president. Back in 2007, all the Democratic candidates supported civil unions. Marriage was still too politically toxic for them. And many of us were willing to accept that, because we'd also get candidates who supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and wanted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In June 2008, same-sex couples in California started getting married in the wake of the state's landmark Supreme Court ruling on equality the previous month, but the anti-gay forces, fueled by Mormon money, put a measure on the ballot known as Proposition 8. Our side ran a fabulously inept campaign. Many of the key players seemed more intent on claiming credit for the win instead of actually winning. And Frank Schubert emerged as the anti-gay mastermind.
So, on Election Day 2008, while most progressives were celebrating the election of Obama, our ability to fully engage was thwarted by the passage of Prop 8. After Obama's election was announced, I went down to the White House with my partner, Carlos, and two of our friends to join the celebration. It was pure joy. But when we got home, the numbers on Prop 8 were looking bleak -- and it got worse.
For those who haven't had their rights voted on -- or taken away by voters, which is what happened in California -- it is an ugly feeling. Again, I think the right word is "scary." So the joy of having an ally in the White House was greatly tempered by losing on Prop 8. That defeat also changed many of us. I vowed never to support anyone who didn't think I was fully equal.
The next month, President-elect Obama chose one of Prop 8's main supporters, Rick Warren, to speak at his inauguration. That was a clear signal tha the Obama team either had no clue about the depths of anger in the LGBT community about Prop 8 or didn't care. I called it "a major fail and a total affront." But it put a lot of activists in a position to do what few other progressives were willing to do: challenge the new president.
At AMERICAblog, we launched a major salvo on June 12, 2009, when the Obama administration defended DOMA in federal courts. The White House quickly sent out surrogates to defend them, but the game was on. Our sense was that the White House, under the direction of Rahm Emanuel, was suffering from political homophobia:
Political homophobes aren't gay-hating in the traditional sense. In fact, publicly, most are strong supporters of LGBT equality. But, behind closed doors, many Democratic leaders, consultants, Hill staffers and the rest will vociferously argue that there is no political benefit to actually supporting LGBT rights. Political homophobia is rampant among some Democrats. In some ways, it's worse than blatant homophobia, because we think most Democrats are on our side. And outwardly, they are.
Political homophobia dictates policy in DC more than we'd like to think. I believe it's happening in the West Wing right now. I've been told by several people that while the president's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, isn't a homophobe in the traditional way (he always voted the right way when he was in the House), he is always the first person to suggest that his colleagues (and now boss) avoid gay issues. He'd rather not deal with them because he thinks they're bad politics.
And I can tell you that challenging the Obama White House in June 2009 was a scary thing. The rest of progressive D.C. was still swooning -- and clamoring to get invited to White House events and the Common Purpose meeting. But we wanted to be equal, and we made it clear: We weren't backing down.
That fall, our community took another hit when voters in Maine repealed the state's new same-sex marriage law. Again, our rights were put to a public vote, and we lost. During the 2009 campaign in Maine, our opponents could encourage people to vote against marriage by noting that that was the same position as the president. We also saw no support in Maine from our allies in the White House. Obama for America (OFA) sent get-out-the-vote emails to Maine but didn't mention marriage. Instead, they urged Mainers to make calls to New Jersey. Shortly after that, AMERICAblog launched Don't Ask, Don't Give, urging people to withhold contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and OFA. It was that bad. This was not what I'd expected from a president who'd vowed to be a "fierce advocate."
Then we had the DADT battle. Throughout the effort to get that hideous law repealed, John and I were outspoken critics of what we viewed as the administration's inaction. We never held back from expressing that.
The LGBT blogs provided a strong outside voice for advocacy, as we felt that the insiders were more interested in access for the sake of access, not progress. And the birth of GetEQUAL provided a vehicle to channel the growing anger and activism.
On Oct. 27, 2010, I had the rare opportunity to sit across the table from President Obama and ask him about LGBT issues. As part of a blogger panel, I was the first person from any LGBT outlet to directly -- and on the record -- challenge the president. In the lead-up to my first question about DADT repeal, I told him that there was "disappointment and disillusionment" in our community. He rejected that notion but must have known it was true.
