In the annals of the modern gay-rights movement, Orange County has a less than stellar role. The stomping ground of the late state Senator and anti-gay initiative sponsor John Briggs, firebrand former Congressman Bob Dornan, and longtime antigay funder Howard Ahmanson and activist Lou Sheldon has gained a reputation for antagonism to gay people that political observers of all stripes still take at face value.
But history reveals a more complicated picture. The approval of the antigay Prop 8 by county voters last year belies recent developments in local politics. In the past 2 months, a diverse network of LGBT leaders and progressive organizations in California has coalesced around a 3-year effort to win back marriage equality by repealing Prop 8 in 2012. The drive, inspired by a statement called Prepare to Prevail, holds a special opportunity for Orange County voters. We can reconsider our stand on the equality of committed same-sex couples under state law and whether we want the image of intolerance, however deserved, to be a lasting legacy.
Right-wing politics is losing its hold on the longtime hotbed of conservatism, home base and final resting place of Richard Nixon. County voters evicted Dornan from his Garden Grove-area House seat 13 years ago. The Anaheim-based cottage industry of fear and loathing that once brought Sheldon millions of dollars from donors like Ahmanson is now a fading shadow of itself. Just last fall, the Obama campaign reduced to a mere 30,000 votes the traditional “Orange bounce,” or the margin of more than 200,000 votes by which the GOP, as recently as 2004, has carried the county in presidential elections.
Careful reflection shows that even Briggs’ measure attacking gay teachers actually failed countywide en route to rejection across the state in 1978. The stance of former governor and future president Ronald Reagan, who said the Briggs measure had “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights,” proved particularly useful for gay-rights supporters that year in swaying Orange County voters.
Today, a similar case can be made on conservative grounds for undoing Prop 8 and restoring the right of committed same-sex couples to marry under state law. Rank-and-file conservatives need to grapple with the issues of liberty inherent in reneging on marriage equality through a popular vote. Should government interfere in denying some couples the same respect and rights that others routinely enjoy through marriage? Should the constitutional amendment process be used as a tool to target the freedom and equality of any group of Californians—and by majority vote restrict it?
These are questions more people will confront in the 3-year campaign now under way to undo Prop 8. They hold the possibility to engage the attention and even change the views of some Republicans on the equality of gay people and same-sex couples. The presence of a pro-equality GOP candidate on the campaign trail, former Congressman Tom Campbell, promises to keep the issue in front of Republican voters.
In August, the respected Field Poll released an analysis of its own statewide surveys showing that Republicans’ views on same-sex marriage had largely held stable in the 30 years since the Briggs vote. Over the same period, Democrats and Independents had actually reversed their prior stance, from 2-to-1 and 3-to-2 margins of disapproval, respectively, to precisely opposite margins in support of marriage equality.
The Republican numbers made headlines for how little they had changed. Yet deserving more attention was that Republicans showed the highest level of any group expressing “no opinion,” and the largest expansion of that number, from 5 up to 9 percent. This uptick suggests a sliver of doubt wedging into the moral absolutism that long has dominated conservatives’ view of gays and the permissibility of same-sex marriage.
Prop 8 passed last fall with 52 percent of the statewide vote. The ripest prospects for building increased support for equality and reversing Prop 8 are among new and young voters, who are more progressive on the issue and replacing less equality-minded seniors every day. But whether the pool of Republican doubters expands and shifts toward support for marriage equality in the next 3 years may also help determine whether gay-rights supporters gain the additional margin of support needed to amend the state constitutional ban and win back marriage equality.
Orange County, like the rest of California, has grown more diverse and more moderate over the last generation. Yet its reputation as a conservative, antigay bastion persists, despite evidence to the contrary. Orange County voters, with a shift in our own stance on Prop 8, could help change the image and reputation for the county and restore an important state standard of equality under law.