01/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On 'A Day Without A Gay': Arizona GLBT Community Organizes, Strategizes

December 10 is International Human Rights Day. But this year it's taken on an added dimension. In response to the passage of anti gay marriage initiatives in three states this past November, December 10 has been named Day Without A Gay.

Organizers are encouraging gay Americans not to report to work, but use the day instead to volunteer their time in service to human rights organizations.

In discussion of the setback suffered by gay rights proponents in the recent election, what happened in Arizona is often little discussed. While Proposition 8 in California has gotten most of the attention of the country, Arizona's Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community is coming to terms with their own defeat. Arizona's Proposition 102 didn't actually change Arizona's law, which already defined marriage as between a man and a woman, but added that language to the state constitution. Similar to the reactions seen in California and Florida, the election served as a call to action for Arizona's GLBT community, This weekend leaders of the GLBT community met in Phoenix for a workshop organized by Equality Arizona, a Phoenix based organization which describes itself as " Arizona's only statewide LGBT civil rights organization working to secure, protect and defend the rights and welfare of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Arizona."

Jason Cianciotto was one of the leaders who participated in the workshops. As Executive Director of Wingspan, Southern Arizona's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center, Cianciotto described the mood of the 200-250 workshop attendees. "They're hurting. Not only was the existing anti gay marriage law codified into the state constitution, but Arizona went from being the only state to actually defeat an anti gay marriage bill," (Arizona voters defeated Proposition 107 in 2008) "to having that victory taken away from us."

For Cianciotto, the defeat came down to two significant factors: the way the amendment was sold in Arizona, and the way in which the GLBT and progressive community responded. Not surprisingly, Cianciotto sees money as the pivotal issue. Since election day, the huge amount of money pumped into the anti gay marriage initiative in California has been well documented, and Cianciotto sited similar statistics concerning Arizona:

The anti gay marriage groups already have an existing fund-raising network which the GLBT movement does not have. The Evangelical Right organized nationwide and fought in all three states where gay marriage initiatives were on the ballot. The national GLBT movement decided there weren't enough resources to go around, so they concentrated on California. In 2006, it took progressives here in Arizona two years to raise $2.1 million to defeat Proposition 107. In 2008, it took gay marriage opponents five months to raise $8 million. They made commercials for Florida, changed a few faces and backgrounds and ran them here in Arizona. We didn't have the money or organization to counter that.

And Cianciotto believes the source of the message had a huge impact too. "When potential voters receive an anti gay marriage message sent to them by a leader that they believe to have been ordained by God, you can't overlook that."

As part of the workshops held on Saturday, Cianciotto discussed a web based campaign started by Wingspan. The campaign is called Families You Know, and features stories and videos from members of the GLBT community. Launched on November 14 of this year, stories told on Families You Know are very personal and often very moving, and Cianciotto hopes this will become a nationwide effort, one he sees as a way of laying a foundation for changing how people feel, even with-and perhaps especially with -those with the most entrenched anti gay marriage beliefs. This isn't a pipedream for Cianciotto, it stems from his own personal experience. Raised in an Evangelical household, Cianciotto was kicked out of his home as a teenager. As a student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Cianciotto came out of the closet while attending a Wingspan youth group. He understands the stories told on Families You Know, and also understands the reactions of those who may view them. "Some people may come to the website and for the first time see a gay person tell their story. Or they may see a story like the straight grandmother who talks about the joy of spending time with her grandchild who happens to have two dads." Cianciotto sees Families You Know as a way for the GLBT community to channel their frustration and anger into something positive, "to connect that energy into a way to effect positive social change."

Pima County Democratic Party Executive Director Ken Jacobs also took part in the weekend workshops. He characterized the mood of the attendees as shocked, partly because he felt many in attendance were not experienced in the political process. For Jacobs, future success for the GLBT community is all about politics. Jacobs led a workshop entitled Campaign Strategies, and using his own rich background in politics he made the case for what the GLBT community should be focused on - initiatives they can win.

A lot of attendees were asking, what should we fight for? I drew from my own experience as a field organizer. If I'm put in charge of a campaign or ballot initiative, I'm looking for three benchmarks to see if it has a chance for success: It should be something we can win, the budget to support it needs to exist outside of Arizona or be revenue neutral, and it has to be able to draw in allies outside of the GLBT community. Gay marriage doesn't meet at least two of those benchmarks; I don't think we can win, and for Proposition 102 we couldn't even get some of our key allies, such as Planned Parenthood or Domestic Violence groups on board with us. In ten years? That will probably look different. Gay marriage was not even our fight - it got thrust upon us as a fundraising mechanism by conservative groups and, for Arizona Senator John Kyl, as a way for him to turn out voters.

Jacobs does see a fight that meets all three benchmarks: the overturning of the so-called Don't Ask, Don't Tell compromise concerning gays serving in the military. Jacobs believes the Arizona's GLBT community should organize on a congressional level to fight for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and, under the new administration of Barack Obama, Jacobs believes it will indeed be repealed. "We should know where our representatives here in Arizona stand," Jacobs said, "and we should hold them accountable for their position in that debate." As to what Don't Ask Don't Tell means to him on a personal level, Jacobs replied:

As a human being and a gay person, I have three basic demands: Recognize my relationships. Allow me to make a living. And allow me to serve my country and my countrymen. Without those three basic fundamentals, we won't achieve equality.

Jacobs also sees great promise in what Cianciotto is doing. "We're getting a group of activists now in the GLBT community who connect differently, they connect through the internet. Some of them came out online. They see that as a rightful place to put their time, and it can be very effective."

At one point during the workshops, Jacobs gave a brief history lesson, discussing how the GLBT community changed in each of the ten years that elapsed between significant moments in history, such as the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978 to the passing of anti gay legislation in the U.S. Senate with only two dissenting voices ten years later. He challenged the group to ask themselves, what do you want Arizona to look like ten years from now? Jacobs is hopeful that the activism they saw among participants in the Equality Arizona workshops continues to grow, and Cianciotto agreed:

I sensed a definite feeling among everyone there. We are moving forward, and we are not going to hide anymore.