It was the president's answer to my question about marriage that started to change the course of the marriage equality debate. That's when he first said that "attitudes evolve, including mine." As our exchange on marriage continued, I told the president, "[P]art of it is that you can't be equal in this country if the very core of who you are as a person and the love -- the person you love is not -- if that relationship isn't the same as everybody else's, then we're not equal." Then Obama said, "The one thing I will say today is I think it's pretty clear where the trend lines are going." Little did we realize how quickly those trend lines would change.
A couple of months later, in early February 2011, the president said that he thought DOMA was unconstitutional and that his administration would stop defending it. That was a huge milestone. Then John Boehner immediately hired Paul Clement to defend DOMA.
At AMERICAblog, along with our friends at GetEQUAL, we continued to push the president to "evolve." On March 8, 2012, I wrote a post on HuffPost Gay Voices entitled "Mr. President, It's Been 500 Days... Evolve Already!" There was a lot of pushback back then. I heard from many commenters and others that if Obama supported marriage equality, he would surely lose. I never believed that. I thought such a move would generate much-needed enthusiasm, not only from the LGBT community but from young voters, who would be vital to the president's reelection. Old conventional wisdom dies hard, and many believed that supporting marriage equality would endanger the president. But, as I wrote, "Obama can either be the first nominee to endorse same-sex marriage -- or he'll be the last Democratic nominee who didn't."
In the spring, the White House created another disappointment by refusing to issue an ENDA-like executive order for federal contractors. That one seemed like a no-brainer, although DNC treasurer Andy Tobias wrote about what he perceived to be the political perils of such a move in an op-ed for The Advocate. He was wrong, of course. But even in April 2012, we were dealing with that kind of political homophobia from a leading gay Democrat.
On May 9, 2012, the day after another bruising defeat in North Carolina, the president completed his evolution when he became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage. I fully admit that that news made me cry.
A couple of months later, watching the Democratic National Convention, I was struck by how often speakers invoked marriage equality. What had been a third-rail issue just months before now was fully embraced.
And on Oct. 25, 2012, with under two weeks till Election Day, and while many early voters were casting ballots, the president announced his support for the state marriage equality campaigns in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. We cannot underestimate how helpful that was at that time. The gay bashers lost that "we have the same position as the president" talking point. Last month, when anti-gay guru Frank Schubert was interviewed by Mike Signorile, he was still trying to cling to that old idea. But this time, Obama was on our side -- and he owned it.
After I cast my ballot on Thursday, Nov. 1, I tweeted:
Just voted. First time I could vote for a President who thinks I'm equal. I like that! #evolvingmatters
— Joe Sudbay (@JoeSudbay) October 31, 2012
On Election Day, I was with Mike Signorile in the SiriusXM OutQ studio as we watched history unfold. Throughout the night, we talked to the campaign managers from Maine, Maryland and Washington -- and their excitement was palpable. We got to announce the reelection of President Obama, the first president to support marriage, and the historic win for Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person ever elected to the U.S. Senate. It just kept getting better.
After we got off the air, I wandered over to Times Square, where I watched the president give his acceptance speech. All that work and fighting and agitating over the past few years were worth it. The president had benefitted from his support for marriage equality, and his support had undoubtedly helped our efforts in those key states.
When I woke up on Nov. 7, 2012, I felt like I was living in a different world. But unlike in 2004, it was a safer, fairer world.
The arc of the moral universe bent a bit more toward justice on Tuesday. But I'm not naïve. There's still a long, long way to go. LGBT people can still be fired because of who they are. DOMA is still the law of the land. Young people are still bullied. And on Nov. 20, we'll find out if the Supreme Court will be hearing the Prop 8 case or the various DOMA cases. But there's a new conventional wisdom: LGBT equality is a winning issue.
The homophobes won't back down, but their heyday is over. Andy Towle captured it beautifully:
Like dinosaurs after the impact of the meteor, Gallagher and Brown will simply wander, bewildered, looking for desiccated oases of bigotry to drink from until they eventually die off because they just couldn't adapt.
The days of wedge issues and political homophobia should be long gone. Never again will we wake up on Election Day having been the victims of vicious political attacks. Never again. And a whole generation of young LGBT Americans will never have to vote for a president who doesn't think they're equal.
The president was right on Oct. 27, 2010, when he said that it's clear where the trend lines are going. He helped move the issue forward -- and his reelection campaign was helped by moving it along, too. And over the past four years, he evolved on marriage, and I evolved -- or re-evolved -- on my support for him.
The important thing: Those trend lines are ours now.
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