Last week, I pointed out that the GLBT movement might be the first where a majority gets to vote on the rights of a minority. If the basic freedoms of women, immigrants and African Americans were subject to the whims of voters, there is no doubt that this nation would be decades behind. Yet, we continue to blindly accept that these degrading and un-American referendums are tolerable, when they are not.
Ironically, ballot initiatives were once helpful in gaining visibility. The 1977 anti-gay vote in Miami, led by beauty queen Anita Bryant, put our issues on the national radar. Even though we lost, we were given a rare forum to introduce ourselves to the American people.
In 1978, California voters defeated the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay schoolteachers, showing that victory was attainable. But whether it is a loss in Miami and a win in California in 1977-78, or a defeat in Maine and the victory on domestic partnerships in Washington State last week, success or failure is beside the point. All Americans are losers by virtue of participating in a disgraceful process that is an affront to human dignity.
Unfortunately, we have never had the luxury to stop, take a deep breath and consider if these grotesque referendums are the best use of our time and limited resources. With a record of 0-31 in marriage initiatives, now may be a good opportunity to review our complicity in a process that doles out or strips away basic rights by majority vote.
We must first recognize that a virtual campaign-industrial-complex has been built and financed around these fights. There is an army of field staff, media consultants, signature gatherers, advertising experts and fundraisers who work (and in some cases thrive) on these ballot initiatives.
In California, both sides spent as much as $73 million. Even in the small media market of Maine, several million dollars were spent on campaign staff and advertisements. The financial burden for these wars repeatedly falls on the same besieged philanthropists and everyday people who care enough to open their wallets. The four key questions we must ask ourselves before we continue down this road:
1) Are referendums the best use of our human resources?
2) Are they the best use of our finite capital?
3) Are these votes legitimizing the un-American concept of mob rule?
4) Are these quixotic and narrowly focused battles the best way to educate and create lasting progress?
Perhaps, these campaigns are unavoidable and we must soldier on and slog through the muddy terrain of lies and fear-based thirty-second ads. I won't pretend to know the answer, but there is no doubt that our traditional tactics must be looked at with fresh eyes and vigorously debated.
There has been much disagreement as to whether our ads in these campaigns are too "soft". I think this misses the larger point that campaigns are not conducive to education. "Vote No on Prop 8" may be a good campaign slogan, but it is hardly a compelling message for changing hearts and minds.
Campaigns by their very nature go for the short term fix, when we may be in need of more enduring strategies. Repeatedly investing in such hand-to-hand combat has potentially precluded deeper discussion with the American people, so they fully understand how our families are harmed, the damage caused by discrimination and the inequality we face, from taxation to immigration law.
It is also clear that our opponents are trying to bleed us to death financially. We can never outspend the combined forces of the Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical churches, which can afford referendums in every burg in the nation. To put the monetary imbalance in perspective, the annual budget for the largest GLBT organization is only $30 million. Meanwhile, in 2007 the Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid a $660 million settlement to 508 victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
Instead of investing millions on referendums, what if we used the money to send our field experts into communities to educate, without asking people to take sides on a divisive measure? What if we built powerful outreach programs geared towards minority communities? How about training talk radio hosts and buying airtime in small, conservative media markets like Lewiston, Maine or Bakersfield, California?
By turning away from such votes, we strengthen our position by increasing our moral authority. At the very least, it forces our foes out of campaign mode and into an ongoing, intelligent discussion, where it is more difficult to twist the truth and manipulate emotions.
Winning in California and Maine would have been exhilarating. But, would you have felt less dirty and exploited by the referendum process in victory?
I didn't think so.