03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage After Maine: What Can We Do Differently?

The cameras are gone now. The lawn signs will slowly disappear. Queer folk of Maine can go back to watching ads for cars and hair gel, not ads that put their humanity up for a popular vote.

And now comes the hard part.

If experiences in California - not to mention peer-reviewed studies - are any measure, LGBT residents of Maine can expect higher levels of stress and depression and greater feelings of political alienation. And an increase in hate crimes and bullying in schools.

In every state where marriage has become the centerpiece of our strategy to win equality, we have lost.

So now that the beginning, middle and end of this story have become painfully predictable, what can we do differently?

We can address head-on what is most threatening to the Right wing - our children and our schools. It's a hot button issue for sure - why else would anti-marriage folks blast the airwaves, in California and Maine and now New Jersey, with variations of the Princess ad, which depicts a young girl coming home from school and announcing to her mom that she learned she can marry a princess. But instead of running from this fight because it's too risky, we should, as the leader of the fabulous Our Family Coalition said recently, run towards it.

Why? Because our schools are, in fact, where we can make the biggest difference in the lives of vulnerable young people. The suicide last spring of a Massachusetts 11-year-old who faced relentless anti-gay bullying was just the most pointed example of why marriage (legal in his state for 5 years) is not enough. A recent study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) showed that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT middle and high school students experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. And the more things get heated in the electoral arena, the more our kids feel it.

The good news is: there are so many steps we can take to make our schools safer, from training teachers and staff to intervene appropriately when kids call each other slurs like "fag," to supporting the creation of Gay Straight Alliances and other student groups. We can start with implementing curricula like Welcoming Schools, curricula that teach respect for all kids -- be they children of color, disabled, or gender variant - and all types of families.

And about that Princess ad - on one level it's hard for me to even understand how this storyline could be considered frightening, because whether my kindergarten daughter comes home telling me she is going to marry a prince or a princess, was born a squirrel and speaks Canadan (sic), or is going to fly up to the sky with Rudolph, I'm just happy to celebrate her vivid imagination. But of course the ad is deeply symbolic. It represents the world I want, a world where every child believes he or she can grow up to be with the person they love. And it clearly means something altogether more sinister to a large segment of our population.

Which brings me to my next point.

We can learn more about where prejudice does - and doesn't - originate. And we can learn how to counter prejudice effectively. Most public opinion research to date has been done in the name of winning a particular election. The questions have centered on what abstraction about the lives of LGBT people would persuade 50% + 1 of the electorate to support us? Fairness? Equality? Freedom?

But we don't live our daily lives in the abstract. We live our lives as parents, co-workers, community members, taxpayers. And while we may enjoy strong public support for our abstract right to hold a job - 87% of respondents in a 2005 Gallup poll said we shouldn't face employment discrimination - the numbers are strikingly different when we look at specific occupations. While 90% of the population says we should be hired as salespeople and 78% say we'd be fine doctors, only 54% want to see us teaching elementary school and only 49% as clergy.

We need to know more about what drives people to discriminate against us or to support our full humanity.

And not everything we think we know is accurate. Are people of color more likely to discriminate? Studies have disproven this notion. Religious people? Not always. There's a lot we don't know about the roots of attitudes and possible alliances among unlikely groups.

Let's go back to the Princess ad, breaking it down a little. The ad depicts a young girl who comes home believing that, when she grows up, she can fall in love with another woman. Clearly this ad is effective. Yet would most people truly prefer that gay and lesbian youth be taught that they will not be able to find happiness as an adult? Sure, some people are so opposed to homosexuality that they would reject any mention of family diversity or LGBT issues in the schools - but probably not all the people who were swayed by the Princess ad. So what is it that scares people so much about the topic? We need to learn more.

Thankfully there's a new organization called Face Value, engaged in research, coalition-building and public education to help us win over the long haul -- with the ultimate goal of creating a society that fully embraces the LGBT community and its values. As they put it, "Face Value is not an effort to gain rights within a political cycle. It is a large and necessary undertaking to gain support for LGBT people." See here and here for more info.

We can step off the election treadmill. The tremendous psychic and financial cost of these initiatives is now clear. Of course, when our lives are put to a popular vote, we need to mount a strong defense. But what about when we can choose our next course? Now's the time to take a deep breath and look at how to change hearts and minds so that when we go back to the polls proactively, we'll actually win.

Stepping off the treadmill could be seen as conceding, for sure. But I'd argue that actually it's doing the much harder work of addressing deeply held prejudice head on. It's easier, in many ways, to stick to arguing about our rights. When we argue about rights, we can keep the conflict intellectual, less focused on who we really are and why we are not liked by some.

But the rights strategy isn't working, so we need to do something different. Here's to organizations like Face Value, Our Family Coalition and GLSEN -- working for the day when the Princess ad will be just a fairy tale.