05/09/2012 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

North Carolina's Amendment 1: Losing on the Merits

The 2008 film Milk, about famed gay rights activist Harvey Milk, contains a scene in which he and a number of strategists and activists are contemplating an effort to defeat an anti-gay public school initiative. As Milk looks over the mailings his team has perpared, he reads them aloud: "'Proposition 6 is an affront to human rights, an invasion of the state into the private lives of California citizens.'" He complains that the word "gay" doesn't appear anywhere on the fliers.

A strategist tells him that that was by design: "With the heat bearing down on your movement right now, we feel it's best to dodge the gay bullet. Go for the human rights angle."

Milk replies, "People need to know who it is that's being affected. You need at least one old queer on this flyer ... This is shit. This is shit and masturbation."

I couldn't help but think of this scene as I watched the campaign ads produced by Protect All NC Families, the campaign opposed to North Carolina's Amendment 1. Rarely, if ever, were lesbian, gay, or bisexual North Carolinians mentioned. Instead, the campaign focused on the issue of domestic violence and straight couples who could be affected. While I sincerely appreciate the effort that those who worked on the Protect All NC Families campaign put in, the failure of the campaign to talk about "at least one old queer" ultimately hurt the effort for full LGBT equality.

In a December 2011 article on the success of the LGBT equality movement in moving a majority of Americans to support full marriage rights, Linda Hirshman observed, "[LGBT equality activists] did it -- and this is the lesson that the gay revolution holds for any progressive movement -- not by asking for "tolerance." They didn't ask people to accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses. Rather, they set out to change change people's minds about what is moral."

Most North Carolinians may have misunderstood the specifics of the amendment, but it was clear to the vast majority of people in the state what it was not really about: domestic violence and straight civil partnerships. This amendment -- and the entire campaign in favor of it -- was about targeting a single community: queers. Attempting to convince people otherwise was doomed from the start.

Moreover, research has shown that the social environment, which includes anti-gay referenda and the hate campaigns waged in their favor, is directly linked to the suicide rate of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers. As moral actors, decent people, and opponents of the amendment, we should have been sure to send out the message that gay is OK. But we didn't. We failed our kids. Instead of running a campaign that showed the fundamental goodness of queer people, we ran one that asked, "But what about the straight people who will be harmed?"

If we had run advertisements to humanize LGBT folks to their fellow North Carolinians, even though we lost on May 8, we would have still gained some small victories in the people whose attitudes we had changed, by making the state that much more tolerant. Now that the amendment has passed, however, and the campaign focused on domestic violence and straight couples, what have we gained from the millions of dollars spent? Very little.

I understand why those who ran the Protect All NC Families campaign made the choices that they did: Throughout the campaign, everyone, including me, did his or her best to believe that we had a chance of defeating the amendment. Many believed that the best way to ensure the defeat of the amendment was by avoiding the subject of LGB people. Yet by failing to even try to change attitudes about lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, we missed a significant opportunity to use the amendment -- win or lose -- as an opportunity to educate people.

This is not meant to be an "I told you so"; this entire incident should serve as a lesson learned for the LGBT community. Let's take a page out of Harvey Milk's book: if you don't mention "at least one old queer" in your campaign ads against an anti-gay initiative, you've already lost the battle. Perhaps the vote in North Carolina was a foregone conclusion, and Protect All NC Families did little to hinder the effort. But if we were going to lose, we should have at least lost on the merits of the true debate at hand.